Clemson’s Simpson stops at red velvet cake, and ‘Will’ LB, with USC next | Clemson

CLEMSON — Trenton Simpson is not opposed to delayed gratification.

The Clemson linebacker’s family’s Thanksgiving red velvet cake this Thursday will look great. But not as good as Simpson would like to feel heading into a rivalry game with South Carolina on Nov. 26, where he looks to torment Gamecock quarterback Spencer Rattler.

“I’ll eat it Saturday after the game,” Simpson said. “My dad will have it for me after the game.”

Some things can wait. Not just the red velvet cake, but even bigger questions about what to do with his 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame when the season is over.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney believes that at some point Simpson will be a weakside linebacker (Will) in the NFL. Simpson came to the Tigers’ coaches in the offseason looking for a transition sooner rather than later, volunteering to abandon the running back-in-space role that suited him so well at strongside linebacker (Sam) for become an in- the box defender.

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And the experiment did not fail entirely. Simpson led the Tigers in tackles with 56 in nine games. He is a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker.

But for Clemson’s defense to reach its highest level, it required Simpson to accept a delay in preparing for his future. That was made abundantly clear when Simpson had to miss the Louisville game with an ankle injury, and sophomore Barrett Carter went from Sam to Will and became ACC linebacker of the week with 3.5 tackles for loss. and two captures.

Simpson, who had 18 TFL and 10 sacks as a freshman and sophomore, only had half a sack and half a takedown for loss as Will. His downhill and attacking style was toned down a bit by playing in a phone booth.

Clemson didn’t need to give up having their cake and eat it too.

“I just trusted my coaches,” Simpson said, “and wherever they felt I best helped the team win.”

Simpson returned to the strong side against Miami, collecting sacks on back-to-back series in the fourth quarter. He was right at home, living in the moment, worrying the quarterbacks again.

Next on the list is Rattler, who just threw six touchdowns on a Tennessee defense that allowed him to get too comfortable in the pocket. It’s no small thing that Clemson has found another answer in Will, and Simpson is back to roaming more freely, not as easily tagged by opposing blockers.

“You don’t see a lot of guys his size, almost 240 pounds, that can accelerate like him,” Swinney said. “He’s just a natural guy in space. … He can go off the edge. He can run people over. He can cover. Just a unique talent.”

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Simpson wouldn’t say the weakside linebacker role was difficult, but it was an adjustment. As a strongside linebacker in Clemson’s scheme, he could (and, once again, can) dart into wide open turf like a human grapple. In the Will, much like the middle linebacker or “Mike,” a defender has to fill the gaps in the middle of a scrum of offensive and defensive linemen.

Carter has adapted to the role like a “fish to water,” Swinney said, but it’s not as easy as Carter made it out to be.

“There’s so much eye candy,” Carter said, referring to all the tight ends switching and throwing linemen and wide handoffs that happen down the line. “It’s weird, because you can see the ball going to the right, but if your job is to be on the left side, you have to do that. That’s pretty hard.”

Expectations were high for Clemson’s fast-paced, athletic linebacking corps heading into the 2022 season, but that overlooked the difficulty for three young players adjusting to their roles. But the pieces seem to have crystallized as the season winds down the stretch.

Jeremiah Trotter Jr., a sophomore, has established himself as a physical presence at middle linebacker. Carter, another sophomore, is a natural on the weak side. And the Tigers know what Simpson can do on the strong side.

They’ve watched it for two years, plus the Miami game.

“It’s a lot less cloudy out there. It’s just green grass,” Clemson co-defensive coordinator Mickey Conn said. “When you’re in the middle, there are a lot of moving parts that you can work on. And not only that, but you can take him off that edge, and you see how athletic and fast he is.”

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It’s unclear how much longer the Tigers will have that speed, because Simpson graduates this December and projects into some NFL mock drafts as a first-round pick. But that’s not Simpson’s concern right now.

Just hold the red velvet cake. Simpson hopes to swallow the maroon ball carriers and extend Clemson’s winning streak against South Carolina to eight games.

“It’s all about preparation and our coaches putting us in great positions, but our great players have always stepped up in these great games,” Simpson said. “Coach Swinney talked about it. Players need to show up and make big plays in these types of games because this is one of those games where players have to put on a show if they want to win.”

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