The Clemson football team’s secondary has performed well this season, even though it lost three of its four starters from last season to the NFL draft.
Clemson currently ranks seventh in the Football Bowl Subdivision in passing defense, with only 166.1 yards allowed per game. Through seven games, the Tigers have allowed just 16 passing plays of 20 yards or more, four passing plays of 30 yards or more and one passing play of 40 yards or more. The Tigers have 11 interceptions and 41 total passes defensed.
The biggest reason for that success, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says, has been the rise of senior safety Jadar Johnson.
"Jadar has been, to me, the player of the year," Swinney said. "He’s that guy this year that has just taken us to another level."
Johnson leads Clemson, and is tied for second in the entire ACC, with three interceptions and nine total passes defensed. He has shown the range to make plays all over the field in coverage and run defense. He ranks sixth on the Tigers with 27 total tackles.
In his first three seasons at Clemson, Johnson saw playing time but in a reserve role. He had 36 total tackles and four interceptions from 2013-15, but only started two games.
This year, Johnson has been a mainstay on the field. He has played 463 defensive snaps, more than any other player on the team, and also contributes on special teams.
Johnson believes he always had the physical ability to make a bigger impact for the Clemson defense. The difference this year, he says, has been his mental preparation.
"I’ve definitely improved a lot," Johnson said. "Just me getting in the film room, learning the playbook a little more. It’s just the small things. Knowing my opponent more. Just taking that film room serious, and I feel like once I got that part of my game down, I just excelled from there."
To the coaches who have worked with him since he arrived on campus, that growth has been evident.
"He has been as consistent a player as we’ve had on our football team," Swinney said. "We were very hopeful that he would take that next step, and boy, has he."
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables said Johnson, who backed up Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green last year, has “really made the most of his opportunity.”
"Been real proud of Jadar and how he’s matured and handled his role," Venables said. "He’s a more consistent tackler, playing with better technique. He’s trusting and understanding the people around him, and he’s playing with much more confidence."
Swinney says Johnson, who went about his business quietly earlier in his career, has "become a take charge kind of a guy" in the secondary.
"He’s become a great leader," Swinney said. "We needed that on that back end."
Johnson feels more engaged in the defense than he did in previous years, and he says he is on track to achieve the goals he set for himself before the season. It feels good, he acknowledged, to receive public praise from his coaches. He doesn’t want to take all the credit, however, for the defense’s success.
"All of the guys that play around me, they do their jobs so well, it just makes my job that much easier," Johnson said. "I stand out from a few plays that I make, but without those guys, I wouldn’t make any of those plays."