By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
CLEMSON — There is one word that continuously floats around the defensive side of the Clemson locker room these days. That word is “trust.”
How well do you trust what the coaches are teaching you? How well do you trust your teammates? How well do your teammates trust you? And how much do you trust what you know?
“You continue to build on a foundation and build from there,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said Tuesday. “Guys are starting to trust what their assignments are and what the people around them are doing.”
What ninth-ranked Clemson (7-1, 4-1 ACC) has been doing is getting better on defense. Since the second half of the Boston College game on Sept. 29, the Tigers’ defense has become more consistent at stopping the run, putting pressure on the quarterback and limiting big plays.
Clemson is coming off a 42-13 victory over Wake Forest last Thursday, one in which it held the Demon Deacons to 290 yards of total offense, including 51 yards rushing. This came following a solid performance against Virginia Tech, in which the Tigers forced four turnovers, and four three-and-outs at the start of the second half in building a 21-point lead.
“We started off a little slower than I think any of us would have wanted,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “But, they just keep improving. They are figuring it out. Because they are figuring it out and they have coached and corrected and coached and corrected, make a play and all of that, they are starting to play with more confidence.
“Because they are playing with more confidence, they play faster. They are playing much better as a unit.”
It has not been easy getting to this point for the Clemson defense. Though they are playing much better as they head into Saturday’s game at Duke (6-3, 3-2), they started the year off struggling. At one point, they allowed 49, 31 and 31 points to Florida State, Boston College and Georgia Tech, while holding no opponent to fewer than 352 yards (Furman) before last week’ outing at Wake Forest.
“We have really tried to get them to understand Football 101,” Venables said. “We wanted them to not only know what they are supposed to do, but ‘Why am I doing it?’ When you understand the ‘why,’ it gives you more assuredness in what you are doing.”
Now that players are sure of what they are doing, Clemson is starting to make more plays on defense. Against Virginia Tech, the Tigers consistently put pressure on Hokies’ quarterback Logan Thomas, while registering two sacks. Last week, the pressure continued as Clemson recorded five more sacks and had six quarterback pressures as well.
“We are starting to make plays and fly to the football,” linebacker Tig Willard said. “We trust that everyone is doing their job and we are following our assignments. When you know the other guy is doing what he is supposed to be doing, you don’t worry about anything else. You trust he is carrying out his assignment and you go make a play.”
Sometimes a team’s improvement, especially on defense can get lost in statistics. The best example of this is the Virginia Tech game. Though the Hokies amassed 406 yards, the Clemson defense played well, especially when it came to trusting the scheme.
In the fourth quarter, with Clemson clinging to a 31-17 lead, Virginia Tech took over the football at its own 25 and moved the ball to the 37 with a little more than seven minutes to play. The Hokies threw a lateral to receiver Marcus Davis on the next play, who then threw the ball back across the field to Thomas.
Virginia Tech, knowing Clemson had an injury in the secondary and had been undisciplined at times during the season, was banking on the Tigers secondary flooding to the side of the field where the lateral was thrown. But everyone stayed home. As Venables said, “They did their job.”
Safety Xavier Brewer picked off Davis’ pass to Thomas and returned it to the Virginia Tech 10, all but sealing the Tigers’ victory.
“That’s a perfect example of our guys doing what they are supposed to do, and trusting their teammates,” Venables said. “They all just stayed home and read their keys. When you do that, good things will happen.”