CLEMSON — This spring, Clemson welcomed its largest-ever early enrollee class – eight true freshmen, learning alongside their elders during spring practice.
While much of the attention has focused on a large group of offensive linemen, a defensive player appears ready to make the biggest impact this fall.
Cornerback Travis Blanks worked with the first-team defense during spring’s opener and has stuck, working as a first-team nickel back.
Following Monday’s first scrimmage of spring, new defensive coordinator Brent Venables raved about his progression.
“He’s always ready to go on the field,” Venables said. “You’ve seen him consistently put one foot in front of the other and make improvement as long as he’s been on campus. We’ve been very pleased with his progress. He gives us a better athlete in space to match up with people.”
A week into spring practice, coach Dabo Swinney bragged on Blanks’ work ethic, saying he’d seen him alone on practice fields on a Saturday, backpedaling and practicing.
Venables feels similarly.
“He’s worked hard,” he said. “He picks up things fairly well, he’s really hard on himself. He’s very prideful. He’s got good football intelligence, good instincts. He plays well with his eyes.”
Blanks is versatile enough to play either cornerback or safety, much like former defensive back Marcus Gilchrist – now with the NFL’s San Diego Chargers – did under former defensive coordinator Kevin Steele.
But Blanks is working at the nickel positions. For now, coaches would rather avoid him being a jack of all trades, master of none. He has time for versatility.
“We’re trying to get him really good at the nickel position,” Venables said. “Instead of bringing him in here and getting him average at a lot of things, we’re trying to get him good at one thing and go from there. He has a lot of flexibility. He can do a number of different things, whether it’s corner or safety.”
The other freshman defensive early enrollee, defensive end Kevin Dodd, is struggling to catch up to the pace of college life. With senior Malliciah Goodman preparing for an exam, Dodd received his most extensive action Monday and was, in Swinney’s words, “taxed” by the end.
Sophomore Corey Crawford, expected to replace likely NFL first-round pick Andre Branch at bandit end, started Monday with converted linebacker Vic Beasley at the other end.
Beasley has received better reviews; Dodd and redshirt freshman Rod Byers are working as backup ends.
“He hasn’t played much,” Venables said of Beasley. “He’s athletic, he can rush the passer, he’s physical. He understands what it takes to protect and get leverage. He’s playing with discipline, so I know he can do it. The guy’s got to do it every snap, that’s what we’re pushing for.”
Crawford, Beasley, Dodd and Byers all must develop this summer and fall; they’re the future of the position.
“They need a lot of reps, we need a lot of work there,” Venables said. “None of those guys have ever started a game. In this league, this day and age, you need guys that can rush the passer, set the edge. A year from now, Malliciah won’t be here, and it’d be better to start developing those guys quickly. They need to step up and we’ll probably have to rely on some of these other young guys coming (signees Martin Aiken and Shaq Lawson) so we can see if they can crack that two-deep. We’re not very deep there.”