Defense turning the corner

CLEMSON – The statistics might not necessarily bear it out, but through three games, anyone watching knows that Clemson's defense has made real progress over 2012.

Clemson is 12th in the ACC in total defense, allowing 388 yards per game. The Tigers are ninth in scoring defense, allowing 20.7 points per game. But their effort Thursday at N.C. State – allowing 14 points and lifting the offense on an off night – gives reason for hope.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Tuesday that the defense is much further along through three games than it was a year ago, and second-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables backed up those words.

"We've made a lot of strides in a lot of areas, we've got a long way to go. But I love the attitude of the group of guys," he said. "Their willingness to fight and handle adversity well and have to compete, over and over and over. If we've been consistent about something through the first three games, it's been that.

"Their willingness to work, their willingness to invest and their willingness to compete for four quarters. We've made some improvement and we've got a lot of things to continue to get better. We've found a way to get to 3-0, and on to the next one."

Venables has talked repeatedly about building his defense from the front seven out, which is where Clemson has made the most progress.

The Tigers have 12 sacks on the season, third in the ACC; junior defensive end Vic Beasley has five sacks, half a sack off the national lead. "You're a lot further along in a lot of different areas," he said. "Everything we've been talking about all along in what it takes to start inside-out with your defense, run defense and so forth, where I feel like our guys are a lot further along."

Are there issues? Sure.

"We've got a lot of areas we need to get better at. But everybody does," he said. "You watch college football, watch the NFL, everybody's got problems. We're not unique to that. You have things you dislike, the same issues, it might be. If those continue to pop up, you have to learn from mistakes."

That said, plenty of time remains for improvement.

"It's a long season," Venables said. "It's always been an evolution in terms of continuing to improve and get better, and guys getting better with their chemistry, understanding of their responsibility of the run and pass, precision, from an execution standpoint, that you need to get better and massage as the year goes along.

"This is still a group of guys, however you look at it, you take seven new starters from a year ago, a group that's still trying to find itself. But you really like the way you've been challenged the first few games and for the most part we've answered the bell when it counts the most. It's a young season. Our guys have got a great attitude and it's an intelligent group of guys."

More from Venables' meeting with reporters:
On the learning curve for first-year starters Travis Blanks and Robert Smith at safety: "Safety's a lot more difficult to learn. It's linebacker with even higher stress because you're the last line of defense. Corner is a lot easier to play from a learning curve standpoint, harder to play from a physical standpoint, because of the unique skill set it takes. Not that the safety doesn't have some of the same qualities but there's much more to learn in both the run and pass for the safeties."

On reserves earning his trust in practice: "You like to think you can (know.) When they show just enough and give you confidence. A guy's not going to look like a blind dog in a meat market on game day and show up and be Superman on Saturday. The other way, I use(Ben) Boulware as an example. He shows instincts, physicalness, toughness, focus, he's intense. If we were backed in a corner, he had to play, he'll be ready for it. He'll come along rather quickly.

"Some other guys maybe don't show those same qualities in practice, whether it's mental errors, lack of focus, intensity, bad body language. Then some guys are right there in between. Maybe not all the bad, not all the good. You become a good judge, your experience through the years gives you it. Then you've got third-team guys who you never saw anything, and you have two injuries, he had to go out there and you're panic-stricken, and he's pretty good. Not great, but really pretty good. That's not the norm."

On allowing ‘chunk' plays: "They had a few big plays the other night. You don't want to give up any big plays. It's always an issue, always a goal of defense not to give up big plays. It's points, momentum, field position, it's everything. You continue to look at the mistakes you made a week ago, look at the issues. People are going to emulate success other teams had against you. We're continually trying to put those things in front of our guys and improve our technique and all the things that involve defending big plays, certain ones in particular.

"The discouraging thing about a couple of those jet sweeps is that it's so simple. It's not a trick play. And leveraging the football is paramount to run defense. We've got to do a much better job of our guys executing those two plays in particular. And I believe that we will."

More on stopping the jet sweep: "Use a safety, linebacker, defensive end, whoever's responsible based on your calls has to be there sooner rather than later. To the field side that stepped out of bounds, our leverage play is just late. If you're going to leverage you've got to leverage from outside-in, rather than inside-out, because it just stresses your defense.

"We're just late. Because you're late, you're running back inside out and your defense gets cut, defense inside, that play was a dumb football play. Then people that are inside-out, got their eyes in the wrong place, my blocker is blocking him, and I'm staring at something else, I don't quite see him, I'm late, and I have to get there, I'm just this far away. It all adds up. Shows a total lack of discipline and aggressiveness on that play. Guys not having that sense of urgency and discipline on that one play."

On the improved play at cornerback: "We've tackled better and guys just aren't running free. We're far from perfect, but those things give you a chance. If you can't tackle when you're supposed to be the tackler, we are Division I football here… if guys are just running free, you can't do anything right. You can't get in any groove, if you will. As a playcaller it's pretty hard to hide guys who let guys run by them. It's a young season, but we're showing better discipline that way. Guys focused on doing their job. Understanding their job and doing their job. That gives you a chance."

On what to expect from Wake Forest: "A little bit of everything. It's a spread option team. They like to run the football a lot of different ways, anything that's been successful against us, we'll probably see it. Got an experienced quarterback, experienced running back. (Michael) Campanaro, that's an awfully good receiver. So it's a staff that's had great success over the years getting more out of less, getting their guys to play above and beyond their abilities. They're going to put them in competitive, winning situations. We'll get their best shot that's for sure."

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