Cordrea Tankersley the rock for new-look Clemson secondary

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Brent Venables had just finished a midday workout, but in case he needed more cardio, the Clemson defensive coordinator began recapping the team's losses in the secondary.

Three of the four starters from 2015 -- cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green -- opted to enter the NFL draft, skipping their final seasons of eligibility. Travis Blanks, another of Clemson's early draft entries, played some safety in addition to linebacker. Safety Jefferie Gibson, considered a candidate to fill a starting position, transferred in January. Cornerback Adrian Baker suffered a torn ACL early in spring practice, placing his availability for the season in doubt. Two weeks later, Clemson dismissed cornerback Kaleb Chalmers after his arrest for alleged drug possession.

"There's seven guys who could still be here who we don't have," Venables said.

Venables is famously intense, but he spoke calmly and candidly about the secondary's situation. The reason his heart rate doesn't spike? Senior cornerback Cordrea Tankersley. Next to Deshaun Watson, Tankersley may be Clemson's most critical returning player in 2016.

"He had the most consistent year of every single secondary guy we had," Venables said. "He graded out better, performed at a more consistent level, made a bunch of incredible plays, great plays in tight games. So having him come back is really going to help us."

Those are bold words about a secondary that featured a second-team All-American (Kearse) and a third-team All-American (Alexander). Clemson led the ACC and ranked 11th nationally in pass efficiency defense (109.7), ranked second nationally in opponents' completion percentage (48.5) and third in adjusted opponent QBR (23.4).

Maintaining that standard after a major personnel drain will test the Tigers, but Venables thinks the group is talented enough, especially with Tankersley as its front man.

"It’s been fun, knowing that you're the leader of a very young secondary," said Tankersley, who led Clemson and ranked 20th nationally with five interceptions, including a touchdown runback in Clemson's rout of Miami. "It's going to have ups and downs, but to have guys look up to you, it's pretty cool."

Tankersley is excited about mentoring young defensive backs like Ryan Carter ("definitely opened my eyes") and Mark Fields ("He has to grow up a little bit, but in time, he’ll be one of the best"). Venables has taken a hands-off approach this spring, affording Tankersley greater freedom. The coach's main request is communication.

For that, Tankersley can look to ex-teammates like Alexander, who rarely kept quiet.

"Last year, I had a lot of guys around me to speak for me," Tankersley said. "Now, being the leader along with Jadar [Johnson], we have to be more vocal."

The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Tankersley considered joining Green, Alexander, Kearse and others in bolting for the NFL. He was projected in the third or fourth round. "Very tempting," he said.

But Tankersley also realizes he wasn't on anyone's radar before last season. He played only 137 snaps in 2014. Even after Tankersley piled up big plays during the regular season last fall, he took a backseat to Alexander in recognition.

"It was the best decision to come back, graduate in December and make my draft stock go higher," he said. "My name is more out there now, so I can get the real attention I deserve."

Tankersley's assignments likely will brighten the spotlight this season. With Alexander gone, he could mark wideouts like Florida State's Travis Rudolph and Louisville's Jamari Staples. His biggest tests should come in practice as he lines up across from Mike Williams, back after recovering from a neck injury.

The Tankersley-Williams matchup has been a highlight of Clemson's spring session. Williams is regarded by everyone at Clemson as a future first-round draft pick, while linebacker Ben Boulware said of Tankersley: "Cordrea will probably be a first- or second-round pick next year."

"He makes me better," Tankersley said of Williams. "I want to make him better."

Tankersley agrees with Venables' assessment that he was Clemson's steadiest defensive back in 2015. But it didn't happen immediately. He tuned out coaches as a young player. Then he began watching older teammates, like safety Robert Smith and defensive lineman Grady Jarrett, and the way they prepared for practices and games.

Clemson's young eyes are now fixed on him.

"I want those guys to see consistency," Tankersley said. "I don't want them having a great day and then following up with a bad day. We still have a long way to go, but I think we'll be just fine."