By Will Vandervort
As the Clemson defense gets ready to head into fall camp on Friday, defensive coordinator Brent Venables expects his defense to be more mature, be improved and be more consistent.
That’s really not too much to ask from his unit as they begin year two in his system. Actually, they showed all of those things in the last six weeks of the season last year when they improved in total yards, total points and rushing yards allowed.
“Overall, I feel like we have a lot of talent and a lot of speed and strength,” linebacker Spencer Shuey said. “We have guys that play smart and fast. We are definitely excited about this season.”
In the first seven games in 2012, the Clemson defense was anything but stout. They yielded 439.9 yards, 25.9 points and 202.1 rushing yards per game. To top it off, they only had seven sacks and were not getting any pressure to the quarterback.
But that all changed when the Tigers went up to Wake Forest for a Thursday night game last October. They sacked Demon Deacons’ quarterback Tanner Price five times, held them to 51 rushing yards on 28 carries and to only 13 points. Wake finished the game with only 290 yards.
From there Clemson’s defense gained confidence and became a more consistent group. In the last six games it allowed 345.3 yards, 23.6 points and only 102 rushing yards per game. The biggest improvement—the Tigers recorded 27 sacks.
“We need to get more clarity from our secondary and how to consistently create a pass rush with four guys,” Venables said. “That is imperative to the growth of any secondary, experienced or not, you need to be able to get consistent pressure up front and that was an issue for us the first part of (last) season and we got better that way so we played better as a defense.”
Thanks to last year’s improvement over the second half of the season, and the fact Clemson has more depth than ever along the defensive line and at linebacker; there are plenty of reasons to expect the defense will continue to improve in 2013.
“Being more consistent as an overall defense definitely helped us out,” Shuey said. “It is definitely important that we carry that over into the first game. Whenever your defense is not allowing any points, obviously it makes it easier for your offense.”
There were a lot of moving and changing parts a year ago with its defensive starters as it took Clemson a good part of the season to get the front seven to play with the consistency, chemistry and with a good understanding of what they can do.
“As we gained experience with the guys up front we saw some things, that were issues, get better and substantially we got better as a group,” Venables said. “I’m excited about our leadership with our returning guys, especially in the secondary.
“We had the injuries last year to our corners—Darius Robinson, Bashaud Breeland and Martin Jenkins—those were guys who played a lot of football here and we weren’t very deep at those positions to begin with. Those guys bring a lot of leadership along with Travis Blanks and Robert Smith. I like the chemistry we have back there.”
And with an influx of freshmen—like Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse—coming in this fall, Clemson’s secondary can only get better.
“We will have to count on some of the freshmen, unfortunately, but I also think that there is enough talent there that it may not be a bad thing,” Venables said.
Again, it should help the secondary to know it has a front seven that has great leadership to go along with its talent. Defensive tackles Grady Jarrett, Josh Watson and DeShawn Williams bring a lot of experience and talent inside, while defensive ends Corey Crawford, Vic Beasley and Tavaris Barnes can provide some leadership at those two positions as well.
“We will need them to do that if we are going to make the leap we need to,” Venables said.
Venables likes the feel of his linebackers, too. He says thanks to guys like Shuey, Stephone Anthony and Quandon Christian there is a lot of chemistry there and they all like each other and work hard for each other.
“They all play to the football and they all like to work,” he said. “You can coach them all hard. We have a really good group of guys, six or seven of them that you feel good about.
“It’s quality depth, not depth in numbers. Depth isn’t numbers to me, it’s what kind of leader and player the next guy is and how he understands what you want. We have a combination of guys who can run, strike, who have instincts, who are tough and who can lead. It’s a good foundation.”