Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables met with the media Tuesday and touched on a number of topics ahead of the Tigers’ season opener versus Kent State on Saturday.
Here are some news and notes highlighting what we heard:
Wilkins to see time at defensive end. After playing defensive tackle as a freshman and defensive end as a sophomore, Christian Wilkins will be tasked to do both this season, according to Venables.
Clemson is talented, yet inexperienced, at defensive end behind starters Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell.
The Tigers took a hit over the summer when redshirt junior Richard Yeargin sustained a season-ending neck injury in a car accident. Both Venables and head coach Dabo Swinney have stated that redshirt freshman Xavier Kelly isn’t as far along in his development at this point as they had hoped. Logan Rudolph and Justin Foster, meanwhile, are expected to avoid redshirts and help provide depth after performing well in fall camp. However, both face learning curves as true freshmen.
So, while he still figures to see more time on the interior defensive line, Wilkins will be asked to help out on the outside.
“A guy like Christian is going to have to play a little more defensive end as well as D-tackle,” Venables said.
Venables knows the defensive end rotation will be a bit of a balancing act, at least early in the season. The young defensive ends need playing time in order to gain experience and progress into dependable backups, but at the same time, the Tigers can benefit from another steady presence like Wilkins on the edge.
“The more reps they get, the better they’ll get, and they’ll have to have some failure along the way,” Venables said. “But just trying to manage that the right way without playing Clelin and Austin Bryant every snap. They can’t survive the season doing that.”
Terrell primed to contribute at corner. Venables isn’t the type of coach that doles out praise to players that don’t deserve it. So, when he raved about freshman cornerback A.J. Terrell on Tuesday, it meant something.
Terrell impressed Venables in a variety of ways during preseason practice, and thus the former five-star prospect is primed to carve out a role at cornerback.
“A.J.’s very focused. He’s mature,” Venables said. “If you go into our meeting rooms, the back seven, we’re all meeting, and he’s going to kind of sit by himself and he’s going to burn a hole looking through you, paying attention. There’s nothing casual about A.J.
“So, he’s very coachable, smart, instinctive. He’s got a good sense of physicality, particularly for a young player. A lot of times that’s one of the last things to come, but because of his confidence and the way he’s been coached, systematically he’s been exposed to a variety of schemes and coverages, he understands his strength. He’s got a great sense of humility about him, as well.”
The Tigers have plenty of depth at cornerback behind listed starters Ryan Carter and Marcus Edmond, with players such as Trayvon Mullen, Mark Fields and Amir Trapp at their disposal.
That makes it even more impressive that Terrell has come right in as a first-year player and positioned himself to contribute.
“He’s not Deon Sanders yet, but he has a maturity about him that’s allowed him to fight through fall camp and fight through the newness of everything and position himself to where we have to play him,” Venables said. “We could win without him, but I think he makes us better because of all those things. I think the more that guy plays, the better he’ll be. He can do a lot of things. We have him playing just corner right now, getting comfortable there, but he’s been what we hoped he would be.”
Venables explains Smith’s absence on depth chart. Redshirt freshman linebacker Shaq Smith isn’t listed on the depth chart that was released on Monday for the Kent State game, and that fact raised some eyebrows.
Asked about his absence from the depth chart, Venables attributed it to the high-ankle sprain injury that forced Smith to miss significant time in fall camp.
“He missed two weeks of a three-and-a-half week camp,” Venables said. “He was doing very well, but you’ve got to earn your way back, unless you’ve already solidified yourself as a bona fide starter. If Kendall Joseph misses four days of practice and gets back healthy, he’s earned his position. Now if he comes back and he’s terrible, then you reevaluate that.”
Venables said he liked what he saw from Smith when he did practice and indicated that Smith would see the field on Saturday if healthy.
“Shaq’s coming,” Venables said. “He had a great camp, and I was really pleased with where he was and then he got a high-ankle sprain. As long as Shaq is healthy this Saturday, and we’ll see if he is…”
Sophomores have made big strides. Venables spoke about sophomore linebacker Tre Lamar and redshirt sophomore Tanner Muse, saying he is pleased with the strides they have made since last season.
Lamar will open the season as Clemson’s starting middle linebacker, a position Venables said he has grown comfortable at.
As a true freshman last season, Lamar logged 22 tackles in 102 snaps across 15 games.
“It’s a natural position for him,” Venables said. “He’s got good instincts, runs really well, and he’s had an excellent first year on campus. He got a little bit of playing experience last year, and that’s going to help him. His confidence and his comfort level, he’s on two different planets from where he was a year ago at this time, and you would expect that being a true freshman last year. But I’ve been really pleased with his progress.”
Muse, meanwhile, is set to start at strong safety after shining in that role during spring practice and again in fall camp.
Venables said he has made big gains from his redshirt freshman season, when he had 24 tackle in 106 snaps over 15 games.
“His confidence is a lot different — his preparation, just his understanding of the defense,” Venables said. “He tried to work hard at it a year ago, but sometimes it just doesn’t come right away, and for most it doesn’t. But he worked really hard in the offseason, studying tape, getting more and more familiar with the language and learning how to play fast — being able to diagnose an offensive formation or motion adjustment, just faster, so the game has kind of slowed down for him so that he can play faster.
“I think that’s a maturation with his understanding mentally of the game, and he’s worked hard physically as well to improve in areas that he needed to. His teammates have a lot of respect for him, and so it’s really all of those things.”
Venables said it’s players like Muse — who love the game, work hard at their craft and take pride in doing their job — that are integral to a team’s success.
“He’s very passionate about the game and his role, and he really cares,’ Venables said. “As a result, he lets you coach him hard and he takes responsibility when things aren’t right and he goes to work trying to correct mistakes and what have you. So, when you have accountability in your program and you’ve got players that really care about what you think, what their teammates think and about their role, you’ll have success, and that’s a guy that’s living proof of that.”