CLEMSON – When longtime defensive standouts James Skalski and Baylon Spector wrapped up their final season at Clemson in December, they left a void of 185 tackles.
Those are big cleats to fill by any measure, but neither coach Dabo Swinney nor first-year defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin have spent preseason practice fretting about their replacements at linebacker.
In fact, Swinney is so confident in his team’s talent and depth at the position that he foresees something akin to a pro wrestling tag-team effort among members of his top quartet.
“I don’t know who’s going to run out there first, but I do know this: If all those guys are healthy, they’re going to play,” Swinney said. “I don’t see any of them standing on the sideline. It’ll be WWE tag-team – ‘all right, I gotcha! In, out!’ That’s what you want, man.”
Here are the suspected ringleaders in Swinney’s linebacking corps:
Simpson is a versatile athlete who played a hybrid spot last season and accumulated 78 tackles, including 12 tackles for loss.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Simpson is a preseason first-team All-ACC selection who has transitioned into a Will linebacker slot.
“He’s a freak, man,” Swinney said. “It’s not the weight, it’s the composition of the weight. He’s big, strong, fast and lean. He’s been a dynamic player his first two years here. This kid has got unlimited potential.
“Trenton Simpson is the best Trenton Simpson that he’s ever been. What does that mean? That’s good news for the Tigers, bad news for whoever we play. He’s a good combination of experience and size and strength and speed and athleticism and character.”
Jeremiah Trotter Jr.
Trotter’s father is four-time Pro Bowler and 12-year NFL veteran Jeremiah Trotter Sr., and the apple hasn’t fallen far from the proverbial tree.
“I feel like he came in like an old man from a knowledge standpoint, with his dad being a longtime NFL player,” Goodwin said. “He’s really smart beyond his years.”
Trotter, who ranked second on the team with four special-teams tackles last season, played in all 13 games last season and had 22 tackles in only 59 plays. He appears to be in line for considerably more playing time in 2022.
“Trotter has been really impressive and has really had a good camp,” Goodwin said. “He’s been really productive in all of our competitive work.”
Said Trotter: “I’m just trying to keep my head down and grind.”
Bentley is Clemson’s resident yoga practitioner, which he says has brought him an inner peace.
“It’s a relief thing,” Bentley said. “I’m big on peace, having a change in my environment.”
On the field, the 6-0, 235-pound Bentley is anything but peaceful.
“LaVonta Bentley – that’s a bad dude right there,” Swinney said. “He is a grown man.”
Bentley, a redshirt junior, proved a bad dude last season against Georgia Tech. He made his first career start in replacing an injured Spector and responded with a team-leading 13 tackles, including three tackles for loss, en route to ACC Linebacker of the Week honors.
Maguire, who like Trotter is a Philadelphia-area product, finished the 2021 season with a flourish, posting a career-high six tackles in the Tigers’ Cheez-It Bowl win against Iowa State. He logged 99 snaps in 13 games a year ago and is looking for more in 2022.
“Everybody’s big and fast,” Maguire said. “I just go out there every day and compete. If I go out there every day and challenge myself, that will give me the best shot to win the job.”
Goodwin says everyone has a shot to play key roles.
“Keith has been really solid,” Goodwin said. “He’s the vocal leader of the group.
“We’ll see how it all sorts out. All those guys tackle well, they see things fast, they react fast, they have great leadership and communication skills on the field. Now it’s their turn to go do it.”
This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney hoping for 'tag-team' linebackers