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Clemson rookie corners Lukus, Pride could see the field for Tigers' defense

CLEMSON — Mike Reed’s logic may not be for everyone, but it’s straightforward and hard to refute.

The Clemson cornerbacks coach came to a preseason practice on Aug. 16 — on his 50th birthday — dressed in a gray hoodie and gray sweatpants. It wasn’t the most sweltering of summer days. But it wasn’t cold, either.

“It’s a mindset,” Reed said. “If the players can go out here with helmets and run around, surely a coach can go out here with a sweatsuit on and do it.”

Reed, who heads into his 10th season with the Tigers, has succeeded pushing the bounds of what’s comfortable.

He has talked about “stretching” his corners like rubber bands, finding the point of tension before they break. More have strengthened in the process than shattered, and Reed has a line of NFL protégés to prove it.

So with newly departed corners Andrew Booth Jr. and Mario Goodrich competing for snaps as pros, Reed finds himself with one senior, Sheridan Jones, and a horde of unproven but talented players on the roster.

If he’s sweating, though, it’s only because of the thickness of his attire.

He didn't express worries about throwing freshmen Jeadyn Lukus, a five-star recruit, and Toriano Pride Jr., a highly rated four-star, onto the field . In Reed’s mind, there is no sense in waiting.

He just spent months and months on the road recruiting, having dinner with their families, convincing them to play for the Tigers.

“I don’t want to feel like I wasted some time recruiting somebody. So if I recruit you, I want to play you,” Reed said. “Heck, I may die tomorrow.”

Reed still has to make it a couple of weeks until the opener with Georgia Tech on Sept. 5, but there have been flashes of brilliance from his young corners in preseason camp.

Sophomore Nate Wiggins, dubbed “Nate the Great” by Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, has been amply buzzed about this preseason. Wiggins had a pick in the Tigers’ second and final preseason scrimmage. So did the freshman Pride.

Pride stands 5-11, 190 pounds, but he is uniquely pesky. Lukus, who missed a chunk of spring practice with a shoulder injury, also is a unique talent on the field, standing 6-foot-2, 185 pounds with uncommon speed and vertical leap.

“They are definitely going to help us, and that’s what we needed them to do,” Swinney said. “J-Lu has made some plays, it’s been fun to see him out there healthy … he’s made plays. Toriano had an interception … he’s a very savvy kid. Those are two guys, for sure, that are going to help our team.”

There is some uncertainty playing inexperienced corners, matching them up with college receivers who have spent years learning how to exploit opponents’ mistakes. But Reed wants his corners to learn through experience. And, luckily for them, they play behind one of the more talented front sevens in the nation, featuring a deep defensive line and athletic linebackers.

The question is how much Lukus and Pride mix in with Jones and Wiggins, and even juniors Fred Davis II and Malcolm Greene, who were often unavailable during the 2021 season but were once highly regarded recruits, as well.

Booth and Goodrich averaged 571 snaps apiece last season, while Jones played 415. Wiggins played significantly fewer as a freshman, 130 snaps, but some of that was a product of off-the-field issues. Lukus and Pride could be in line for more, especially with Booth and Goodrich departed.

Reed doesn't like to publicly declare starters, and he rebutted the notion that Wiggins has solidified a spot across from Jones.

"I want to be in a situation where I can throw anybody out there, and there is no drop-off," Reed said. "Nate's having a good camp, but we have to make sure we all stay in that uncomfortable state. I don’t want them to be in a situation where they feel like they’ve arrived."

Greene, for instance, has waited for a semblance of arrival longer than most Clemson corners. He has dealt with shoulder issues dating back to high school, limited to 181 snaps last season. The feisty Virginia native has been heard more than seen on the field. He remained a chatterbox at practice.

Some of it may be trash talk. But not all of it.

“I don’t know if you call it trash because Malcolm just talks. Regardless of what comes out, he’s going to talk. And I like it,” Reed said of the former four-star recruit. “He’s getting his players involved. Literally, practice is kind of, like, on the down, dim side, Malcolm is jumping up and down. And you’re like, ‘Hey, man, what are you drinking? What are you eating? I need some of that.’”

Greene, who can play the Tigers’ hybrid “nickel” role at 5-11, 195, has a feistiness in him. He sees a lot of that in Pride.

“Tori’s just a dog. He’s got some real good footwork, fast guy,” Greene said. “Just like me, he isn’t the tallest guy on the field ever. But he’s got a lot of heart. And he can go up against bigger receivers anytime he has to."

Greene also said Lukus can jump with anybody, run with anybody. The freshmen should help sooner rather than later.

Clemson's corners, as a group, may not be the most experienced, but Greene made it clear: They don’t lack confidence. When asked what receivers are a challenging matchup in practice, Greene wasn’t giving much credit.

“I don’t really see too much of a challenge with anyone, but it’s a lot of competition the field,” Greene said. “We know their guys are gonna always to give us good smoke whenever it’s time, too. But there’s not one specific guy I see having a crazy day on any of us.

"I can see all of us ballin’ with anybody in the country.”

And Reed is going to give them a chance to prove it.

A reporter asked how many corners Reed wants to rotate this season. He didn’t have a very specific number, considering there are six scholarship corners available, sans injured freshman Myles Oliver.

“I’m hoping six, you know?” Reed said. “I don’t want guys to be on that sideline. I want to see them play.”

Follow Jon Blau on Twitter @Jon_Blau. Plus, receive the latest updates on Clemson athletics, straight to your inbox, by subscribing to The Tiger Take.

Jon Blau has covered Clemson athletics for The Post and Courier since 2021. A native of South Jersey, he grew up on Rocky marathons and hoagies. To get the latest Clemson sports news, straight to your inbox, subscribe to his newsletter, The Tiger Take.

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