Josh Watson said the best thing that happened to the players on the Clemson defense since the Orange Bowl was that they all returned with clean slates. Brent Venables was otherwise occupied as West Virginia cut through the Clemson defense like a blender mixing margaritas.
So when Dabo Swinney hired him to fix what went terribly wrong last season, Venables had no preconceived notions about any of them.
“Everyone was back at square one and had to earn their spots again,” said Watson, a sophomore defensive lineman. “I just took it as my opportunity to come around and be a player for coach Swinney.”
Senior safety Rashard Hall wasn’t ready to walk away with that game hanging over his shoulder. In some respects, it was a remarkable season. Despite injuring his knee during the first game, he led the team in tackles, and then had surgery in January.
“It slowed me down a bit,” said Hall, who wore a brace last season and missed one start. “I can’t say it didn’t affect me at all, because it did.
“At the end of the day, if I didn’t think I could help my team, I wouldn’t have been out there. I did the best I could and moved on,” he said. “Even with the knee brace, I never felt like I couldn’t get out there and compete, never felt like I was hurting my team.”
To hear Venables, one would think there are barely enough serviceable defensive players to get the job done.
“The lack of experience is a little concerning so we will have to see how they play and react and fight through the elements,” he said after Tuesday’s practice. “I like the mindset. I like what I see in practice, so I’m excited to see them go out and do it now.
“The next 10 days are something we will kind of walk through and try to recognize performance and not what the potential might be. We will see who practices the best, and which ones are the most consistent.”
Hall is the best of a promising quartet at safety, and Watson, DeShaun Williams and Grady Jarrett are the most likely to see time at tackle and nose, though a couple of freshmen are pushing them.
“We’re just a bunch of coachable guys, eager to learn and get better every day,” Watson said.
“I’m glad I could finally come around and actually help the team and use that scholarship the right way.”
Despite the 217 tackles and 10 interceptions in his career, Hall doesn’t believe he’s played at his peak. Playing one final season was never a question even though he graduated a year ago.
So he came back with a clean slate.
“Obviously, I want the best for the team,” he said, “And I just want to be the best.”