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Clemson Football

Conn has experience and youth in safety group, 'everything's open - best man plays'

April 1, 2023

Co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Mickey Conn spoke to the media on Friday as spring practices concluded for another week. He was asked about the struggles of the pass defense and safety Andrew Mukuba

Mukuba, a 2021 Freshman All-American and ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year, appeared to struggle at times last season. He missed two games due to injuries and played with a shoulder brace the entire season. The Texas native finished with 50 tackles, four pass breakups, and an interception in 12 games. 

Conn on Mukuba taking a step back last season and what he's seen from him this spring: 

"He's been a different Andrew this spring. I think coupled with just a lot of injuries and things last year that went through and some setbacks. He just didn't play well -- bottom line. I see a different look in his eye right now. I think this spring he has really taken a step forward with his leadership, his attitude, his mentality. He's got that eye back."

The secondary surrendered big plays in key losses to South Carolina in the Palmetto Bowl and Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. The unit played below the usual standards and finished 76th in passing defense and 46th in passing defense efficiency. 

On what they identified as issues in the pass defense:

"I think being disciplined with your eyes, getting your eyes on the right thing. I think alignment has a lot to do with it and just belief. This program is built on belief and these guys got to believe they're the best when they step out there on the field.

"[Also] Being aggressive, not sitting back waiting to make a play, but having the mindset I'm going to make the play. That's our job as coaches. We got to get that mindset where it needs to be and that's what we're going to do."

Senior safety R.J. Mickens made a career-high six starts in 13 games and led the team with three interceptions. Mickens, the son of former NFL and Texas A&M cornerback Ray Mickens, was also named to the PFF college football third team. 

On what's next for Mickens, who, according to Conn, is now 6'2 instead of his previously listed height of 6'0. 

"R.J. Mickens is a playmaker, and he's got to be on the field somewhere. He can play strong safety. He can play free safety. He can play the nickel. He can play Will linebacker if we need him to. He can play the dime. He's just a really smart player.  He recognizes formations and he understands schemes really well. And of course, he's got a background with his dad being in the NFL and he came from a great program out in Texas. So, he's been coached well. I'm excited about what he brings to the table."

Mickens, junior Mukuba, seniors Jalyn Phillips (graduate) and Tyler Venables, and sophomore Sherrod Covil all return to give the Tigers experience at the safety position. 

On how much competition he expects from the veteran group in 2023:

"They get to earn every second that they get to play. And I want the best players on the field and that's everything taken into account and competition brings out the best in people. The good thing about my group is they all pull for each other. They all have a good attitude about it.

"The best players go and play when they get their reps in practice, when they get their reps in one on ones, when they get asked questions in meetings, when they get to play in a game, whether it's on special teams or anything, everything counts. Everything matters and I think it's going to bring the best out of them and I'm so excited about that."

Phillips and Mukuba both have 21 career starts (Phillips in 51 games, Mukuba in 25). Mickens is next in career starts with 8 and Venables has two. 

On if he considers every spot to be open or are there any spots taken?

"I think everything's open until you play the game. You got to run somebody out there first. But we got to do better. We got to do better than we did last year. So, if somebody steps up and takes their job this spring, then that's on them. If those guys keep their jobs this spring, then that's on them. It's up to those kids. And what I've seen this spring so far they're fighting for those jobs. And we ain't letting nobody get comfortable. That's for sure.

"We want them to earn it. Earn everything. We'll watch the film. We'll grade the film. We'll watch it together. We'll talk it together. They ain't know bias about it. Best man plays."

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Conn has experience and youth in safety group, 'everything's open - best man plays'

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