CLEMSON — In the August haze, Brent Venables was unable to identify the potential playmakers on his first Clemson defense, and after five games there’s barely more clarity.
Arguably, games such as this one today with Georgia Tech are why Venables was hired. Georgia Tech and Florida State and South Carolina and the periodic BCS bowl game against freakish juggernauts like West Virginia — which as Clemson fans recall all too painfully has scored 70 twice in its past six games.
For a defense with one senior and no juniors, 87th nationally in total yards and 81st against the run, Clemson needs to grow up quickly, and nobody recognizes that better than Venables, a product of the Heartland of America who came to Clemson off a successful run as a defensive schemer at Oklahoma.
Stepping over the ash and plunder from the Orange Bowl, he joined a team in dire need of a defense to catch up with its offense. One month into the season, the gap seems more pronounced, to the point where no victories are too small.
Case in point, the final quarter of last week’s game at Boston College. After gashing Clemson for 350 yards the first three quarters, BC was limited to 70 in the fourth. Clemson allowed a field goal, intercepted a pass and held BC on downs in its final three possessions. Small victory, no doubt, but one on which he believes Clemson can build.
“I thought we tackled better. I thought we handled the line of scrimmage better,” Venables said. “In regards to the run game, we had more disruption up front than we’ve had. What’s indicative there is that we’re making more tackles on their side of the line of scrimmage.”
Except here comes Georgia Tech and that confounding option, coach Paul Johnson’s variation on Fisher DeBerry themes Venables saw in Air Force and Rice during his years at Oklahoma.
“They’re very disciplined, very patient. They’re in four-down territory the whole game,” he said. “They’ve got answers for what you’re doing. You’re not going to reinvent the wheel for these guys.”
Georgia Tech did not come up during his vetting in January nor would he pinpoint precisely when he initially took a look at them but the formula was quickly recognizable.
“The gist of it is this. They’re going to play possession football, and if you make mistakes they’re going to capitalize on both sides, thrive on and become incredibly tough to beat if you give them the football and additional possessions.”
Venables might have been talking about last year’s game when Clemson committed four turnovers and couldn’t recover from a 24-3 halftime deficit.
“Their whole deal is to just possess the football and grind it out, to force you into panicking and doing things that are out of your comfort zone.”
Defensively, it’s hard to put a finger on Clemson’s comfort zone, should one exist. Offensively, it’s the pass complemented by a reasonably competent run game. Venables said he doesn’t see issues of ill habit on this team and that much of the problem has been the absence of experience.
On that point he and coach Dabo Swinney are in concert yet, since Florida State, much of the discussion has been whether Clemson has the talent defensively to stay with the teams on the schedule that can make or break a great season.
“I just laugh when people insinuate that we don’t have good people on defense,” Swinney said this week. “We’ve recruited well. (I) believe in the guys we got, would recruit them all over again.
“There are a couple of them I wish were further along than they are right now,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of experience on defense.
“I’m encouraged. I’m not discouraged with our defense. “
Georgia Tech would seem to provide an ideal teaching opportunity for a defense needing a dose of discipline, though it could result in two steps back after one forward at BC.
“You make mistakes against these guys and they’ll embarrass you quickly,” Swinney said.
“The only thing that’s keeping us from being a great defense right now is mistakes, simple as that,” he said. “It’s not talent. It’s mistakes, and it’s simple mistakes. It’s just not playing smart.”
Even if they had a track record this season, Venables said playing Georgia Tech requires a reset, though the principles are the same.
“It’s still playing with discipline, not giving up big plays, tackling well, win the line of scrimmage, stay on your feet, having good eyes,” Venables said. “It’s the same message.
And it would help with a few more playmakers, he said, mentioning freshman Travis Blanks as a potential candidate.
“Guys you can say, this guy is going to make a play,” he said. “Got to develop them, need to get more out of some guys, but we need some game-changers, playmakers when you need to have a play.”