CLEMSON, SC — As hopeful as he was confident, the man with the stone-faced expressions along the Clemson sideline has a few buzz words for football season.
Consistency. Confidence. Leadership. And, well, consistency again, just because he hammered it home so often.
How will Brent Venables’ defense fare for an encore? It all comes back to those prime factors.
Clemson will win ball games this year on its high-octane offense alone, but it’s clear the Tigers must continue to improve on last year’s 64th-ranked defense, which made some strides in Venables’ first year coming in from Oklahoma.
“Nobody has to be Superman. Just ... play like a Division I player plays,” Venables said in his season-opening remarks to reporters July 16 at The Reserve at Lake Keowee. “Compete like a Division I player competes. Prepare like a Division I player prepares. Invest in your position and in your career. Off the field, show some maturity.
“And: consistency. Do the little things the right way, and do it that way every snap.”
The Tigers took away their share of turnovers last fall, but opponents enjoyed 69 gains of 20 yards or more — 16 of which went for a touchdown.
“When you’re giving up 70-yard post routes and 50-yard bombs, letting guys get behind you,” Venables said, “everything else can be perfect, and one guy can screw it all up.”
Only 13 teams in the country were gashed for more big plays, and three of those teams had more than seven victories. Each was a nine-win squad from a mid-major conference.
That won’t do for the Tigers to come through on potential title aspirations at any level.
“You don’t have to be Deion Sanders. Be competitive, be tough, tackle guys, and do it on a consistent level,” Venables said, hissing that 10-letter ‘C’ word again.
“If you do, you’re not having to plug all these leaks that happen ... We shouldn’t have to hide anybody. Shouldn’t work that way. It’s unacceptable.”
Clemson shaved down the big-play propensity in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, allowing two 20-plus yard gains to LSU. Sacking quarterback Zach Mettenberger six times helped.
“My biggest thing is, can we develop a consistent pass rush? What you saw in the LSU game wasn’t any act of trickery or all of a sudden guys just getting it,” Venables said. “Our four consistently beat their seven and sometimes eight. When you do that, you look like a bunch of world-beaters up front. In reality, when you’ve got guys up front whipping people, that’s the formula for good defense, providing that kind of pressure up front.”
Venables enjoys having three defensive tackles (Grady Jarrett, Josh Watson and DeShawn Williams) and three defensive ends (Corey Crawford, Vic Beasley and Tavaris Barnes) returning who have been in the trenches for big games.
“You don’t have to get eight or nine sacks a game,” the coordinator said, “but a consistent threat there along with improvement in our secondary and consistency at linebacker will be the real keys.”
On the back end, Martin Jenkins missed the 2012 season recovering from hernia surgery, while Bashaud Breeland and Darius Robinson were injured the second half of the year.
“I hope they beat out all those freshmen,” Venables said. “In a perfect world, I take experience over talent any day. Across the board. Any day. You get your defenses with three-year starters, they’ll beat those Johnny Five Star One-Year Guys first year out of high school every single time.”
Provided the veterans bounce back, they’ll bolster a secondary that appears will need to throw rookies from an eight-man pool into the fray earlier than Venables would prefer.
“We’re going to have to count on some of those guys, unfortunately,” Venables said. “But I think there’s enough talent there that, that may not be a bad thing.”