Rather than wallflowers at the seventh-grade dance, the Clemson defense has been “Foot Loose” through two practices, generally owing its self confidence to one year in Brent Venables’ scheme.
“Definitely a difference in their comfort level, my comfort level,” Venables says, “a better chemistry, a lot more fluid.”
Venables admitted to being “anxious, excited,” before practice began last week, and neither subsided heading into the first full week of practice. After two more days in shorts, Clemson puts on pads Wednesday, practices twice Friday then scrimmages Saturday at Death Valley.
“I think our guys have really good carryover,” he said. “Got a bunch of new faces but have a wealth of experience in that front seven as well and it’s shown as well as far as the tempo we’ve shown, pad level, fits, understanding.”
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Clemson lost one starter on the defensive line and one at linebacker — Malliciah Goodman and Jonathan Willard, respectively — yet returns 14 of its 15 most active tacklers.
End Corey Crawford said understanding Venables’ expectations made preparing for fall practice easier and minimized the confusion of a transition season.
Venables counts on Crawford and others to help accelerate the process for current class of freshmen who could play critical roles from the outset.
“Nobody’s been great and nobody’s been awfully bad,” Venables said the first-year players. “They’re just a bunch of guys trying to figure their way things right now, some good but some not so good.
“You’ve got a bunch of good, young athletic bodies, good ball skills, guys that can run (and) good size.”
Four weeks from the opening game, there’s a sense of urgency, and Venables hopes the experienced players can drag the rookies through the learning curve.
“Our guys are anxious to play and perform well,” he said. “They understand where our inconsistencies have been. They’ve got a lot of pride, invested a lot. They’ve worked hard.
“They’ve got a good understanding of where they’re at,” Venables said, “and where they want to go to become a top 10, top 15 defense; to where we can go into the game every week with a chance to win the game on our side of the ball. That, when we’ve got to get a stop we can count on getting it done.”
Venables needs more from guys like Crawford, a 6-foot-5, 275-pound junior who came up big against the run last season with 47 tackles, six for loss.
Crawford wants to raise the bar as a pass rusher, to deliver another big, long body like former teammate Goodman and complement the pure pass-rushing skill of Vic Beasley at the other end.
“I have one recorded sack in two years,” he said. “I need to get that up, not just for me but for my team.”
Crawford said his sack goal this season is eight, but “being a bigger factor in general” would be satisfying. “We try to get five sacks at practice. They should help us prepare for the season.”
Venables said he wasn’t looking for playmakers but players who make plays.
“I want to see how they compete 10 or 12 days from now,” Venables says, “see if they have that same sense of urgency.
“What I’ve enjoyed about this group of guys, and it was that way in the spring, is that they don’t mind hard work. They are very easy to coach, are very hungry guys and feel like they have a lot to prove.”