By William Qualkinbush.
By William Qualkinbush
Perhaps the biggest question mark facing the Clemson defense this off-season is how a secondary filled with new or inexperienced players can transform itself from a weakness to a strength. An array of talented personnel was infused into the cornerback and safety position groups in an effort to expedite the process.
Now the Tigers find themselves fighting a losing battle due to some ill-timed bumps and bruises that have forced several defensive backs off the practice field in recent days.
A triad of Tiger cornerbacks missed Saturday’s scrimmage—the first during preseason practice—due to injury. Mackensie Alexander (groin), Garry Peters (ankle), and Darius Robinson (concussion) were held out of what is normally a fairly important day of camp in terms of dictating a current pecking order.
In addition, Adrian Baker suffered a knee injury during the scrimmage, meaning Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables was sent scrambling to find able-bodies players to cover the talented Clemson receivers.
“Those guys need to practice,” Venables said matter-of-factly. “If they are not practicing, it’s hard for us to get a lot of things done, let alone improve an area that needs the most improvement based on where we were a year ago. Every day that passes is an opportunity lost.”
Make no mistake, Venables knows there is a sense of urgency with his group, particularly in the defensive backfield. He has to prepare for a top 10 opponent in Georgia that will stretch his unit’s limits, and he has to do it without some of his top talents.
“It’s not like people mean to be banged up,” Venables said. “You’ve got to deal with it and get other guys as prepared as you can.
“If they’re lining up with the ones, they’ve got to play that way. We’ve got to help them though.”
One of the ways he can help is by putting more responsibility on the shoulders of the linebackers, who he spent a while praising after Saturday’s scrimmage. The lone interception of the intrasquad competition came from Quandon Christian, a linebacker. Depth in the middle layer of the defense can allow Venables greater flexibility to help the corners and safeties learn at a different pace.
“You’re just going to have to teach off film and try to get their learning curve up to speed,” he said. “You can help them think that way. Scheme-wise, we’ll see what we can do to help them.”
Venables is hopeful some of the key players he doesn’t see in practice will appear on the field soon. Until then, he will concern himself with overseeing the improvements he can control.
There is a track record of success that has followed Venables since his days at Oklahoma. His teams have always shown gradual improvement throughout the season, and a major reason why is his ability to simplify concepts into an understandable form.
“Defense is trained reaction,” he said. “It’s a lot of development of fundamentals and doing the same things over and over. Training their eyes, their feet, their hips—all of that is a part of our job as coaches.”