A central theme of coach-speak centers on the idea that every year is different, and the Clemson faithful hope to find truth in that adage in considering the Tigers’ defense.
Words such as “sieve” became popular in describing the Clemson defense, and teams with visions of grandeur — and the Tigers have plenty of those for the 2013 football season — cannot succeed at the highest level with a repeat of last season.
How say ye, Brent Venables?
“I’m excited” about the positives, Venables, beginning his second season in charge of the Clemson defense, said Tuesday at the Tigers’ preseason media gathering. “There’s no question that we have more depth, the coaches have a better understanding of the personnel and the players know what (coaches) expect.”
Venables, who came to Tigertown after a long and successful coaching tenure at Oklahoma, has said he taught the basics of his philosophy — “Football 101” — in his first season at Clemson and spent the spring with graduate-level instruction. He believes that will translate into a faster, more physical defense.
But boiled to the basics, he said the Tigers’ key to success is this simple: “Can we develop a consistent pass rush with four guys?”
There are reasons for optimism that the Clemson defense can complement the Tigers’ high-scoring offense. Too, there are reasons to reserve judgment until on-the-field performance provides evidence.
Although finishing 11-2, the Tigers surrendered 49 points to Florida State, 48 to N.C. State and 31 to both Boston College and Georgia Tech in games that more nearly resembled track meets than football games. Then came the can’t-get-off-the-field futility against South Carolina.
But that 11th victory, the Tigers’ 25-24 bowl victory against seventh-ranked LSU, provided cause to smile with confidence. The much-maligned Clemson defense limited the Southeastern Conference foe to 219 yards and nine first downs. Venables’ unit made six sacks, limited LSU’s time of possession to fewer than 24 minutes and forced a late three-and-out that enabled Clemson to set up the winning field goal.
“When we got the bowl matchup, I told the players, ‘Somebody’s going to get his nose bloodied because I have coached against them and that’s how LSU plays the game,’” Clemson defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks said. “They bought into that.
“If you can play like that against that caliber of competition, you can learn from it and do it against anyone. Experience doesn’t guarantee anything, but it does give you a chance. Experience breeds confidence.”
Experience — the Tigers return seven defensive starters — is dear to Venables.
“I’ll take experience over talent any day,” he said. “A three-year starter will beat Johnny Five-Star one year out of high school every time.”
With the Clemson offense racking up points faster than McDonald’s sells burgers, the Tigers’ defense does not need to be perfect. But don’t try to sell Venables on that philosophy.
“Championship defense comes down to leadership, toughness, attitude and guys continuing to develop,” he said. “It’s focusing on detail, playing physical, holding each other accountable. We played smart and disciplined against LSU; we didn’t make a play all game against South Carolina. Their four or five (offensive line) beat our four or five (defensive front).
“There has to be a special chemistry, a willingness to work and be coached. Do the little things the right way and you won’t have to plug leaks. The best teams I have been associated with have been player-driven. Developing continually is our challenge. Plant the right seeds and foster growth.”
Although not always obvious to the casual observer, Venables saw improvement over the last half of the 2012 season. Players became more familiar with his schemes and style and demands.
But real answers will not come before the Tigers open the season Aug.31 against Georgia in a battle of nationally ranked teams.
“Is there a commitment to be a great defensive unit? We’ll find out,” he said. “The formula for good defense is to whip the guys up (on the offensive) front. Playing physical is about who you are. Can we develop a consistent pass rush with four guys? I’m not talking about eight or nine sacks a game. I’m talking about pressure, and without pressure, you have nothing.”
Overall, he expects the Tigers to create that pressure, but he warns about looking too far ahead.
Venables compared the season to a ladder with 14 steps and talked about the necessity to take them one at a time. But if you lose focus, he said, “You can be at the bottom real fast. We have talent and ability, but there are a lot of intangibles. You have to earn it one day at a time, and if you do, you’ll have a chance.”