By Ashley Denny.
CLEMSON, SC- Coming off what was undoubtedly the best overall performance by Defensive Coordinator Kevin Steele’s defense in the ACC Championship game, Steele didn’t waste any time in getting back to work as the Tigers’ now have to prepare for their next challenge, the West Virginia Mountaineers.
“They’re very talented,” Steele said. “They’ve got two wide receivers that are very talented young men, and their quarterback is a very efficient passer. They’re going to put it in the air about 40-45 times per game and they’re going to do it a lot of different ways.”
Are the Mountaineers similar to anything Steele has seen in his career?
“Yeah it’s got some similarities,” Steele said. “Passing game wise there are only so many concepts you can have, there are other teams in this league that use the same concepts as West Virginia jus they probably use more screens. “
Senior Coty Sensabaugh has been the unsung hero of the defense this season as he’s thrived as a first year starter. Steele believes Sensabaugh has improved so much that opponents feel like they’re playing with only 10 guys on the field because Sensabaugh has taken a receiver out of the game.
“The biggest thing is that anyone who watched the Championship game would say that Coty did an outstanding job,” Steele said. “He had that one interference call which I’ll leave that at that. But having said that about Coty it’s gotten to the point where you forget he’s even out there because offenses don’t attack the side he’s on. It’s almost like saying they’ll go out there and play with 10 men and that’s kind of where Coty is right now in his game. And for a corner when they stop throwing in your direction, that’s a pretty good thing.”
On the other side of the defense is another first year starter in Bashaud Breeland who after being thrown into the fire early on in the season has grown in to being another good corner who will only continue to improve as his career goes on.
“Breeland, you’ve got to love the guy. He’s exactly what you need temperament wise defensively,” Steele said. “He will fight you all day long, probably some ways on or off the field which isn’t necessarily bad sometimes but he’s learned to not do that. He’s a very tenacious football player on the field, become a really good technique player and has that fighter spirit that takes him to another level.”
Safety Rashard Hall who has battled injuries all season long is another player that Steele has seen grown this season after a few rough outings.
“If you say that our season went really well, then had adversity and bounced back, Hall’s season did the same for him at a different point and time than the wins and losses,” Steele said. “He started off really good this season then had some really rough times and then bounced back out of it. He was struggling with three things medically and I think that messed with his mind. But he finished out strong and did a great job of being what he has been for us in the past.”
When Steele thinks of a pass first offense like West Virginia’s does he automatically think a variety of blitz packages or a nickel look?
“I think a lot of things, but I’m not going to put it on camera because they have televisions in West Virginia, but I know we can do a lot of things against it.”
Defensive end Andre Branch has been a shining star for the Tigers’ especially in Clemson’s two matchups against Virginia Tech, how close has he come to realizing his full potential?
“He’s come close, he’s not there yet but has come very close,” Steele said. “In both of the Virginia Tech games probably was when he was at his closest. He’s become more consistent and has the natural gift to become a dominant pass rusher.”
Corico Hawkins, a middle linebacker who has faced criticism this season for being undersized has shown Steele along with his teammates the meaning of being a team player.
“What a team guy,” Steele said. “I think he started 21 games in a row at nickel and regular and we made the switch where Stephone was playing a lot of nickel and actually became the starter at nickel. Then you don’t know if you’re going to start or not because of what personnel is on the field. Then that 21 game streak got broke with what someone else put on the field, Stephone got to play the first play and I think started the next three games for us. And I never heard a word. That’s the kind of player he is, a total team player. He knows the defense inside and out, he knows what he needs to work on and works on it hard and there are things he just can do naturally. He’s a very fun guy to coach.”
What has Steele seen out of West Virginia’s quarterback Geno Smith that has made him so successful?
“He gets the ball out of his hands very quickly,” Steele said. “They’re a catch and throw team, and he’s accurate, he’s got a big arm and he can throw it down the field. They don’t really run him a whole lot, he scrambles to throw. They’re not a Zone Read team but we’ll practice it because we do every week. He’s kind of like an NFL style quarterback.”
At the ACC Championship game, everything seemed to click for the Tigers’ defense. The tackling was good, only one big play was given up, and they were able to keep a running quarterback to minimal yardage. Was that the best game defensively Steele has seen the Tigers’ play in the past few years?
“I think we have a standard for excellence and I think we strive very hard to reach that every week,” Steele said. “For whatever reason we came together very well in the Championship game, and to be quite frank with you when you watch the tapes there’s only about 5 or 6 plays in any game where you say wow what happened? We just didn’t allow those plays in the Championship game, they all went our way.”