CLEMSON — Cornerback is a position offering no place to hide. If you're beat there, everyone in the stadium sees it.
And if a thin Clemson defensive backfield is beat tonight, an entire country will be there to witness breakdowns as the No. 14 Tigers (6-1, 3-1 ACC) travel to Wake Forest (4-2, 2-3) at 7:30 p.m. in a nationally televised game on ESPN.
Clemson will be without both of its starting cornerbacks tonight. Darius Robinson is out for the rest of the regular season with a broken ankle suffered last weekend and fellow starter Bashaud Breeland did not make the trip to Winston-Salem, N.C. (abdominal strain).
It means backup corner Garry Peters and safety Xavier Brewer will get extended time at cornerback, and redshirt freshman Cortez Davis could also log his first significant time. They meet a Wake Forest offense that returns a 3,000-yard passer from last season in Tanner Price and expects to have its top receiver Michael Campanaro (broken hand) back tonight.
Florida State had success with press coverage against Campanaro earlier this season, but Clemson might not be able to employ such risk-reward coverage.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said his secondary was thin before the season when it lost Martin Jenkins for the year, and now it is extremely thin.
“It's code red out there,” Venables said. “We have a high level of urgency.”
Even with its starting corners mostly healthy through the first seven games, Clemson still allowed 27 passing plays of 20 yards or more, which ranks 97th in the country.
Big plays in the passing game are a concern for Venables. Wake figures to target the unproven Davis when he is on the field.
Davis is one of the better athletes in the secondary. He has intrigued both former coordinator Kevin Steele and Venables. Davis has the his size and athleticism, but the mental aspects of the game have held him back.
“I'm excited to see (Davis) and those other guys get out and play,” Venables said. They were recruited here for a reason.”
How well does Davis move for a 6-3, 200-pound corner?
“He's like Deion Sanders,” Venables said, presumably speaking in jest.
The national stage also offers a chance for Brewer to prove to the country, and NFL scouts, that he can play cornerback. Brewer has split his time between safety and corner this season after struggling at cornerback earlier in his career. But he is built more like a corner, and the senior figures to play there the rest of the season.
“We just want to make a statement,” Brewer said. “I think it's going to be a lot easier to focus on one position.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said receiver Adam Humphries could become an option at cornerback in an “emergency” situation.
Nothing helps a secondary like a pass rush, and Clemson defensive front was much more active and productive against Virginia Tech. Clemson defensive tackle Josh Watson said the performance is not an outlier, rather indicative of improvement.
“It's maturing,” Watson said, “taking our coaching and applying it to games, not just practice.
“When we get those one-on-one matchups with the guards we have to win them.”
Clemson freshman tackle D.J. Reader has been gaining playing time, recording seven tackles last week. Defensive end Corey Crawford played more physically and with more discipline against the Hokies. Malliciah Goodman and Watson each recorded a sack.
For Watson, tonight offers a chance to show the growth is the start of a trend.
“It is a statement game,” Watson said. “The whole country is going to be watching we can show them the Clemson defense is making improvements.”