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Mark Fields

Clemson's Mark Fields (2) tries to intercept a pass intended for Wake Forest's Steven Claude (81) in the first half of an NCAA college football game in Winston-Salem, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

CLEMSON— When ESPN released its post-National Signing Day “Way Too Early” rankings, defending national champion Alabama was not No. 1.

The team defeated by the Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff Semifinal took the top spot — the Clemson Tigers.

In fact, the Tigers are expected to open the 2018 season as the No. 1 team in the nation in rankings by The Associated Press and the coaches.

The reason for the ultra-high expectations can be placed on one side of the ball — the defense, a unit which returns eight starters off last year’s squad that finished No. 2 in scoring defense and No. 4 in total defense. Six of the front seven (defensive line and linebackers) are back for 2018.

While defensive coordinator Brent Venables is obviously excited about the defense he has coming back, the secondary has him concerned.

“Real pleased with our ability to go out and execute,” Venables said. “We’ve got a lot of bodies that have played a lot of football. We’re a little shorthanded at safety and corner, but we’ve got a bunch of guys who know what to do at all three levels, so that’s encouraging. It’s good.”

Gone from the secondary are staring cornerback Ryan Carter and safety Van Smith, along with reserve cornerback Marcus Edmond — meaning the Tigers will be forced to rely on reserve cornerbacks Mark Fields, Trayvon Mullen and K’Von Wallace, along with Brian Dawkins Jr. and former four-star recruit LeAnthony Williams.

“I don’t feel great about our depth there at all,” Venables said. Some new players are going to have to be ready.

Joining the secondary in the fall are a pair of four-star cornerbacks in Kyler McMichael and Mario Goodrich.

The Tigers are hoping one player in particular can make a jump and push for one of the starting jobs, former four-star and rising senior Mark Fields.

Fields entered the Tigers’ program three years ago with all of the hype that a big-time cornerback can bring — especially after spurning the South Carolina Gamecocks to join the Tigers. But his career has not lived up to the potential.

In his first three years, Fields has amassed only 36 tackles, five tackles for loss, a sack, a quarterback pressure, an interception and seven pass breakups in 36 games. Last season began with promise for Fields, starting four games, before an injury caused him to miss six straight games.

Venables is hoping a now-healthy Fields can put everything together to have a great senior season.

“Yeah, he’s healed. He missed a lot of football, but Mark’s very talented and probably our best speed and transitional movement of anybody we got,” Venables said. “Got to learn the details and become a technician and play within the framework of the defense and that’s all in front of him. So hopefully he’ll come out and have a great senior year.”

With the Tigers leaning on a hodgepodge of cornerbacks heading into the fifth practice of the spring, Venables is not letting up on coaching the defense as hard as he ever has.

“They all need to be coached and coaching is nonstop,” Venables said. “They understand the toughness it takes, the mindset it takes, the accountability and I think it’s, as much as anything, they know when they screw up and are willing to own up to and do a great job with leading all the other guys and showing them how to work. We never stop coaching these guys.”

Zach Lentz is a Clemson University alumnus who got his start working with the Tigers basketball team from 1999-2004. Now a resident of Orangeburg County, he reports on Clemson sports as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat.


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