Unfinished business on and off the field led Stephone Anthony and Vic Beasley to return to Clemson for a final year, decisions that bode well for a defense whose growth culminated last season with the Orange Bowl win against Ohio State.
The attraction of rejoining a talented defense appealed to both.
“Playing with this group is very big,” said Beasley, who emerged as one of the nation’s premier pass rushers during his junior season. “I just want to make a statement to the nation and, hopefully, end on a national championship run.”
Anthony, the team’s leading tackler averaging more than 10 per game at middle linebacker, said the team establishes the gold standard for itself. “We’re going to set our own.”
It cast from Day 1 two years ago when Brent Venables joined the staff as defensive coordinator, said safety Robert Smith, chairman of the board in a young secondary. “We’re not going to cut corners.”
When Beasley settled on his decision, the front returned intact, deep and thick and athletic.
“We got a decent amount of experience,” Venables said, adding however, “As soon as you start assuming anything you get exposed.
“Guys have got to be hungry. Guys got to be disciplined, guys have got to be coachable.”
Having Anthony and Beasley rejoining Smith and tackle Grady Jarrett could be easier, but Venables takes a pragmatic approach. He has seen similar situations implode.
“I’ve had guys that came back where they felt like everybody owed them something for coming back,” he said. “They lost the edge and they underperformed big time. I’ve coached that guy before and been around that, and that can affect your program in a bad way. You’ve got to keep guys humble.”
Venables doesn’t believe it would happen because of the character and sincerity Anthony and Beasley bring to their roles as teammates and leaders.
“We’re thrilled that they’re back because, more than anything, they stand for what’s right,” he said. “They’re great football players, they love their teammates, they’re great leaders and they’re easy to coach.”
In all, seven starters return to a defense among the 25 best in the country last season, one particularly adept at rushing the passer and forcing turnovers. Clemson’s bane was a vulnerability to big plays, 17 of at least 35 yards, most as a result of a physical mistake rather than lapses in judgment.
“I don’t mean to be ugly but we’ve got a lot of work to do. Everybody has to get better,” he said. “You’ve got to be critical. You’ve got to tell them the truth.
“Then put a plan together and show them how you are going to get better.
Seven starters return plus a bunch of more in the front seven with varying degrees of experience. Replacing defensive MVP Spencer Shuey at linebacker should be Tony Steward. Replacing Quandon Christian at strongside linebacker could be any of four or five players.
Smith at safety should be critical in helping shepherd the precocious pups lining up for playing time in the secondary. Garry Peters and Martin Jenkins return at corner but Peters was suspended from the Georgia game and Jenkins is returning from an injury.
“We’ve got a good group of athletic, talented guys that have range and can run,” Venables said. Among the more intriguing of them was cornerback MacKensie Alexander, who a year ago had been expected to play until a severe groin injury required surgery.
“He’s shown some good things, he’s shown some rust, but it’s good to see him out there,” Venables said. “He’s talented. He’s not afraid to work and compete. He has the maturity in a young guy to put the bad plays behind him.”
Jarrett played most of the season with a torn labrum and still created havoc. Anthony could be the next great linebacker at Clemson. And all eyes could be on Beasley, who might have been a second-round NFL draft pick this year after finishing among the nation’s leaders in tackles for loss and sacks.
“He has a sense of humility about him that a lot of great players don’t,” Venables said. Much of last season, Beasley played at less than 240 pounds, so the goal this season is to be as close to 250 as is comfortable.
“I think, from a functional standpoint, if he’s close to 250 pounds he’s going to be a terror,” Venables said. “He has shown an ability to play at a very high level at a lighter weight. I think the added weight will only help him.”