Every spring delivers new faces and a fresh set of challenges for Clemson football, though the bar is higher for the defense. And while there are several familiar faces, they returned to practice this week with fresh attitudes and reshaped expectations.
In defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ words, time to rewrite – not rebuild or reload – a defense that put up some of the best numbers in the country during the 2014 season. And he needs people such as linebackers Ben Boulware and B.J. Goodson, corner Mackensie Alexander, safety Jayron Kearse, tackle D.J. Reader and ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd to grab the younger, less experienced players and show them what it took to be that good.
Boulware said he has seen remarkable progress from sophomore linebacker Dorian O’Daniel, on and off the field. Dodd said he and tackle Scott Pagano are the Yin to the other’s Yang, pushing for accountability on the field, in the weight room, the dining room and classroom.
“They understand how we do things, why we do things,” Venables said of the contributors from last year’s team. “They have a seriousness about them.
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“I think that experience has helped them going into the spring, no question,” he said. “There’s a real strong foundation.”
Nevertheless, part of the job is to nurture and grow, and Venables doesn’t have Vic Beasley or Stephone Anthony or Grady Jarrett, the three Clemson alums likely to go highest in the NFL Draft. He joked it was “depressing” to not have them at practice Monday and Wednesday.
“We’ve got a real good energy and a real good focus to us. I like how we’re working a couple of days into it,” Venables said. “There’s a lot to like. We’ve got some good, young guys coming up.
“Every year you’ve got to do that, to start over,” he said. “There’s a process. You earn your way. Just because you’re a returning player and, maybe, played really well, it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen again. You’ve got to go back to the basics, fine tune, compete.”
Boulware said he has noticed an eager bunch of first-year linebackers, one in particular who frequently smothers him with questions.
In the grand scheme, he doesn’t mind. “A lot of our guys are eager to learn, to put in the time.”
During the season, the Clemson defense seemed to be disregarded by the national pundits, despite impressive numbers. Coaches, typically, are in bunker mentality trying to figure the next move, so maybe the absence of respect didn’t reach Venables.
And maybe it did.
“I don’t know how everybody else felt,” Venables said. “We earned our right to say we were an elite unit. That was a group of guys that was as good, if not better, than anybody in the country. Against anybody, we could stand our own.
“The chip on the shoulder doesn’t come from doubters. It comes from that edge to be great,” he said, then pointed to the bowl game with Oklahoma. “We weren’t supposed to be able to stop all those high-powered Big 12 offenses. That was as good as there was in the conference. We saw how that went. We had our opportunities to match up last year and we did well.”
Last season was not an aberration. As Venables reminded, the Clemson defense frequently held its own against top caliber programs including three consecutive bowls – games in which they were underdogs.
“We’ve been on the big stages,” he said. “The last 10 years, probably, the No. 1 program in the SEC (was) LSU, and we matched up pretty dang well; same thing against Ohio State and against Oklahoma. In the big picture, we’ve had our opportunities and our guys have responded and answered the critics.”
Asked if those were worthy of notches on the bed post, he smiled. “Somewhere,” he said, “and why not?”