Encouraging signs

CLEMSON - Fans itching to hear how the freshmen defensive backs are doing so far in practice will have to wait another week or so.

It's hard for Brent Venables to get an accurate of a read on Mackenzie Alexander and Jayron Kearse when they're running around in shorts, t-shirts and helmets. Venables offered some insight on the former four-star prospects, but he wouldn't say too much about them (or anyone else, for that matter).

"Length and athletic ability," Venables said, when asked what Kearse brings to the table. "He's got a good football IQ, ball skills. Long, very long, real long. Did I say he was long?"

Kearse is primarily working at the nickel/SAM position.

"He's over 200 pounds. Travis Blanks played there last year at 190, 188. And [Kearse is] 6-4, runs 4.5," Venables said. "With that length, it's really like he runs 4.4, really."

Alexander, who pulled his groin during practice on Friday, sat out Saturday's workout.

"A guy with a good football IQ, intelligence. He's got good instincts, ball skills, can really run. He's still learning," Venables said.

Venables added that Alexander is "probably ahead of the curve."

But, two days in, the jury is still out on the freshmen. In fact, there's still a lot of deliberating to be done.

"A lot of freshmen come in and they look really good. You don't see a freshman that looks bad right now," Venables said. "When you get to playing, get to scrimmage, get to putting the pads on, you really find out a lot more."

What exactly will Venables be looking for from the young defensive backs once the pads are added to the equation on Wednesday?

"I think that will be a big thing for the young DBs, whether or not they're physical against the likes of Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant and Charone Peake, or if they play on their heels and get shoved around.

"A lot of young players are in good position, but they don't possess that strength yet, so a good receiver can create space."

Ready and willing

The quest to improve last year's defense began in January. Venables saw that during winter conditioning and on through spring practice. So far, it appears it carried over to the summer and into preseason camp.

"Our guys are anxious to play well and perform well. They recognize where our inconsistencies have been. They've got a lot of pride. They've invested a lot. They've worked incredibly hard," Venables said.

A season ago, Clemson was 63rd in the country in total defense. Venables and Co. want to see a drastic improvement in that ranking by the end of this season.

"They've got a good understanding of where they're at and what it takes to get to where they're not, and where they want to go, being a top 10, top 15-type of defense -- where we go into each and every week and have an opportunity to win the game on our side of the ball," Venables said.

It's going to take more than two days of camp to get there, a lot more.

"That's a process. It just doesn't happen over night," Venables said.

Tony the Tiger

After suffering two ACL tears in as many years, it finally appears that Tony Steward is ready to start making some noise at Clemson. He's competing for time at WILL linebacker.

"He's had a good couple of days," Venables said. "He's ready to contribute."

To Venables, it appears that Steward is completely recovered from second surgery, not only physically, but mentally, too.

"It's what it looks like so far," Venables said. "He's running around really well -- no limitations, feels confident [and] looks that way."

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