If he could be a defensive coach in college football back in the 1990s, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables would take it in a heartbeat.
It was a much simpler time compared to today’s game in which every offense goes no huddle, spreads the defense out and then runs the quarterback power into the A-gap. Wide receivers are going in motion right at the snap of the ball, and the quarterback is running the zone-read option.
There is so much for a defensive player to watch, which will be the case on Saturday when No. 2 Clemson travels to the Plains to take on the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Both Clemson and Auburn run the same power-spread offense Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn introduced to the college game six years ago.
“Nothing about defending offenses today is easy. I think it is tougher now than ever,” Venables said. “Again, back in the early ‘90s, it was earth shattering if they took the H-back and motioned from an I-back to a near or from a near to a far, and ‘What are you going to do if they motion him out of the backfield?’ so things have evolved substantially since then.”
With Malzahn it evolved with a 6-foot-5, 240-pound quarterback named Cam Newton who won the Heisman Trophy in 2010 while leading Auburn to a national championship. Newton was a game-changer.
Six years later, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (6-3, 218) isn’t even close to being Cam Newton’s size, but the Heisman Finalist runs the same offense with even more efficiency than Newton did.
Auburn doesn’t have a Newton prototype either running its offense, though backup quarterback Jeremy Johnson (6-5, 234) does look the part. Instead, a 6-foot, 200-pound guy by the name of Sean White will be leading Auburn on Saturday, and that is why defending Malzahn’s offense is so challenging.
It doesn’t matter what kind of athlete the quarterback is, if he knows the offense and he understands its basic principles then the offense is going to move the changes and it is going to gain a lot of yards and score a lot of points.
However, having a Deshaun Watson or Cam Newton running it makes it even better.
“As much as anything, structurally and scheme wise, they are tough and have been very successful through the years,” Venables said. “Coach Malzahn has had as much success as anybody in both the high school and the collegiate level with that system.
“I think, also, they have good players and that’s what makes it tough. Just like Barry Switzer back in the day. The triple option at Oklahoma was different then Jim Walden and Iowa State because of the Cat Daddies they had at Oklahoma.”
Last year, Auburn averaged nearly 200 yards a game on the ground, despite having inconsistent play at the quarterback position. Why?
“Again, there are option principles in their running game for sure and they do require a great deal of discipline, but what offense doesn’t,” Venables said. “They are running a split flow with a jet-motion. ‘Who has the jet and how are you going to play the gaps?’
“Auburn has excellent players and they’re young, but we are young at defensive end. They are a little bit young at receiver, but they are all highly recruited and highly skilled players. Every week presents different challenges and this one has both a mental and a physical challenge to it.”
If only Venables could be the 1990s, again.