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Raiders’ Tanner Muse begins transition from safety to linebacker

Tanner Muse knew there would be questions. After all, he would be moving from safety, his primary position at Clemson, to linebacker in the NFL.

So, Muse wasn’t caught off guard when Raiders general manager Mike Mayock and coach Jon Gruden hit him with an hourlong pop quiz before the NFL draft.

The subject was run fits, or the gap assignment each player on the defensive front has in building a wall at the line of scrimmage to defend the run. For reasons ranging from what the offensive formation looks like to whether it’s a zone or man blocking scheme, it’s much more complex than simply filling gaps with bodies.

Muse knew this was a pretty big moment.

“You might not have the same terminology as other people, teams, things like that, but you just got to know your ball,” he said. “You got to know the schemes, leverages, coverages, things like that.”

As Mayock tells it, Muse might as well have been a defensive coordinator given how he meticulously explained and illustrated every player’s detailed assignment. The aptitude he showed, along with the athletic numbers he posted at the NFL scouting combine that included a 4.41 40-yard dash at 6 feet 2 inches and 229 pounds, compelled the Raiders to invest a third-round pick in Muse last month.

FILE - In this Nov. 16, 2019, file photo, Clemson's Tanner Muse reacts after sacking Wake Fores ...
FILE - In this Nov. 16, 2019, file photo, Clemson's Tanner Muse reacts after sacking Wake Forest quarterback Jamie Newman during the first half of an NCAA college football game, in Clemson, S.C. Muse was selected to The Associated Press All-Atlantic Coast Conference football team, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro, File)

Brent Venables already knew what the Raiders learned about Muse. The Clemson defensive coordinator watched him become a four-year starter and two-time national champion with the Tigers by combining the athleticism and high football IQ with an unrelenting work ethic that extended far beyond the field.

“He watched more film the last two years than any other player in our organization,” Venables said. “And we had a lot of committed guys. But he just took it to a whole other level.”

The work bore out on the field. Oftentimes as a ball-hawking playmaker with an uncanny ability to come up with a huge play, but also as someone who diligently carried out his responsibility in the defensive scheme to be where he was supposed to be to make a play.

As Venables said, there is something special about a player you can count on down after down.

Clemson defensive back Tanner Muse runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indiana ...
Clemson defensive back Tanner Muse runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Sunday, March 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

“You gotta make the layups” is how he put it.

The Raiders are getting a player who can throw down the occasional tomahawk dunk — Muse had seven interceptions and scored two touchdowns at Clemson — but also make the routine plays. And his preparation provides a multileveled overview for which the appreciation for the why of things is just as deep as the how.

“An understanding of the system that was almost like a coach,” Venables said.

The transition from safety to linebacker already is underway through a virtual offseason program. With on-field instruction banned by the NFL because of the coronavirus pandemic, players are participating in virtual classes with coaches through videoconferencing technology, such as Zoom.

“I’d rather be out there on the field, no doubt about it,” Muse said. “But you have to make the most of it and put the work in.”

Clemson defensive back Tanner Muse runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indiana ...
Clemson defensive back Tanner Muse runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Sunday, March 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

While Muse played mostly safety at Clemson, its scheme gave him plenty of linebacker-type responsibilities, especially in run defense. As the “boundary” safety, and with the ball lined up on the hash approximately 70 percent of the time, Muse was the primary run defender among the third-level defenders. But his intelligence and athleticism also made him a dependable pass rusher and someone capable of defending tight ends and wide receivers in pass coverage.

“He was not just a safety, a strong safety, he played some linebacker,” Mayock said. “He came off the edge, he covered the man.”

With linebackers being called upon more to defend the pass, Muse’s background at safety is an obvious benefit. His physical gifts should translate in run defense playing closer to the line of scrimmage. And his overall understanding of the defense should help the mental challenge.

“For me, understanding what everyone was doing around me helps me though this transition,” Muse said. “So … getting the verbiage and everything down that the Raiders want me to learn hopefully is a smooth transition. It has been so far.”

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore on Twitter.

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