Next in line: redshirting DBs Alexander, Baker, Edmond, Carter waiting their turn

First-year freshmen Kearse, Wiggins, Johnson, Tankersley growing into bigger roles for Tigers' homestretch

Corey Perrine/Naples Daily News Staff Mackensie Alexander surprises the crowd with his decision to go to Clemson Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013 at Immokalee High School. Five athletes signed to their school of choice on the same day in a assembly televised on ESPNU.

Corey Perrine/Naples Daily News Staff Mackensie Alexander surprises the crowd with his decision to go to Clemson Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013 at Immokalee High School. Five athletes signed to their school of choice on the same day in a assembly televised on ESPNU.

Three years ago, with Clemson's Tigers needing a boost in playmaking power, Dabo Swinney and his staff went out and signed the nation's top-rated group of receivers. Then, with not much preamble, they put four of the five first-year freshmen on the field.

In the aftermath of last season, the Tigers again found themselves with a glaring need, this time in the defensive secondary.

Clemson signed eight defensive backs last February, and of that group, four are playing as first-year freshmen, while four are redshirting.

Their impact, minimal at first, has increased significantly over the past few weeks as the first-timers have gained experience and confidence.

The readiness of freshmen to contribute is multi-faceted, and varies by position.

Swinney is thrilled with his youngest defensive backs, both those who are playing and those who are redshirting, but he and defensive coordinator Brent Venables weren't willing to hand over too much responsibility to the newcomers until they were sure they were ready.

"Obviously receivers are an easier deal, as far as putting young guys out there," Swinney said. "A guy may drop a ball, but you can still punt. Defensively, if you line up wrong or bust a coverage, it's points on the board the other way. So the transition was probably a little easier for those receivers."

Injuries have played a part in determining who's played and who's redshirted.

When cornerback Mackensie Alexander arrived on campus, no one gave a thought to him redshirting. Instant impact was expected from the Immokalee, Fla. star, who, as ESPN's No. 4 player in the nation, is Clemson's highest-ranked signee since No. 1-ranked Da'Quan Bowers signed with the Tigers in 2008.

But on the second day of practice, Alexander suffered a groin injury that proved troublesome to the extreme. After a couple of aborted comeback attempts, Alexander underwent mid-season surgery and has been put on the shelf for the season.

Likewise, fellow Floridian Adrian Baker was headed for early playing time before he was sidelined by injury.

Korrin Wiggins, one of the jewels of the recruiting class after making a signing-day decision of Clemson over home-state favorite North Carolina, and Jayron Kearse, who followed in Sammy Watkins footsteps in coming to Clemson from South Fort Myers, Fla., have been the first to make an impact.

Wiggins has played in rotation with Martin Jenkins at the nickel spot, the same role in which Travis Blanks excelled last season as a first-year freshman.

Meanwhile, Kearse has become the Tigers' third safety, spelling both Blanks and Robert Smith.

Kearse has made 30 tackles and shares the team lead in interceptions with three. His two takeaways against Virginia - an interception and a caused fumble - turned the game in Clemson's favor in the second quarter.

Wiggins has made 13 tackles, is second on the team in PBUs with five, and has three quarterback-pressures.

Playing ever-increasing roles are Cordrea Tankersley and Jadar Johnson, both of whom got their most significant playing time of the season in the Tigers' last game. Also working his way into the mix is redshirt freshman Ronald Geohaghan.

"I love the talent that we have," Swinney said. "We just have to develop it and grow it up. We have four young DBs playing and four redshirting.

"Cordrea's a guy who got a bunch of snaps (against Virginia). He got 18 plays, and he made progress - he graded 80-something percent. He's going to get better and better, working over at corner.

"When the light comes on and stays on for Jadar, he's really what you're looking for. He's got it all.

"Jayron is just a special guy - a special athlete who's got that 'it factor' to him. He doesn't get overwhelmed and he's very confident. Now that he's learned what to do, it's really starting to show through."

Swinney said he knew from the day Wiggins arrived at practice that he was ready to contribute. "He just had a maturity and seriousness about him," he said. "He was all-business."

He felt much the same about Baker.

"Like Mackensie, Adrian was set back by injuries," Swinney said. "Adrian would have played this year. He was well on his way to playing when he got hurt."

Swinney said the coaching staff hasn't yet been able to evaluate Alexander, except for what they saw in high school.

"We didn't have a chance to see him like we know he is, and like our players saw him this summer," he said. "Mackensie is doing fine now. His process has been different having had the surgery. He's been back at practice now for a week or so, working on the scout team and doing the drill work and working his way back. As the calendar flips to '14, we expect that young man to be healthy and ready to go.

"He and Adrian are going to be two special guys."

Swinney said the staff "bit the bullet" in redshirting in-state standout Marcus Edmond.

"We almost played him," Swinney said. "But once we saw that Martin Jenkins was going to be able to play, we held Marcus. I'm glad we did."

The Tigers' fourth redshirt - Ryan Carter of Grayson High in Loganville, Ga. - is also progressing, Swinney said.

"Ryan is getting better and better," said Swinney. "I think with all those guys, we've got a good, young group there. I feel like we have a very bright future in the secondary."

As he looks ahead to next season, Swinney foresees having a deep and experienced group, with more young players working their way into the rotation.

"We only lose Darius (Robinson), and he's having a solid year for us," Swinney said. "(Bashaud) Breeland is playing just outstanding football. We'll get Garry Peters back this week, and he should be ready to go against Georgia Tech. Martin is back.

"So we've got a good group of guys who'll be back for us next year. We'll be much more experienced at this time next year than we are right now."

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Comments » 3

lhaselden writes:

It will be exciting to see these guys play against UGa next year!

KIMOSAMI (Inactive) writes:

Just read Mickey Plyler's assessment of the future on tigernet.com.....an awesome website.

He's pretty high, with good reason, on the secondary as well.

If we can recruit a couple or three top notch O-linemen in the next couple years, Clemson will be a force to be reconned with by all comers. Our skill players are second to none.

CUNo1Fan writes:

in response to KIMOSAMI:

Just read Mickey Plyler's assessment of the future on tigernet.com.....an awesome website.

He's pretty high, with good reason, on the secondary as well.

If we can recruit a couple or three top notch O-linemen in the next couple years, Clemson will be a force to be reconned with by all comers. Our skill players are second to none.

The importance of your one statement in recruiting some top notch O Linemen can not be understated. I will take it one further and say top notch trench players for both sides period. That is the single thing keeping the Tigers from being elite, against teams with top notch O and D lines, we lose the LOS battle and as a result end up losing those games.

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