If there is someone on Auburn’s sideline that knows what the atmosphere at Clemson Memorial Stadium is like, it’s defensive coordinator Kevin Steele.
Steele walked the sidelines at Clemson from 2009-’11 as Dabo Swinney’s defensive coordinator. He was at Clemson in the beginning when Swinney quietly started building his program into a national powerhouse.
He was there that night in 2009 when Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder tried to take on DeAndre McDaniel after an interception and was knocked out of the game by the Clemson safety. He was Clemson’s defensive coordinator in 2011 when defending national champion Auburn came to town riding a 17-game winning streak and was beat by 14 points.
In other words, Steele has witnessed Clemson at its best.
“(Death Valley) is a typical SEC environment … Baton Rouge, Tuscaloosa, Fayetteville,” he said to reporters earlier this week. “It’s a hard place to play. It’s a very energetic, loud crowd. There’s a lot of people.”
Clemson is expecting more than 82,000 in Death Valley this Saturday when No. 13 Auburn comes to town to face the third-ranked Tigers for what is still a 7 p.m. kick.
“We have a big challenge this week,” Steele said. “We’ve got the defending national champions at their place and they’re a very talented football team.”
This will be Steele’s first visit back to Clemson since he was fired by Swinney a week after the Tigers’ embarrassing loss to West Virginia in the 2012 Orange Bowl.
“This has nothing to do with me or Coach Steele,” Swinney said. “It’s all about the guys on the field. He’s done a great job. He did a great job here for us.”
Steele has reinvented himself at Auburn where his unit ranked seventh in the country in scoring defense last year and opened the 2017 season last week by holding Georgia Southern’s triple-option offense to 78 total yards.
“I think what he’s done is a good job of maybe simplifying things a bit and getting his guys lined up and letting them play,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “You still see some of the same things as when he was here, but that was over six years ago so over time you adapt.
“Obviously he’s one of the best minds in college football on the defensive side of the ball. He’s going to study you and I think I even heard him talking about Georgia Southern. He went back six, seven years on that coordinator so he’s going to know our tendencies. He’s going to know what we do. He’s going to have his guys locked in and it’s going to come down to can we win the one-on-one matchups.”
Auburn’s defense is loaded with talent, too. The SEC Tigers are as deep on the defensive line as they have been and at linebacker they return all three starters, including senior Tre’ Williams at the weakside position.
But like Elliott said, Steele knows all about Clemson, too. He was Auburn’s defensive coordinator in last year’s game, when Clemson survived and left Jordan Hare Stadium with a hard fought, 19-13, victory. Clemson finished that game with a season-low 399 total yards. The 19-points were also a season low for the ACC’s Tigers.
But this year, Steele does not have to face Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman, Jordan Leggett and Mike Williams—all guys now playing in the NFL—but that is not making him sleep any better.
Steele watched what the Tigers did to Kent State to open the year and the efficiency in which the offense played. He was impressed with new quarterback Kelly Bryant, who completed 16 of 22 passes for 236 yards and ran for another 77 yards on seven carries.
“Obviously, their old quarterback was a first-round draft pick and one of the best to play in modern times,” he said. “But their quarterback is a very good football player and has a bright future in this game. He’s physical-looking a tall, slender, powerfully built guy who throws a good ball and runs really well.”
But it’s not just Bryant that worries Steele. He is concerned about Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud on the outside, tight end Milan Richard running down the seam, all four running backs and an offensive line which helped the Tigers run for 353 yards on just 43 carries and did not allow a sack in the opener.
“They’re very good up front on the offensive line, got a stable of running backs, they just keep feeding the system with their receivers and their quarterback is very, very talented,” Steele said.
And they play in Death Valley, which as Steele knows, is no easy place for the visitor to come in and win.
—Photo Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports