Dabo Swinney was not sure what to expect from Clemson’s defense in the first spring scrimmage Monday.
The last time the Clemson coach observed the group in game conditions, it allowed nine West Virginia touchdowns in the Orange Bowl. The defense he witnessed Monday had eight spring practices to learn under new defensive coordinator Brent Venables. The group replaces five starters from last season and its only veteran defensive lineman, Malliciah Goodman, missed the scrimmage to take a test.
While Swinney’s expectations for a defense facing Sammy Watkins, Andre Ellington and Tajh Boyd were tempered, the unit exceeded early expectations, showing a grasp of Venables’ base schemes.
“It was one of the better first scrimmages we’ve had,” Swinney said. “I was very encouraged by our defense. My expectation was they might be a little behind. They really held their own. They were very competitive.”
Swinney was especially pleased with the play of the linebackers.
Sophomores Stephone Anthony and Lateek Townsend have shown signs of becoming impact players for a unit that has struggled in recent seasons. The linebackers accounted for 12½ tackles for loss last season. Anthony led the linebackers with six tackles for loss playing a limited role as a true freshman.
“I thought they did a good job with drops, with their eyes; we got our hands on some balls,” Swinney said. “Stephone was excellent, Tig Willard was good … Lateek continues to make strikes. He’s going to help us big time. He’ s a guy who has shot his stock up the last two or three practices.”
The freshman who has impressed is defensive back Travis Blanks.
Blanks, regarded as the top athlete in the 2012 recruiting class, is working with the first team as a nickel cornerback.
“It’s hard to think a true freshman is just going to step and be repping with the ones,” Swinney said, “but he’s done a great job of that.”
The defense bettered the offensive line in short-yardage drills, which could also be a testament to the inexperience on the offensive line.
“We had a snap problem, missed assignments,” Swinney said. “Critical mistakes in critical situations.”
Venables was pleased with the play of defensive tackles Tavaris Barnes, DeShawn Williams, Josh Watson and Grady Jarrett, who are vying to replace departed starters Brandon Thompson and Rennie Moore.
“Those guys have showed up a lot since we’ve started practice,” Venables said. “There’s four of them there that have consistently showed up.”
While the defense exceeded Swinney’s expectations, offensive stars still produced.
Sammy Watkins caught a 50-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Morgan Roberts — who Swinney said has improved as much as any player in camp — and running back Mike Bellamy showed improved strength and toughness in short-yardage drills.
“The guys I expect to be winners and players for us were,” Swinney said.
“But I was very encouraged with first group of defense.”