Clemson University

Clemson’s defensive play calling will be different in 2019. Here’s why

Clemson’s Brent Venables is arguably the top defensive coordinator in the country, a master at coming up with creative ways to generate pressure on an offense.

Venables’ creative juices will be put to the test this season as the Tigers search for ways to get after the quarterback.

Clemson lost all four starters on its defensive line from last year and will be young up front in 2019. The group is making progress during fall camp, but with Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Bryant now in the NFL, the Tigers’ defensive play calling will likely look different this season.

“I don’t think we can just sit there in a four-man front right out of the gate and just create pressure,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “We had the luxury of that (in 2018). We might have to do a few more things with some zone pressures and also some blitzes (this season).”

It’s not as if Venables didn’t dial up blitzes in the past, but Clemson will likely do more of that this year.

The Tigers have five defensive ends battling for two starting spots with Justin Foster, Logan Rudolph, Xavier Thomas, K.J. Henry and Justin Mascoll all expected to get plenty of playing time. Swinney said all five are pretty even at this point, although Foster, Rudolph and Thomas are ahead of the other two in experience.

“They’re all doing some things really well and they’re all doing other things not so well,” Swinney said. “Right now our strength is in numbers. .. Just too many mistakes. We’re just not complete. We need complete players. And we’re not a complete package there right now. We’ve got to get better.”

The Tigers have two established starters at defensive tackle in Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams, but they’re both inexperienced, and there isn’t much depth behind them.

“The same thing inside,” Swinney said as far as the inconsistency. “We’re not anywhere near where we need to be to be a championship caliber team up front right now.”

The good news for the Tigers is that Swinney believes he has the best back seven of his career. Clemson returns Isaiah Simmons at the nickel/Sam spot and linebackers James Skalski and Chad Smith are ready to step into starter roles.

Clemson also returns three of four starters in the secondary in A.J. Terrell, Tanner Muse and K’Von Wallace, and backup safeties Nolan Turner and Denzel Johnson have also made big plays during their careers.

“When you have to create pressure you’ve gotta be able to cover long enough to help those guys get there. So I love our guys. I’m very confident in the back,” Swinney said. “I love our safeties. I think we’ve got four ballers at safety. I love the four guys we’ve got. I really like the corner group ... when it’s all said and done, I think we’ll be fine.”

Matt Connolly is the Clemson beat writer and covers recruiting and college sports for The State newspaper and The