By Ed McGranahan.
By Ed McGranahan
Given Clemson’s football pedigree, there’s an irony to the fixation on spreading the field and flinging the ball like pizza crust.
During the Great Decade under Danny Ford, the personality of Clemson’s teams was chiseled by stout almost smothering defenses. Most of the best players were from the black and blue and green side because Ford was a card-carrying member of the Defense First union and recruited in kind.
It worked well enough, though some of those games might have gone a bit easier if he had been willing to open the sails. If Clemson reached a bowl game, Ford tended to loosen the reins on his offenses.
Most coaches, even a former receiver like Dabo Swinney, preach the notion that “defense wins championships,” and it’s become an accepted postulate though statistically inaccurate according to Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim, authors of Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won. They examined more than 10,000 NFL games through 2012 and determined there was no statistical evidence that defense weighs heavier.
“We found that when it comes to winning a title, or winning in sports in general for that matter, offense and defense carry nearly identical weight,” they wrote in a blog for Freakonomics published in January 2012.
It’s mighty nice to have both, so after a 3-0 start and No. 3 national ranking entering Saturday’s game with Wake Forest, a few Clemson players implied it was about time the defense was able to step away from the offense’s shadow.
A bi-product of the win last week at N.C. State was Vic Beasley being named National Defensive Player of the Week by the Maxwell Club of Philadelphia and ACC Co-Defensive Lineman of the Week, Stephone Anthony named ACC Linebacker of the Week and linebacker Spencer Shuey the Lott Impact player of the week as the nation’s top defensive player.
Nary a nod to the offense after more than 400 yards, not even the marquee quarterback who passed for three touchdowns. “It’s the best defense I’ve seen since I have been here,” said Tajh Boyd.
Most probably don’t fully savor defense, accepting that it’s necessary like broccoli or kale. Even defensive players, when they are honest, admit to preferring the ball in their hands.
“I think fans definitely enjoy points and seeing those touchdowns,” Shuey said.
“Definitely great for Clemson to get some of that recognition on the defensive side of the ball,” he said. “We’ve gotten it on offense the
last couple of years, so it’s nice to see people starting to realize what we’re trying to do on defense.”
For many of them, defense seems to be a calling.
Shuey was a pretty fair running back in high school, as was linebacker Quandon Christian. Safety Robert Smith generated 11,318 yards as a high school quarterback and safety Bashaud Breeland was calling plays at quarterback as a junior.
D.J. Reader, a 330-pound tackle who can turn on a fastball, was a member of the Clemson baseball team this year. Freshman defensive end Shaq Lawson wanted to play in the NBA until he realized not many NCAA D-II colleges were offering scholarships for 6-foot-4, 260-pound post players.
Beasley, a high school quarterback, needed time to be convinced after trying tight end and linebacker at Clemson that he might be best suited as a pass rusher. If given the chance Beasley might be a productive running back, Swinney said.
“We have to take pride in our job and what we do,” said Shuey. “Don’t get me wrong, I love that our offense can put up those points and can be that exciting to watch. We kind of take if a little personally, that the recognition dwindled away from us. We have tried to earn some of that back.”
Most of the offensive school records that translate generations – yards per game, per play – were set over the last 15 years, but the need for balance remains a constant. “We can’t rely on our offense to put up 50 points every game,” Shuey said. “Sometimes we have to go out and make those stops to get the team running.”
The numbers through three games aren’t sexy so this defense doesn’t carry itself with the swagger of – for example – Alabama at its best or even South Carolina. Clemson this week ranked 44th in scoring defense and 67th in total defense, but Beasley is second nationally in sacks, which might suggest he’s ascending to marquee status. What most people don’t realize, Swinney said, was how complete a player Beasley has become nor his impact on the Clemson run defense.
Asked which of the he considered the nastiest, Shuey named tackle Grady Jarrett. Only humility kept him from mentioning himself, but that’s how this blue collar group rolls.
“You don’t see people out there dancing around in between snaps,” said Shuey. “It’s just more of a focus that’s everyone’s had.
“I think everyone has been able to grasp onto that. Focus and trust have been the main things that helped us to improve. “You definitely realize the importance of each play and try to get the most out of each play.”
Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables frequently mentions the overall intelligence of this group. Star Wars offenses with spread options and crisscrossing motions require split second decisions, though the bottom line, Shuey said, “is to kind of react and play fast and be physical.”
Swinney sees the development of the defense as a culmination of several factors including the depth of talent across the board and their ability to assimilate Venables’ scheme. Having struck an intelligent balance, the defense has begun to complement the offense.
“We are much better after three games than we were last year after three games,” he said. “Our guys are hungry.”