By Ashley Denny.
CLEMSON, SC-After an impressive performance on Saturday by his defense, as they held the reigning ACC Champion Virginia Tech to only three points, Defensive Coordinator Kevin Steele spoke to members of the media about where he feels his defense is at this point, how coaching a 5-0 football team at this point is different from coaching last year’s team, and where freshman linebacker Stephone Anthony stands in the issue of earning more playing time.
Anthony played 29 snaps against the Hokies on Saturday at middle linebacker, acting as the quarterback of Steele’s defense, and Steele couldn’t be more proud of him and the way he played in crunch time.
“Stephone is in the nickel, dime and regular packages, and in his rotation he’s continued to get better,” Steele said. “Athletically he’s so fast, a good tackler, he has a lot of speed, is a smart guy. He had some very good plays on Saturday, made some good open field tackles; matched coverages well, and quarterbacked the defense. He had a couple of plays where he didn’t sort some things right, but he’ll improve on that.”
Steele, like Swinney has always talked about his players buying into his system, has something changed this season that has lead to the Tigers undefeated season thus far?
“We’ve always had that, for 2 and ½ years these guys have bought into what we’re trying to do,” Steele said. “The biggest difference is that these guys are a little younger so it’s been more tedious, they’ve always bought in though, have been receptive, studying hard.”
One of the things Clemson fans will remember from Saturday’s thrashing of Virginia Tech, is Defensive end Andre Branch and his almost superhuman performance in the second half, where he totaled up 3 sacks and several tackles for loss.
“He’s got good technique and good speed rush,” Steele said. “I think those two guys inside, #98 and #94; leave Andre out on the edge by himself. He’s got a lot of quickness and I think that the game changed when it was 17-3. They changed how they were calling the game and what they were trying to accomplish. It wasn’t like Andre wasn’t playing good the first half, he was just singled up in the second half on an open side speed rush.”
Another player that Steele singled out was linebacker Tig Willard and his outstanding play so far this season.
“Last year Tig was injured and I feel like he would’ve played this way last year had he been healthy,” Steele said. “He understands the defense, is a good tackler, he’s instinctive and does his job but that was last year too. He just had one arm last year, and he still plays with that big ol’ brace but the injury is gone now, that is a protective thing.”
When Clemson lost to Boston College in Chestnut Hill last season, it was running back Montel Harris that put on a show for the Golden Eagles.
“He had 36 carries last year for 143 yards, particularly the first half he was relentless.” Steele said. “This season, he’s had 36 carries total, but he’s starting to hit his stride and we don’t want him to do that on Saturday. He’s got good vision, he’s relentless, and just a tough guy all around.”
One thing that Clemson fans may not know about Steele and his relationship with new defensive ends coach Marion Hobby is that Steele coached Hobby when Marion played for Tennessee.
“We know each other personally, I was on the defensive staff when he played at Tennessee,” Steele said. “I feel like just knowing the guy so well and he’s been a coordinator, in the NFL, when we start making adjustments and talking about things we want to do, he’s very adaptable to it.”
Steele feels like last weekend’s defeat over Virginia Tech was the most effective his defense played this season but there is still a lot of work to do.
“We’ve still got guys that are trying to do too much and not play gap responsibility every snap,” Steele said. “It was minimal last weekend but we still have that. We did some things in coverage where we matched up well, but we still have a couple of things that we have to make sure we’re on the same page. Statistically the number one stat is that we need to keep them out of the end zone, which we did this weekend.”
Freshman linebacker Lateek Townsend saw the field for the first time against Virginia Tech after Clemson’s coaching staff decided to lift his redshirt, how was the decision made?
“Well as you know I was on the other side but I don’t make the final decision,” Steele said. “when you’re trying to get people ready to play down the road, in this system it’s better to be exposed to game planning every week and prepare like you’re going to get to play regardless of how many snaps you get. When you get them from the other side it may take them a year to get in sync. Just his speed and tackling ability which was a factor special team wise. Danny (Pearman) and Marion (Hobby) believed we needed a linebacker type guy with speed and good tackling skills on special teams, and there are some things we can do with him on defense.”