Venables keeps same approach

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables won't change his approach — or intensity — no matter who's now paying attention.

Venables joined the Tigers three years ago. He's gradually rebuilt a defense embarrassed by its 70-33 Orange Bowl debacle against West Virginia after the 2011 season into the No. 1 unit in college football last fall with 260 yards allowed per game.

He was rewarded in the offseason with a $1.35 million contract that clearly marked the fiery Venables as a potential future head coach. Venables' latest contract frees him from any buyout obligations should he take over his own program. Still, the longtime defensive coordinator said he will not let outside distractions sneak into his head as he preps to keep the Tigers on top.

"You all don't make me better or worse," Venables said Wednesday. "I've got a good grasp of that. I'm faceless from that standpoint."

Venables said he heaps plenty of pressure on himself with his efforts get Clemson playing to a high standard whether it has an experienced group as it did last year or one with several questions like this one.

"I'm invested in what we're doing," he said. "And our job is to stop people."

No one did that any better than the Tigers in 2014. Clemson finished No. 1 in 11 NCAA defensive categories, including fewest first downs allowed (14.2) and most tackles for loss (10) per game. But that showing was led by several seniors up front, particularly two NFL first-round draft picks in defensive end Vic Beasley and linebacker Stephone Anthony.

The Tigers held opponents to 17 or fewer points in seven of their final nine games, capped by a satisfying 40-6 victory in the Russell Athletic Bowl over Oklahoma, the program Venables left to come to Clemson.

Venables said his players rose to the challenge of reaching No. 1, something the coach dangled out there as the goal when he arrived.

"That was a personal vendetta to that group of guys, and you love standing back and watching that happen," Venables said.

Clemson's defensive boss now must get players who were accustomed to reserve roles ready to step to the front.

Juniors Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd will get first crack at defensive end spots held by Beasley and Corey Crawford. Inside in the 4-3 alignment are Carlos Watkins and D.J. Reader looking to take over for standouts Grady Jarrett and DeShawn Williams. At linebacker, Clemson's depth chart lists B.J. Goodson, Korrin Wiggins and Ben Boulware as starters. Goodson had six starts, as did Wiggins, who played some safety a year ago. Boulware, a special teams terror, started two games.

"I do think we can still be one of the best defenses out there," coach Dabo Swinney said. "But there are just a lot of questions that have to be answered. Is the talent there? Yes. Is the experience there? No."

If Clemson can lean on any part of its defense, it is the secondary, led by cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safety Jayron Kearse.

"We think those guys will be pretty good," Swinney said.

Venables has seen players such as Lawson and Dodd begin taking ownership and dragging along younger defenders eager to get better. After all, that's what Venables expects from recruits who sign on with him.

He's not one to ease up — remember Venables having to get shoved back onto the sideline by a Tigers staffer as the bowl game wound down? He said he will not hold these players to lesser goals than past teams. And Venables believes these Tigers will prove themselves every bit as tough and capable as his last group.

"Can you do it when you're put in a ton of tough situations and can you answer the bell?" Venables said. "Tough guys can. High-character guys can."

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