Breakout candidates come in all shapes, sizes, shapes and positions.
This year’s group of Tigers, who have made three starts or fewer, could have several players taking their games to the next level. Maybe they missed most of last season because they got injured or weren’t ready and needed a redshirt. In some cases the opportunity just wasn’t there or they were blocked on the depth map.
Regardless, here are the top breakout defensive contenders by position for the 2022 season:
Defensive: Kevin Swint
There is no more difficult position on the field to find a potential breakout player than this. That’s because the Tigers are lined with veteran edge rushers Xavier Thomas, Myles Murphy and KJ Henry. But should anything happen to any of these Big 3, Swint is waiting for an opportunity to show he’s next in line to become an excellent Clemson pass rusher.
Swint transitioned 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 . As a rule, the light then goes on and production increases. Swint will have limited opportunities to do that, but he’s a great piece of depth 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 both missed out through injuries, starting a game and playing through multiple health issues of their own to add depth up front. His valiant efforts ended late in the season when he finally underwent surgery.
The two aforementioned defensive tackles have taken on more significant roles along with Ruke Orhorhoro and Etinosa Reuben, but don’t sleep on Williams, a 302-pound sophomore who has great strength for his age. Another year of learning, building reps and improving form is great for his future, but if he’s on the field enough and stays healthy in 2022, you’ll notice his presence.
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Inside linebackers: Jeremiah Trotter Jr.
Clemson’s plan at the middle linebacker is to rotate three key players in position. And while LaVonta Bentley and Keith Maguire have the upper hand over Trotter in terms of systems knowledge and playing experience, there aren’t too many other Tigers in this roster with higher potential than this second player. He had 22 tackles and a sack in just 59 snaps last season and spent much of the year appearing on special teams.
Coming from an NFL pedigree, Trotter’s speed will impress anyone who watches him. The plan is to fit him into this rotation, but anyone who knows anything about this guy wouldn’t be shocked if he turned out too good to walk off the field. He may not walk away with the position until 2023, but Trotter may be a household name sooner or later.
Full-back: Barrett Carter
Much like Trotter, who joined the same class in 2021, Carter is the next big thing at Clemson. He’s a great mix of linebacker and safety and was training at both positions early in fall camp. That’s because he’s one of the fastest, most versatile players on defense and Clemson will find every possible way to use him in 2022.
Carter scored a defensive touchdown as a freshman last year and recorded 26 tackles coming off the bench. This year he will be a starter in this hybrid role, which helped produce NFL products Dorian O’Daniel and Isaiah Simmons. Carter is built differently than these guys, but his speed will make him a player that people in college football will start to notice more and more as the season progresses.
Cornerback: Nate Wiggins
If you’ve only played 130 career snaps, but the quarterback you face every day at practice calls you the best cornerback in the country, you’re basically the definition of a breakout candidate. Dabo Swinney and Mike Reed also praise Wiggins, making him one of the defenders in a loaded unit to watch this season. Reed has coached some seriously impressive cornerbacks in recent years, including AJ Terrell and Andrew Booth Jr.
At 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, Wiggins appears to be in the same form, with coaches raving about his ability to change directions and defend one-on-one. The opportunity is there and it will likely start in week 1. It’s going to be a big year for Wiggins, who Dabo Swinney believes can be a great player, not just a good one.
Security: RJ Mickens
Here’s a name that sometimes gets lost in the confusion, having only made 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. As he enters his third collegiate season, expect a big spike in his usage given his height (212 pounds) and ball-falking ability.
Andrew Mukuba gets all the hype, and rightly so. Jalyn Phillips is a veteran who has waited his turn and is making a big step forward in terms of leadership and production. These two will start the season with more enthusiasm, but by the end of the year, Mickens could very well get next-level attention. The skill set is here. He just needs more chances to show it.
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