CLEMSON — Derion Kendrick is the new guy in Clemson’s starting secondary, a converted wide receiver. Already, he looks like an All-America pass defender.
Locked up in aggressive coverage against No. 12 Texas A&M’s Kendrick Rogers early in No. 1 Clemson’s 24-10 victory at Death Valley on Saturday, the sophomore from Rock Hill sent his opponent tumbling into the Aggies sideline on a pass breakup.
And sent a message.
Those 430 passing yards Clemson gave up to quarterback Kellen Mond and Co. in Week 2 of last season, a 28-26 victory in College Station that was too close for comfort?
That was so 2018.
The harsh Clemson lecture lasted until the final Texas A&M snap, Mond’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Jalen Wydermyer with six seconds remaining. It was, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables insisted later, the Tigers’ “only real missed assignment” of the game on defense.
“It was fun to watch,” Venables said. “Our guys played with great confidence and were very precise for the most part.”
The secondary was a huge part of that, holding the versatile Mond to 24 of 42 passing for 236 yards with an interception.
This is an older group, saltier, members of a 15-0 national championship team.
They are a collective Clemson strength.
That’s so different than the relative weakness label, as perceived early (after the Texas A&M game) and late (after South Carolina’s Jake Bentley torched the Tigers for 510 yards passing) during the 2018 regular season.
That night after the 56-35 win over South Carolina, Venables said he was “disgusted” and “embarrassed.”
Saturday night, the coordinator was beaming with pride after a coach-player masterpiece. The Tigers stuffed Texas A&M, often with three safeties deep and two cornerbacks ready to pounce in a “press-man” look.
So far, the secondary is the most improved part of Clemson Football, Inc., the program with two national titles over four straight College Football Playoff appearances.
Even when a defensive back did something wrong Saturday, it led to a positive.
Safety Nolan Turner missed a tackle in the first quarter that helped Texas A&M take a 3-0 lead. But the redshirt junior came back with a jarring hit on Mond on the Aggies’ next possession to force a fumble recovered by linebacker James Skalski.
Clemson cashed in with a field goal to go up 10-3.
‘They know how to win’
It’s a ferocious, cerebral approach to pass defense and secondary run-support as dialed up by Venables. It stars Kendrick, junior cornerback A.J. Terrell and senior safeties Tanner Muse and K’Von Wallace and Turner.
Sure, home crowd noise was a factor in Mond’s long afternoon. He made some unforced mistakes, too.
“I put a lot of that on me,” Mond said. “The first play we had a drop, the second play I missed an open receiver and you can’t do that against a good team.”
But Mond’s chances to excel Saturday began slipping away months ago. The Clemson secondary came around with College Football Playoff wins over Notre Dame (30-3) and Alabama (44-16) and the undefeated Tigers finished tops in the nation in scoring defense.
“There are some guys who are not only good players on our defense but they know how to win,” Venables said. “They know to perform at a high level. They have a tremendous amount of pride, too.”
Kendrick fit right in when cornerback Trayvon Mullen left for the NFL.
And consider who these guys face in practice: Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and Amari Rogers (back already after spring practice knee surgery), plus standout freshmen Frank Ladson Jr. and Joseph Ngata.
That Hunter Renfrow guy also provided good lessons.
Ignoring ‘outside noise’
Terrell, who scored the first touchdown in the national title slam of Alabama on a 44-yard interception return, was all over the place Saturday. That included taking part in a sack on a corner blitz.
Turner’s third-down pass deflection in the third quarter was one of his two breakups.
Muse came through with 9:18 left with an interception on third-and-6 from the Clemson 12, just in front of his fellow students on The Hill.
“All the outside noise doesn’t matter to us,” said Muse, the older brother of new South Carolina tight end Nick Muse. “We get it all the time — it’s always going to fall on the back end. We know that as a secondary. We’ll take the heat, but then we’ll just show up on Saturdays and play to the best of our abilities.”
The Clemson secondary isn’t just real good, it’s getting better after playing a lead role in a convincing win over what looks like the best team on the regular-season schedule.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff