CLEMSON - The biggest question for Kevin Steele between now and September will be if he's figured a way to stop Georgia Tech on third down.
As the Clemson defensive staff combed through last season, they found a lot that pleased them in their first season in Steele's system but enough to scrutinize heading to spring practice.
Four areas that will be addressed are:
THIRD-DOWN EFFICIENCY: Opposing teams converted 39 percent of third-down plays, seventh in the ACC.
"You can't be championship form at 39 percent," Steele said Tuesday. "That's got to get better."
SCRAMBLING QUARTERBACKS: Opposing quarterbacks rushed for 700 yards against Clemson, including 200 in two games by Georgia Tech's Josh Nesbitt.
"We've got to clean up our rush lanes, which got discombobulated at times," Steele said. "Some of that occurred when the offensive lines were better."
RECOVERING FUMBLES: Opponents fumbled 29 times, Clemson recovered 11.
"We did a really good job of creating interceptions (21), and we did a pretty good job of creating sacks (36), but we did not do a very good job of creating fumbles or getting them, either one," Steele said.
YARDS PER CARRY: Clemson allowed 3.5 per rush (tied for third in the ACC), inflated by Georgia Tech's 323 yards in the championship game. The goal is 3.3.
The expectations will be higher the second time around with experience, but the primary objective is to find replacements for both starting cornerbacks, two linebackers and an end.
"We do have some understanding what guys do well, and what we need to improve on. And then we've got some guys we don't have a whole lot understanding what they do yet, some younger guys," Steele said. "We've told them that things have been ratcheted up.
"This is a journey, not a destination, and if they think they've arrived then - guess what - we've changed the destination."
The strength of the defense will emanate from the front where there are nine experienced players, including five at tackle anchored by senior Jarvis Jenkins and junior Brandon Thompson. Tyler Shatley and early enrollee Josh Watson will compete for playing time.
Three productive players return in Da'Quan Bowers, Malliciah Goodman and Andre Branch. Bowers has shed some weight to ease the stress on his knees. Kourtnei Brown comes back from a redshirt year and has added about 15 pounds to his frame, and coach Chris Rumph said there is not a better athlete in the bunch.
Middle linebacker Brandon Maye was third in tackles and played 756 snaps, but after him it gets thin quickly. Corico Hawkins played 119 snaps and Scotty Cooper 110.
Jonathan Willard, Quandon Christian, Spence Shuey and Josh Henderson will get a look. Justin Parker, one of the recruiting prizes, can't get to camp soon enough.
"Freshmen could have to play, but that's OK," Steele said.
Senior Marcus Gilchrist might be the key component in replacing Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler, who started more than 40 games each. Gilchrist, a backup corner for two seasons, started every game at safety last season.
There is more potential depth there than at corner, where Byron Maxwell, Coty Sensabaugh and Xavier Brewer played in crucial situations last season.
Rashard Hall emerged as a playmaker at safety as a freshman. Jonathan Meeks, Spencer Adams and Carlton Meeks should find opportunities for playing time. And senior quarterback Michael Wade will work on defense during the spring.