Led by a talented group of players including Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see Clemson ranked among the best defenses in the country again in 2018. The Tigers benefited from great quarterback play from Kelly Bryant and a breakout performance by Travis Etienne at running back, but their defense was probably the most important factor in leading them it to a third straight College Football Playoff appearance.
But while many of Clemson’s key players return this year, there’s also plenty of opportunity for lesser-known players on the roster to take advantage of some increased roles. Here are three players on the Tigers’ defense who could enjoy breakout seasons in 2018:
Nyles Pinckney, defensive tackle
Nyles Pinckney was redshirted in 2016. He was a small but important part of the Tigers’ defensive tackle rotation in 2017 with 18 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss and 1 sack as he played in every game.
In 2018, we should see even more of Pinckney with Wilkins and backup Albert Huggins set to graduate. The opportunity to see his rotational status increase should prepare the sophomore for a starting role in 2019, regardless of whether it’s alongside Dexter Lawrence.
With even more talent coming in over the next couple of years, the Tigers’ embarrassment of riches on the defensive line is set to continue for the foreseeable future. And Pinckney appears ready to expand his role as one of the key cogs of the unit.
Mark Fields, cornerback
We didn’t see Mark Fields play in 2017 after he sustained an injury to his foot against Syracuse in October. Through eight games, though, he appeared to be on his way to a career season as a junior with 20 tackles to that point.
With a disappointing season behind him — and for that matter, a quiet career — it’s time for Fields to finish his time at Clemson on a high note. If he can stay healthy, he could join Trayvon Mullen to provide a solid one-two punch on either side of the field for the Tigers.
While most of the focus will be on Clemson’s defensive line, the staff will be hoping that things can click in a big way for Fields in 2018.
Jalen Williams, strongside linebacker
The Clemson linebacker corps has been anchored the last few seasons by Dorian O’Daniel, a first-team All-American in 2017 with 104 tackles, 11.5 tackles for a loss and 5 sacks.
With O’Daniel graduated and now a member of the Kansas City Chiefs, his backup, Jalen Williams, will probably face the most pressure out of any player on the Clemson defense. He hasn’t seen immense playing time, but in the snaps he has played, he has shown some promise — he made 18 tackles and 2 tackles for a loss while recording 1 sack a season ago.
Williams probably won’t match O’Daniel’s production from last season, but expect him to break out for the Tigers defense in 2018.