SUNSET, S.C.—When a football coach joins a staff, few are blessed to be tasked with coaching the talent that Mickey Conn has.
In Conn’s second season with the Tigers, he became a full-time assistant coach in January 2017 following the departure of former Tiger assistant coach Marion Hobby to the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, and the retirement of Dan Brooks.
Before the 2017 season, Conn served the Tigers’ staff as a senior defensive analyst—helping lead the Tigers to their second national championship with a victory over his alma mater, Alabama.
Now entering his first fall camp, Conn is embracing the opportunity to return to the field.
“It was good to be able to interact and instruct the players. I really enjoyed that,” Conn said. “Being with Coach Venables, I am learning a new defense from what I am accustomed to and trying to learn that. It’s been great being able to get out there and coach and teach.”
Now coaching the safeties, he has been gifted with, arguably, the most talented and athletic group of defenders on the Tigers’ team– including redshirt sophomore Tanner Muse, who has already proven he has a knack for being around the football.
“Tanner Muse ran a 4.36 the other day out there when he was timed. At 225 pounds,” Conn said. “I think you are going to see a more physical presence there, a better tackler in space and a better tackler on the goal line and in the redzone. I think you will see a more physical presence there, and I think you will see a guy that is going to make plays. Every time you see Tanner get in a game, all he does is make plays.
“He intercepts a pass and runs it back for a touchdown. He blocks a punt in the National Championship game. When he gets the opportunity, he gets it done. I think you are going to see something pretty special in him. He’s fast as lighting. The biggest thing with Tanner is he knows he belongs. He is confident and knows he can do it. He is very confident in knowing the defense and knowing the details of the defense.”
Joining Muse in vying for one of the one open starting safety job—vacated by former Tiger Jadar Johnson– are redshirt sophomore Denzel Johnson and redshirt freshmen Isaiah Simmons and Nolan Turner.
“Denzel Johnson, his change of direction is better than the rest of them,” Conn continued. “He can really cut on a dime and change direction. He is a physical player and as he gains confidence I think he is going to be a really good player.
“And Nolan Turner – don’t sleep on Nolan. He has the best footwork and hips of any of them. The way he transitions – his dad played in the NFL and he has the pedigree to go with it. He’s an unbelievable player and he gets in the spring game and picks off a pass. He is another guy that when given the opportunity he can make plays.”
However, there is one player in the secondary that possess “ridiculous speed” and the ability to play multiple positions.
That player is Simmons, who is currently listed as second-team behind Muse.
“And then Isaiah Simmons, he is unbelievable,” Conn said. “He is 6-5, and he ran a 4.31 the other day when he was timed. That is ridiculous speed. And he will hit. He’s a very physical player, and he’s long and rangy. he can play both safety spots and in the nickel/SAM.”
The one safety spot that is not in doubt for Conn belongs to the junior Van Smith.
Smith, a preseason third-team All-ACC selection by Phil Steele and a fourth-team selection by Athlon, made Clemson history in his first season as a starter last year when he returned an interception 86 yards against Ohio State in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl—the longest in Clemson history in a bowl game and the firth longest overall.
For Conn, having an established starter returning—whose father is a coach—gives him the confidence that Smith will be ready to make the move to free safety from strong safety, where he spent last season.
“It’s awesome (having a coach’s son in Van Smith). He knows it and does know it,” Conn said. “His dad has done a great job of laying the groundwork with his son. He came in as a freshman and played right away. He comes from a great program that got him ready and he is going to be the quarterback of the defense.”