With a revamped secondary staring down preseason All-SEC quarterback Aaron Murray, talented receivers and the imposing backfield duo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, that much was obvious.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables looks at it as a measuring stick for his improving unit.
The Tigers made clear progress in Venables' first year in charge. Over Clemson's first six games, the Tigers allowed at least 27 points four times, with the nadir a 49-37 loss at Florida State. But over the final seven, that happened just twice. The year ended on a major high, with Clemson staring down a physical LSU group and walking away with a 25-24 Chick-fil-A Bowl win.
Have they made progress in being a physical, intimidating group? Yes. Saturday, we'll find out how much.
"We're more physical than what we were," Venables said. "That comes from guys being sure of themselves, most young players play in a timid way. This isn't a timid sport. You're playing on your heels or unsure of yourself, you're not going to be a physical player. The best teams are physical. The best players are physical. Whether it was Cam Newton as a quarterback, he's a physical quarterback, Tim Tebow's a physical quarterback. The great receivers like Nuk Hopkins was a physical receiver. He fought hard and outfought a lot of guys to make plays, you look in the LSU game."
To Venables, being physical is a crucial building block to overall defensive success.
"(Our) corner shouldn't be any different, that nose guard, free safety, the backer, the best players are the most physical players," he said. "We're better and still trying to get better. Some guys are naturally more physical than others, and then you develop that. Some guys have a physical mindset. They're not great players but they're physical, and it gives you a foundation. I'd much rather have a physical player than one that's a real smart, easy to coach kind of guy. The test of that is to go out and play another physical football team and see where you're at. That's getting ready to happen Saturday night."
Venables took time with reporters to update the rest of his defense entering the crucial season opener:
On senior "Sam" linebacker Quandon Christian, and what he must do to be a key defensive component:
"Make every play he's supposed to make and make plays that, when you watch, you say, ‘Whoa, what a good play!' Then do that consistently, game-in, game-out. He's been really consistent. He doesn't have to be special, but he needs to make all the plays he's supposed to make.
"That's pretty broad, but in football terms, say we send the Sam blitz and run right at them, we need to make that play 100 percent of the time, if you're an unblocked guy. Things of that nature. But like how he's matured in the system, think he's excited about the challenge, very focused. Takes his role very seriously, he's easy to coach from that standpoint. He's very engaged and very prideful, both of himself, and of what we need to accomplish defensively."
On the inexperience in the secondary and preparing for Aaron Murray:
"I think you try and get your guys good at the schemes they need to be good at, and just really refine their skills. Get them good at a few things instead of average at a lot of things. Fundamentally is where you need to be good, regardless of experience or not. You need to be good fundamentally. Whether it's alignment, assignment, technique, getting really good at those things, that's your foundation.
"Whether you're going against someone who's not very good on offense or someone that's really good, if you don't have a strong base and foundation, you're going to struggle. There's certain things you can and can't do, based on talent, ability and experience, and we feel like we have a good handle on that. Try and put our guys in a position to be successful."
On getting pressure with the front four:
"It's everything. But it's everything every week. Get pressure, get them uncomfortable, stone the run game, I know it's been well-documented, well talked about. You look at the first half of last year, we struggled doing a lot of things, but getting pressure on the quarterback was near the top of the list. Look at the South Carolina game, the LSU game. We affected the quarterback in one, didn't really in the other. You can do that with your four against their six and seven, let alone their five, it puts you in the drivers' seat, to say the least. Our guys need to play well up front. So do theirs. Who wins the line of scrimmage on both sides will win this game."
On Georgia's offensive line, which returns five starters:
"They're really good. They're a well-seasoned group of guys who can protect the passer and affect the game, and handle movement, recognize fronts, pressures, all that. They're not just turning guys loose. They're well-coached and play with good technique, have a good physical presence.
On getting veteran corners back healthy like Bashaud Breeland, Martin Jenkins and Darius Robinson, and has that stabilized the secondary:
"No doubt. To get better you've got to practice. So between last spring, parts of this fall camp, we've missed substantial amounts of time with that group overall. That's how you get better. You've got to practice. The great players have got to sharpen their skills and guys that maybe lack experience or are trying to get better fundamentally, they've got to get better."
On the front seven:
"We're a lot more experienced. I know them, they know me, I think they know the schemes. We've matured in a lot of ways since a year ago, no question about it."
On the secondary as a whole:
"I'm excited to see our guys play. We need a couple more days like they do, too, but I'm excited to see our guys play. Every season's a little different but one thing that's always the same is you grow as the season goes along. Sometimes you start stronger than other times, but you always have ebbs and flows in the course of the season. This is the first game of many and I'm excited, as all of our coaches are, to see how our players compete."
On freshman Korin Wiggins, who will be the starting nickel back Saturday:
"He doesn't get real overwhelmed. Loves to compete. He's in his comfort zone under those circumstances, he's got real good football instincts, has picked up well with what we've asked him to do, he's got a real knack for the ball. He's what I'd call a ball magnet. He's always around it, run or pass. He doesn't have a lot of experience. Because of the precision of the game, that's what you're concerned about. Some guys, you get them in practice they look good, and you get them in the scrimmage and they don't handle the stage very well. The pressure of it. With him, I haven't sensed that, yet. The precision is what's there. They know exactly how to target you. That's why we can't false-step as a linebacker crop. They'll get angles on you, whether it's a DB and leverage he has in coverage or the angle they throw it to Marshall out in the flat, they're coming top down, his pursuit angle is going to be incredibly important against good people that have played a lot."
Venables expects test in physicality
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