SUNSET, S.C.—While many around the nation are pinning the hopes of Clemson returning to the College Football Playoff for a third straight year on a Tiger defense that returns seven starters and 27 lettermen off a squad that finished last season ranked eighth in total defense and 10th in scoring defense, there is one person that is not quite ready to say that the defense has arrived—defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
The reason that Venables is not buying what the pundits are selling is because, like all teams in college football, he understands that his defense, while talented, still has some questions.
“There’s a whole lot of ifs—a whole lot of ifs, for everybody in college football,” Venables said. “It’s exciting, it’s very exciting to know the potential and all those things, but ultimately the players gotta put the work in. They’ve got to be coachable. They gotta bring a toughness. They gotta bring the desperation. They’ve gotta be the ones that are willing to listen when we say, last year—that was last year’s defense. That was last year’s team.
“If our offense shows up and they expect a drop-off, then that’s probably what they’re going to get. If walk out there and think we’re cock of the walk and we’re not watching as much tape and we’re not allowing coaches to coach us hard and we’re rolling our eyes and giving it a ‘whatever’ or we’re just jogging, because it’s just or we’re getting whooped in the PAW drill because we don’t care—we’re going to get humbled.”
One of the questions asked of Venables’ defense, is how will they be able to handle the attrition and injuries that have occurred since the Tigers hoisted the National Championship trophy in the early morning hours of Jan. 10?
Since that time, the Tigers have lost defensive tackle Scott Pagano—who transferred to Oregon, LaSamuel Davis—who transferred to South Carolina State and Richard Yeargin—who suffered a potentially season-ending neck injury in a car crash.
For Venables, the loss of Davis was not nearly as devastating as the loss of Yeargin, because Yeargin had been a contributor.
“I don’t know about LaSamuel, he hadn’t done anything—hadn’t done anything. But Richard had actually been in games and earned the No. 2 spot, so absolutely,” Venables said. “The next guy was the next guy for a reason. Now if we came out with the depth chart and said, ‘We’ve got 2A and 2B. It’s either or.” Which we’ve done, we’ve said, ‘OK, there’s three guys that are the second-team guy.’ We didn’t’ do that, right. I know we didn’t, because that’s not how I think. The third-team guy was the third-team guy for a reason. Can he be quality enough or does Christian Wilkins have to play both? I told the guys that you have to decide that. Do I need to reinvent the defense and be a 3-4?”
The third member of the trio of defensive linemen that will be unavailable for the Tigers this season came as a shock to Venables and hurt the Tigers, probably, more than any of the other losses.
Pagano leaving really hurt. For one, he was hurt four games and he’s a starter for us,” Venables said. “He’s a great leader, he’s a captain, he’s a tough guy, he was ultra-consistent—losing him really hurt. He might have finished the spring No.1. He would have probably ran out there with the first group in the spring—that was debatable. It’s either Austin Bryant or is it Scott Pagano. What’s your foursome? That’s literally what we were going through. Losing him probably hurt as much as anything.
“So, again, my issues are losing Yeargin, losing Pagano—that made no sense to me, but I wish him well. Because I know the players around him helped him. I know the scheme helped him, and I know that he had solidified himself—you don’t just pack up, just like I knew when left Oklahoma and showed up here—your credibility, and your success, and your leadership and your trust, you don’t just pack that stuff up in a nice, tidy bag and bring that with you. You have start over.”
The reason that the loss of proven guys like Pagano and Yeargin hurt so much is simple—the defense line cannot play 75 or 80 snaps a game.
Last season saw the Tigers defend more possessions that any other team in college football—208–even though they led the nation in third down defense. The reasons for the incredibly high number of possessions for opponents could be numerous, but for Venables all it stresses is the importance of having quality depth on the defensive side of the ball.
“So why is that? Well, the offense scored a lot and sometimes they went really fast and had to punt. For whatever reason, 208 possessions that we had to defend,” Venables said. “Now, we helped ourselves—we got off the field quickly a year ago—that doesn’t mean we will now. So, those are the things that I’m very aware of. Those are the stats underneath the stats that helps you. Quality depth helps you. Next guy goes in there and he plays like a third-team guy—that doesn’t help you. The other guys resting, well he’s resting and watching the other team go down the field and score or lose field possession.
“I don’t know what the offense will be, but it doesn’t matter to me. Deshaun Watson didn’t make any tackles for us. He didn’t blitz the A-gap. He didn’t cover anybody man-to-man. So, what they lost in all that, it doesn’t matter to me. I’m very confident in our coaches and our players. We’ve got a lot of guys that are capable of playing really, really well. We’ve gotta control us.”
While the defense is full of talented players, many of them are unproven. And for Venables and the rest of the Tigers’ defensive coaching staff, it doesn’t matter how many stars a player had beside their name coming out of high school, how highly they were ranked—it is there job to find the best players, who want to put in the work and then let them go play.
“You don’t want to be coached hard, if you don’t think you’re supposed to know the playbook like everybody else, if you don’t want to stay awake in the meeting, if you don’t want to hustle to cover the ball, if you don’t want to show up on time—you’re going to be in the back of that line. Period,” Venables said. “So again, it’s what you do, it’s what you earn, there’s a lot of unknowns. We have issues like everybody, ours maybe more minimal than others—I could care less what other people’s issues are. I know what ours are. I’m trying to plan accordingly and not just, ‘Ah well, we got what we got.’
“That was our message to our defense. Ultimately ya’ll decide, but I’m not going to be handcuffed. I got change the scheme, I gotta change a group of players—you’re not just going to be the next guy, because you’re the next guy on the depth chart. You’re going to earn your way, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Hopefully, that’s what they expect. Hopefully, they don’t have their lip stuck out. Hopefully, they want to prove everybody else wrong, or for some people want to prove them right—like Austin Bryant or Clelin Ferrell or whoever is a first-round pick.”
Whether the players like it or not, the straight-shooting Venables is not going to pull and punches when it comes to his players performance and whether or not they deserve the accolades that they are receiving—especially before a game has been played.
“I just call it like it is. Austin Bryant has not been able to sustain staying on the field and all of the sudden he’s an All-American? Is he capable? Sure, he is,” Venables said. “I’m a big believer, I’m a big fan. I like him. Now, go big a war daddy, because he hasn’t done that yet. To me, the war daddy—he sustains it. You got a whole season, a whole two years or whatever your career it’s been. It’s a fun thing to do and I get it, but I don’t live in that world. I don’t have my head in the sand, so I know what’s out there—most of the time. My job is to make sure that both the mature and the immature players that we’re in charge of keep their minds on the right thing.”
In a world where athletes expect to be given everything and have all of their opportunities handed to them on a silver plate, Venables comes from a different world. One in which players put in the work and are then rewarded for a doing their job better than the next guy.
“’Now there’s an opportunity!’ No, you make those opportunities,” Venables said. “Christian Wilkins wasn’t handed anything. He came in and he earned it. Same thing with Dexter Lawrence—he just came in and he earned it. We grade everything. We grade every play in practice—all of it matters. How you answer questions in the meeting. What you do in inside drill. What you do in the team periods. What you do in the one-on-ones—it all matters. So, you’re in control—nobody else
“Are you going to live in that film room and know what you’re looking at. ‘Hey, I watched film today coach!’ OK, who’d you watch? What schemes did you watch? Did you watch a cutup, did you watch a game—what were you looking at? Did you watch the teach tapes that we put together for you? Did you get in and walk through the bags and go through your list of movements and twists and all those types of things? Did you play fast? There’s a lot that’s out there.
“Did you get stronger in the weight room, because you’re getting pushed around in the secondary? You’re in a great position, but you can’t make the competitive play because that mature receiver has ragged on you to make a play on the ball—but you haven’t been a great finisher and that’s why you haven’t been a starter your whole career. You consistently lose leverage. Those are the things that we know as coaches, and now we know that if we can correct those things and improve those things then we’ll have a chance to be good.”
If there is one thing that the Tigers need not worry about it is whether or not their defensive coordinator is going to do everything in his power to ensure their success, because that is what he has done every day for the last 15 years.
“Do I down play (the preseason talk)—you’re dang right, because I know what we need to do today to get the results that we all want to have,” Venables said. “I’ve got to bring my A game every day, and I did that 10 years ago, 15 years ago, yesterday and today. And that’s what you’ve got to do. You’re creatures of habit—either good or bad. If you’re an inconsistent guy, you’re probably not going to play much.”