Clemson’s defense returns eight starters this year, including what many believe to be the four best defensive linemen in college football.
In January, All-Americans Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins decided to return to Clemson for one more year instead of turning professional. Including defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, the defensive line produced 25 of Clemson’s national leading 46 sacks in 2017.
Their return to Tiger Town, plus having linebackers Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar back, as well Trayvon Mullen and Mark Fields at cornerback and K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse at safety, has everyone excited about how good the defense can be. Well, everyone except defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
“For me, I don’t ever get too excited,” he said. “I do not get too low and I don’t get overly excited. Every year, I treat them the same, whether we have everybody coming back or we have nobody coming back. I’m just a very systematic coach, disciplined in my approach in you got what you got.”
During his time at Clemson, with the exception of 2014, Venables has to deal with less than more in terms of returning starters. In 2015 he had to replace eight starters and he produced a top 10 defense. In 2016, he had to replace seven, and again the Tigers were a top 10 defense.
In 2014, when he returned five starters off a defense that finished in the top 25 the year before, the Tigers led the nation in total defense. That defense had NFL players such as Vick Beasley, Grady Jarrett, DeShawn Williams, Shaq Lawson, Stephone Anthony, Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse as well as veteran players like Robert Smith and Garry Peters.
Now this year, Clemson returns the most experienced and talented group Venables has had to date.
“I’m excited about their leadership and the experience they bring back. Who they are as people,” he said. “I know how selfless they are. I know their work ethic and what they bring to the table, having a three-year window to look at them and what they have been able to bring to the table.
“I anticipate nothing will change in those ways. Those are all great things to start with from there. They are tremendous football players. They are great leaders.”
What Venables does like about the players he has coming back is how they value the Tiger Paw they wear on their helmets every Saturday afternoon.
“They really value putting that paw on. It is important to them,” Clemson’s defensive coordinator said. “It’s not all about them. Through their whole careers it has always been about Clemson, the brand, their teammates, this university and the important of representing it the right way.
“Sometimes, and it has not happened much, but when guys decide to come back for their last year, it is all about them and what everybody owes them. I have no reservation in saying this is not going to be the case with this group of guys. This is a group of guys that have tremendous character, integrity and focus. I think, as much as anything, they have a sense of humility to them. They know they have X, Y and Z to get better at and to improve on. I think it is important to them that they do a great job as leaders and leave a great legacy here.”
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