For years, Clemson’s defense has been known for its outstanding defensive fronts. Dabo Swinney’s program has as many defensive ends and defensive tackles playing in the NFL as it does wide receivers, if not more.
But things are a little different at Clemson this year. While the Tigers’ young defensive line continues to mature and get better with each game, its veteran backfield, led by seniors Tanner Muse and K’Von Wallace at safety, continues to shine.
Through the first four games of the 2019 season, Clemson ranks 13th nationally and second in the ACC in passing yards allowed, yielding just 152.0 yards per game. It is seventh nationally in completion percentage defense (50.0), 17th in yards allowed per attempt (5.6), sixth in touchdown passes allowed (2), 12th in interceptions (5) and 8th in passing rating defense.
A lot of the Tigers’ success as been predicated on how defensive coordinator Brent Venables uses guys like Muse, Wallace and linebacker Isaiah Simmons. Clemson’s 3-3-5 scheme has sometimes looked like a dime defense (6 defensive backs) at times more than a nickel (5 defensive backs) based on the way Venables has used Simmons in the secondary. Other times it looks like his base 4-3 scheme based on the way he has used Muse and Wallace by moving them into the box or having them blitzing off the edge.
“I’m sure for them it is fun doing different things,” Venables said. “I think they understand the strategy part of things and they have really bought into that. They not only understand the what, but the why. So, they have done a great job of maturing within the system that way.”
Wallace says all the time they have put in the last four years, practicing, watching film and learning has just come to fruition. It’s just a matter of them maturing within the system.
“Our performance has been at the highest level,” the senior said. “I feel like, right now, we are on pace of breaking records, of just the defensive backs, when it comes to interceptions, PBUs, tackles, and just making plays as a unit.
“Like I said, we are just having fun out there. This a big leadership team just based on all the seniors we have on the backend. All the leadership is coming to fruition and you see it every Saturday night.”
The Tigers (4-0, 2-0 ACC) will need that leadership on Saturday (3:30p.m.) when it travels to North Carolina to face the Tar Heels at Keenan Stadium for the first time since 2010.
UNC (2-2, 1-0 ACC) is led by a freshman quarterback in Sam Howell, who will perhaps be the first quarterback to truly test the Clemson secondary this season. The true freshman ranks second in the ACC in touchdown passes (9), second in yards per attempt (8.8) and fourth in passing yards (1,024), yards per game (256.0) and passing efficiency (159.6).
Howell is completing 64.1 percent of his passes and he has thrown just two interceptions in his 117 attempts thus far.
“That quarterback is special,” Wallace said. “You know he is just a freshman, but he can throw that ball. Their last game he had like 300 yards. They did not play their best, but he still had a good performance.”
Venables has been impressed with Howell, too. He likes how savvy the young quarterback is and the poise that he had even when his team has been behind. In the first two weeks of the season, he led the Heels to come-from-behind wins against South Carolina and Miami. He nearly did the same against Wake Forest and App State in the last two games.
“He is very savvy, has a quick release, tough, competitive, instinctual, intelligent and plays with a lot of passion,” the Tigers’ defensive coordinator said. “He is athletic and mobile. He is a guy, we tried to get him. I know how our offensive staff felt very strongly about him.”
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