By Ed McGranahan.
Changing defensive coordinators was more fundamental to Dabo Swinney’s vision for Clemson’s football future than one miserable albeit gallingly historic bowl game, or the confounding inability to cut the legs from under agile quarterbacks like C.J. Brown.
It was a bad marriage. Bad may seem strong, but these two were never going to be compatible. When Swinney went looking for his first defensive coordinator, Steele seemed to be ideal. His pedigree was impeccable, his resume intriguing and his reputation as an independent taskmaster perfect for a young head coach. Swinney said he wanted “a bad mamma jamma,” and he got one.
It was a mistake, much like thinking how great Angelina Jolie would look on your arm, then waking up one morning and realizing she’d gone off to Africa to adopt another kid without consulting you. Try telling her “no” She has more body art than the entire Clemson secondary.
Steele suffers fools lightly and doesn’t tolerate interference. Swinney tends to have his hands on everything, though he insists he’s improving through trial and error. Imagine the glare the first time he offered Steele a tactical “suggestion.” Not a lot of warm and fuzzy like the exchange at halftime of the championship in “Remember the Titans” when Will Patton asked Denzel Washington for help. Steele broke a hand at halftime two years ago.
Chances are Swinney reached a crossroad with Steele during the season, and was agonizing over which way to turn. The Orange Bowl made the decision easy.
In Brent Venables, he found someone with whom he was more compatible. Steele likes to run – a lot and alone. Venables and Swinney sweat off their stress in afternoon basketball games together. Yet Swinney could be talking about Steele when he describes Venables as, “a ball of intensity, bull in a china shop mentality; gotta say “whoa” instead of “sick ‘em” kind of approach every single day.”
Swinney spoke this week of Venables’ “personality, his enthusiasm,” and says he has been “very personable with our players.” Read between the lines.
Coaches always talk about “toughness,” and they all have explanations about how to achieve it. Venables isn’t any different than Swinney or Steele or any coach at Clemson predating Frank Howard, and he wants his defense to reflect his personality, “as far as my expectations, as far as my intensity, as far as my passion, as far as my attention to detail, as far as my commitment to success and commitment to winning. No question.”
“I expect that, and that’s hard, that’s really hard,” he said. “So, yes, I want guys exactly like me.”
Key to achieving it, however, is in recruiting. Venables inherited tons of talent and promise at linebacker and in the secondary, and a staff that has Swinney’s upmost confidence. Concerns over a defensive line thin on experience but long on athleticism should abate in time. Dan Brooks’ ability to nurture and teach always impressed Steele.
Sorting out who plays at linebacker – and where – might be as difficult as any obstacle to putting a seamless unit on the field. Remember, both Steele and Venables are linebacker gurus.
Identifying the players who’ll flush their emotional ties to Steele and embrace Venables are critical. By sheer nature of seniority Malliciah Goodman, Xavier Brewer and Rashard Hall enter preseason as the de factor leaders. Venables said he’ll continue to comb the roster. He recruited a few of them for Oklahoma, and based on his exposure to them in spring practice he’s confident in the overall talent level.
“There are so many things we have to continue to get better at,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to develop depth, develop playmakers (and) identify who our playmakers are.”
Though his pedigree and resume also are top notch, there are some obvious differences in style. Since he prefers zone coverage to man, it should be interesting how well the secondary adapts if the front struggles early pressuring and containing quarterbacks. Too, Venables will be facing teams he hasn’t seen regularly with a range of schemes from Georgia Tech’s option to the ACC variations on the hybrid spreads he saw frequently in the Big 12.
There’s still some question about why this Midwesterner would uproot his family and leave one of the nation’s premier programs to come to Clemson. Swinney said Venables bought a home on Lake Keowee and has used the summer to acquaint himself and his family to the Upstate. He also has a longtime friendship with the Spurriers through Steve Jr., who served with him at Oklahoma for three years.
“It’s kind of surreal because I don’t hate them,” he said. “I recognize the importance of that game on all levels.
“I know it’s incredibly intense and means a lot to a lot of people as it should. It does to us.”
Venables said the job, the area and Swinney’s mission all fit his ambition.
“I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t expect it to be like it is,” he said. “I saw a very passionate, prideful program, state. I saw a fan base that’s very hungry for a winner.
“A strong foundation of talent, a place that you can recruit to, it’s all been reaffirmed. There’s no excuse for failure here.”