CLEMSON — -- A year ago, Clemson put out a ‘help wanted' sign for its defensive secondary, signed a talented eight-man recruiting class, and then promptly put four players – all cornerbacks – on the shelf as redshirts.
Now, coaches Dabo Swinney, Brent Venables and Mike Reed are looking for their investment to pay off.
The four who played last season – Jayron Kearse, Korrin Wiggins, Jadar Johnson and Cordrea Tankersley – have varying degrees of experience, while the other four – Mackensie Alexander, Adrian Baker, Marcus Edmond and Ryan Carter – are bigger, stronger, more familiar with the defense, and, in Alexander and Baker’s cases, healthier.
Last year, the safety positions were among Clemson’s biggest defensive question marks. This spring, the spotlight turns to cornerback, where starters Bashaud Breeland and Darius Robinson must be replaced.
“I love the guys we’ve got at corner,” said Swinney. “They’re athletic, they’ve got some length, and they can run. They’re tough-minded and they’re competitive. It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch that group emerge this spring.
“We redshirted four corners, and we only signed one defensive back, and he’s a safety. That should send a pretty strong message that we really like the guys we have.”
Swinney projects rising seniors Martin Jenkins and Garry Peters as the starters, though their respective situations creates a bit of a question mark.
Jenkins, who played last season with a shoulder that was repeatedly dislocated, underwent surgery to repair the problem and won’t practice this spring. Peters is at full-speed, but won’t play in the opener against Georgia because of a one-game disciplinary suspension.
“Those two seniors will set the tempo for that group,” Swinney said. “Garry’s had a good off-season. I’m disappointed he’s not going to be with us for our opener, but I think he’s got a chance to be a really good player. He’s got all the tools, and it looks like he’s putting it together from a playing standpoint.
“And we all know what Martin can do when he’s healthy. Martin’s going to be watching and coaching this spring, helping out those guys.”
The redshirt freshman group is led by Alexander, the highest-rated member of the Tigers’ 2013 recruiting class and, at No. 4 nationally, ESPN’s highest-rated player to sign with Clemson since Da'Quan Bowers was ranked No. 1 in 2008.
Alexander had been expected to push for a starting job last fall, but was injured early in preseason camp and eventually had surgery to repair a groin injury.
“Mackensie Alexander, man – he is special,” Swinney said. “He looks tremendous. It’s been really good to see him bouncing around without being hindered, pain-free and feeling good. I watched him as closely as anybody going through our off-season, and he’s ready to go compete.”
Swinney said that both Adrian Baker and Marcus Edmond were “on the bubble” for playing time as first-year freshman.
“Adrian probably would have played for us last fall had he not got hurt,” Swinney said. “His body’s changing – he really took advantage of his redshirt season to put on some good weight and muscle mass. He’s very skilled and very conscientious.
“Marcus is a guy we bit the bullet on last fall, and now we’re glad we did. And Ryan Carter is another guy we’re excited about.”
Swinney compared Tankersley to starting Seattle Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell.
“Cordrea played for us some last fall and got some experience,” he said. “He’s a big-body guy who can play corner, like a Breeland or Byron Maxwell. And he can run. He’s more of a boundary type of guy.”