And while a strong defensive line gets plenty of credit, it's hard to ignore the progress made in the back end.
Clemson's secondary is yielding 213.3 yards passing per game. While that's only eighth-best in the ACC and 51st nationally, it represents an improvement from 2012, when the Tigers allowed 240 yards passing per game. Through four games, Clemson has allowed eight pass plays of 30-plus yards.
"We're better there," said defensive coordinator Brent Venables. "We're still working on getting better fundamentally, tackling, working on all the details, but we've shown to be more consistent at this point. Better understanding and awareness of what we want them to do. I think they have a much better grasp of what their responsibilities are on any given call. As a result they're playing with a more disciplined way."
A year ago, Venables searched high and low for secondary answers. Steady junior Martin Jenkins was forced to redshirt following groin surgery, and really wasn't fully healthy until a genetic condition causing the problem was corrected with the proper medicine this summer. Starter Darius Robinson broke his ankle against Georgia Tech, ending his season at the halfway point. And fellow starter Bashaud Breeland was hampered by groin and hamstring injuries that limited his effectiveness.
Senior Xavier Brewer was forced to rotate between corner and safety, and little-used sophomore Garry Peters was pressed into action. Even wideout Adam Humphries was borrowed from the offense for spot duty.
Now, all of 2012's walking wounded are essentially healthy, although Jenkins is dealing with a shoulder that periodically pops out of place.
"Anytime you can have everyone as healthy as they can be, then we can go out and perform the way we should," Robinson said. "We were all battling some injuries, but we all seem to be in pretty good health right now."
For his part, Robinson is fully healthy, and said his ankle injury was a major learning experience.
"I'm not going to say I'm glad it happened, but I looked at the positive side of it," he said. "It gave me a lot of opportunity and time to think. Figure out what I really wanted. As far as that, it shaped me to become a better man."
Robinson said the group's success has been driven by a desire to prove doubters wrong.
"It's pretty much the swagger," he said. "We have an attitude about ourselves. We came into this year, with a lot of people, we were the big concern. We wanted to knock that off our shoulders, wanted to come in and show people we can play for a top team. We're playing on a top team and we feel we have to perform to stay and go where we want to go."
Venables says the group's overall consistency has spiked significantly. This group does the little things right – blitzing where you're supposed to, using the proper leverage, using cover 2 properly.
"It's a combination of all those things," he said. "Understanding, maturity, as you mature, you become more disciplined, you don't try to do too much. As a result, you make a lot more plays when you let the system work for you."
Now that these corners are healthy and smarter, the results are following. Robinson doesn't expect miracles. Just steady improvement.
"It's just us being on the same page," Robinson said. "This is the second year in this defense. Last year we just had some communication issues as far as some of us not being on the same page. But like I said, with this being our second year, we're on the same page, we're more familiar with the defense and we know where our teammates are."
Clemson corners figuring it out
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