Breakthrough candidates come in all shapes, sizes, forms and positions.
This year’s group of Tigers who have made three or fewer starts could have a few players to take their games to the next level. Maybe they missed most of last season with an injury or weren’t ready and needed a redshirt. In some cases, the opportunity just wasn’t there or they were blocked on the depth chart.
Regardless, here are the top defensive breakout candidates by position for the 2022 season:
Defensive end: Kevin Swint
There is no more difficult position on the pitch to find a potential breakout player than this one. That’s because the Tigers are loaded with experienced tight ends in Xavier Thomas, Myles Murphy and KJ Henry. But if something were to happen to any of those Big 3, Swint expects an opportunity to show he’s next in line to become Clemson’s prized pass rusher.
Swint switched from linebacker to linebacker in 2021, and now that he’s had a season to bulk up (239 pounds) and learn the position, the four-star prospect in the Class of 2019 is entering his third year with the program. This is usually when the light goes on and production goes up. Swint will get limited chances to do that, but he is very deep and could be a package specialist in 2022.
Defensive tackle: Tré 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 Brian Brezzi were out with injuries, started one game and worked through several health issues himself to provide depth at the forward positions. His valiant efforts came to an end at the end of the season when he finally underwent surgery.
The two defensemen mentioned above, along with Ruque Orhorro and Etinoza Ruben, have played more significant roles, but don’t sleep on Williams, a 302-pound sophomore who possesses great strength for his age. Another year of learning, getting 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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Inside linebacker: Jeremiah Trotter Jr.
Clemson’s plan at middle linebacker is to rotate three key players at the position. And while LaVonta Bentley and Keith Maguire have the edge over Trotter in terms of system familiarity and game experience, there aren’t too many other Tigers on this roster with higher potential than this sophomore. He had 22 tackles and one sack on just 59 snaps last season, spending much of the year contributing on special teams.
Trotter comes from NFL pedigree and his speed will impress anyone who watches him. The plan is to have him in that rotation, but no one who knows anything about this guy will be shocked if he’s too good to leave the field. He may not escape the position until 2023, but Trotter will be a household name, perhaps sooner rather than later.
Outfielder: Barrett Carter
Like Trotter, who came in the same class of 2021, Carter is the next big thing at Clemson. He is a great combination linebacker and safety and worked both positions early in fall camp. That’s because he’s one of the fastest and most versatile players on the defense, and Clemson will find every way possible to use him in 2022.
Carter scored a defensive touchdown and recorded 26 tackles as a freshman last year coming off the bench. This year, he’ll be the starter in that hybrid role that helped make Dorian O’Daniel and Isaiah Simmons NFL products. 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 goes on.
Cornerback: Nate Wiggins
When you’ve only played 130 snaps in your career, 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 Reid also speak highly of Wiggins, making him one of the linebackers on a loaded unit to watch this season. Reid has coached some truly 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 mold. Coaches admire his ability to change direction and defend one-on-one. The opportunity is there, and he’ll likely start Week 1. It’s going to be a big year for Wiggins, who Dabo Swinney believes can be a great, not just a good, player.
Safety: RJ Mickens
Here’s a name that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle, as he’s only made two career starts. But Mickens has already shown big-play potential at Clemson, intercepting two passes in 2021, and his dad 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 increase in his usage given his size (212 pounds) and ability to throw the ball.
Andrew Mukuba is getting all the hype and deservedly so. Jaylin Phillips is a veteran who has waited his turn and is making a big step up in terms of leadership and production. Those two will start the season with more buzz, but by the end of the year, Mickens could get some attention from the next level. The skill set is there. He just needs more chances to show it.
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