Breakup candidates come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, forms, and positions.
This year’s Tigers team that has made three or fewer starts could have plenty of players to take their games to the next level. Maybe they missed most of last season due to injury or because they weren’t ready and needed a redshirt. In some cases, the opportunity just wasn’t there, or they’ve been shut down on the depth chart.
Regardless, here are the top defensive prospects by position for the 2022 season:
Defensive end: Kevin Swede
There is no tougher position on the field to find a potential player to escape from. That’s because the Tigers are loaded with experienced rushers, Xavier Thomas, Myles Murphy and KJ Henry. But if something were to happen to any of those Big 3, Swint is waiting for a chance to show he’s next in line to become a decorated Clemson passer.
Swint switched from linebacker to defensive end in 2021, and now that he’s had a season to bulk up (239 pounds) and learn the position, a four-star prospect from the 2019 class is entering his third year with the program. This is usually when the light comes on and the production goes up. Swint will have limited chances to do so, but he’s a great depth piece and could be a package specialist in 2022.
Defensive tackle: Tre Williams
Another position where talented players are blocked by other talented, more proven players, but Williams’ time is coming. He filled a huge void last year when Tyler Davis and Bryan Bresee were out with injuries, starting a game and playing through several health issues himself to provide depth up front. His valiant effort came to an end late in the season when he finally underwent surgery.
The two defensive tackles mentioned above, along with Ruke Orhorhoro and Etinosa Reuben, have carved out more meaningful roles, but don’t sleep on Williams, a 302-pound sophomore who possesses plenty of strength for his age. Another year of learning, reps and getting in better shape is great for his future, but if he can get on the field enough and stay healthy in 2022, you’ll notice his presence.
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Infielder: Jeremiah Trotter Jr.
Clemson’s plan at middle linebacker is to rotate three starters at the position. And while LaVonta Bentley and Keith Maguire have the upper hand over Trotter in terms of system knowledge and game experience, there aren’t too many other Tigers on this roster with higher upside than this sophomore. He had 22 tackles and a sack in just 59 snaps last season, spending much of the year contributing on special teams.
Trotter comes from an NFL pedigree and his speed will impress anyone who watches him. The plan is to work him into that rotation, but nobody who knows anything about this guy wouldn’t be shocked if he was too good to leave the field. He may not run away with the position until 2023, but Trotter will be known, perhaps sooner.
Outfielder: Barrett Carter
Like Trotter, who came in the same 2021 class, Carter is the next big thing at Clemson. He’s a great combination linebacker and safety and worked both positions early in the fall. That’s because he’s one of the fastest, most versatile players on the defense, and Clemson will find any way to use him in 2022.
Carter scored one defensive touchdown and recorded 26 tackles as a freshman last year coming off the bench. This year, he’ll be the first in that hybrid role, which helped produce NFL products Dorian O’Daniel and Isaiah Simmons. Carter is built differently than those guys, but his speed will make him a player that people around college football notice more and more as the season progresses.
Corner: Nate Wiggins
When you’ve only played 130 career snaps, but the quarterback you face every day in practice calls you the best cornerback in the country, you’re basically the definition of a breakout candidate. Dabo Swinney and Mike Reed also speak highly of Wiggins, making him one of the defenders on a loaded unit to watch this season. Reed has coached some really impressive corners over the past few years, including AJ Terrell and Andrew Booth Jr.
At 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, Wiggins appears to be in the same mold, Coaches rave about his ability to change direction and defend one-on-one. The opportunity is there, as he will likely start in Week 1. It will be a big year for Wiggins, who Dabo Swinney believes can be a great, not just good, player.
Safety: RJ Mickens
Here’s a name that gets lost in the shuffle at times as he’s made just two career starts. But Mickens has already shown great potential at Clemson, intercepting two passes in 2021, and his father played in the NFL, so he knows what it takes to play at a high level. Entering his third collegiate season, expect to see a big uptick in his usage considering his size (212 pounds) and ball-handling ability.
Andrew Mukuba is getting all the hype, and deservedly so. Jalyn Phillips is a veteran who has been waiting his turn and is taking a big step in terms of leadership and production. Those two will start the season with more buzz, but by the end of the year, Mickens could very well be receiving attention from the next level. The skill set is there. He just needs more opportunities to show it.
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