By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
Brent Venables started spring practice last year, his first at Clemson, by saying it felt more like he was teaching a Defense 101 class than coaching a college defense.
His Clemson defense ultimately passed his class last spring and graduated to the 200-level course where for the first six weeks of the 2012 season, they were failing miserably. But by the end of the year they were making A’s and B’s as the Tigers improved significantly during the course of the season, closing with a stellar performance against No. 7 LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Now, two months after Clemson’s 25-24 victory on New Year’s Eve, Venables is teaching a 300-level class to a defense that he hopes is graduated to a 500-level course by the time the 2013 season rolls around on Aug. 31.
Clemson finished 2012 third in the ACC in scoring defense, first in red-zone defense and fourth in first down defense. The improvement began when Spencer Shuey took over at middle linebacker following the win over Georgia Tech, in which he recorded seven tackles in only 24 snaps, including a safety that turned the game around in the fourth quarter.
Shuey, who led the Tigers with 93 tackles, seemingly got things going as the defense started to play with confidence and got better with each game. In the last half of the season, no team rushed for more than 134 yards on the Tigers, including LSU, who was held 80 yards under its rushing average.
“I really like this group of guys,” Venables said. “We have great chemistry and good, strong leadership with plenty of experience. I have high intelligence with this group. They are guys that can run and can hit. They like to play and they like to compete.”
Venables hopes to develop some additional depth at all three linebacker positions this spring by giving guys different looks. Shuey is spending time at MIKE and WILL this spring, while other guys like Tony Steward, Quandon Christian, T.J. Burrell and Kellen Jones will work at weak and strong side backer.
“That’s a good core of outside backers,” Venables said.
Venables says Stephone Anthony, who is up to 246 pounds, will only work at MIKE linebacker this spring.
“He is just now getting comfortable at MIKE,” the Clemson coach said. “I hate to put him in a position where in his mind he thinks he has to start over… He is the prototypical middle linebacker. He is an athletic middle linebacker and he has good athleticism as an outside guy, but not exceptional so I think that is a good position for him.”
Clemson’s better play at linebacker trickled down to better play up front as the defensive line started to get after the quarterback more and apply consistent pressure. After starting the season with only seven sacks in six games, the Tigers closed the year with 34, and finished 20th nationally in sacks.
“I like our front seven,” Venables said. “Do we have any difference makers? You saw what can happen when you have guys beating guys one-on-one and what it does to an offense. You saw that in the LSU game when they are playing behind the chains on second down because of guys beating guys on first-and-ten.
“That makes a big difference and hopefully that will develop in the spring. Will it? That remains to be seen. Do we need it? Yeah, we do. The first half of the year we did not put much pressure on the quarterback and we were not beating guys a whole lot one-on-one. We dramatically picked that up with our comfort level and who else knows why.”
Venables likes what he has coming back up front. Guys like Josh Watson, Grady Jarrett, D.J. Reader, Carlos Watkins, Tavaris Barnes and DeShawn Watson are a year older and more experienced at defensive tackle, while Corey Crawford and Vic Beasley are now the veterans at defensive end where newcomers like Martin Aiken, Shaq Lawson and Ebenezer Ogundeko should help with depth.
“Up front, you have to whip people one-on-one. That’s the bottom line,” Venables said. “I think we have good enough guys up there, and I’m hopeful that will develop.”