Venables: "I think we hit it"

CLEMSON, SC - Clemson Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables discussed his defense with the media after practice.

Brent Venables must have felt a sense of vindication as much as pride when his defense was ranked #1 in the nation last season. He decided to leave Oklahoma—where he had been for several years and had built a reputation for great defenses—to come into a situation at Clemson in which the Tigers struggled defensively the year before. By the end of his third year, his top-ranked defense was shutting out his former Sooners in the fourth quarter of the Russell Athletic Bowl. Not only that, but Clemson’s defense became the first ever to lead the nation in both tackles for loss and pass defense in the same season.

Due to the loss of 10 players to the NFL, many pundits are expecting to see a drop off from Clemson defensively, but don’t tell Coach Venables that. He met with the media after practice to discuss the status of his 2015 defense.

When asked about the progress of safety Travis Blanks, who is returning from a knee injury this season, Venables replied:

“He’s not really had any lingering effects. He’s within 5 or 10 pounds on all of his lifts from almost two years. He’s worked really hard. They did a great job rehabbing him and getting him ready. The mental aspect has been really good.”

Most agree that the talent level of the defensive starters is comparable to last season, but the question is whether depth will be a problem for the Tigers’ defense this season. Venables discussed some of the players who will be providing support off the bench.

“Yeargin’s more functional because he’s bigger, a little more confident. Register, really in fairness to him, this is his first full week of being a defensive end, but he’s done some good things. Clelin (Ferrell) and Austin (Bryant) are both long and can move the feet and bend. They’re intelligent and competitive kids. They take good hard coaching. They come from two really good programs and two good mammas. They got their boys tough and humble and hard-working. Shaq and Dodd had a great summer and really good leadership. And it’s really shown. They’re very comfortable in their roles right now.”

The strength of Clemson’s team this season will likely be its secondary, and two players who have stood out to me in the first week of practice—other than the known quantities—are CB’s Cordrea Tankersley and Ryan Carter. I asked Venables for his thoughts about them so far.

“They’re going against some really good receivers. They’ve had some really nice plays and some plays where they’ve gotten beat. So we’ve got to be more consistent, but they’re both really competitive. Cordrea is very anxious for this opportunity. Ryan is ready. Ryan’s a tough, competitive kid who’s got good instincts and good top-end speed. Both of them are trying to learn the intricasies and the feel of the game. The anticipation, what’s coming next based on what just happened—a split or a release—and that comes from repetition, and they’ve got to have some failure along the way to grow and to learn. Although you hate it at the moment, when you have some failure, it’s a great teaching opportunity. Hopefully, you get all those out of their tank right now—the bad plays.”

Coach Venables also discussed the freshman defenders—many of whom enrolled early last spring.

“We’ve got 15 guys who were here in the spring, and I think we hit it. You don’t always feel that way, but I really feel like we hit it with all those guys. It might sound like coach speak, but they all like to work. They’re all coachable. They handle adversity and failure well. Studying the playbook. You can tell when guys have put in some work before they ever get to the meeting room or the football field, and they all have. I think they’ve got a good chemistry, and it shows. I think they’ve got a respect for the game and how you get ready to play and how you get ready to compete. Our older guys have done an incredible job of pouring into the younger guys really, really well, and it’s very pleasing to see that. As a result, there’s a mutual respect from the young guys to the old guys and from the old guys to the young guys, as opposed to a disconnect. It’s been really good. I think physically, it’s a mature group of guys. Mark Fields comes in, and he’s physically mature. Van (Smith) is a good football player. He’s always in pretty good position. As a coach that’s been around the game for a long time, you can tell he doesn’t get overwhelmed with the speed or the variety of schemes that you’re in. Jalen Williams has done some real nice things. He’s very instinctual, good quickness and plays hard. A few of the D-Linemen will probably redshirt, which will be good for them, but they’re all physically mature and physical guys.”

One of the leaders and most talented players on the defense is Safety Jayron Kearse.

“He’s been hungry and focused and disciplined and on time,” Venables said. “Dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s. Brings his own pen and notebook to the meetings. That’s just growing up. He’s been good.”

Another highly-decorated star of this unit is DE Shaq Lawson. Venables talked about Shaq’s unique approach to practice:

“He likes to practice, likes to compete. He’s always been that way. Hasn’t always liked to do all the little things right all the time, but he is now. And that comes with maturity and a little bit more seriousness. But he does like to compete and have a good time while he works hard. I think that’s an inherited gene that he has because a lot of them will work hard, but not a lot of them like it, and Shaq does. He’s giggling and laughing on the way to the quarterback. That’s fun to see.”

Clemson’s defense not only lost several NFL draft picks—including two first-rounders—it also lost respected leaders such as Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Stephone Anthony. Venables was asked about which players will emerge as leaders in their absence, to which he replied:

“You’ve got to really test that over time. It’s not an inherited deal by any stretch. You’ve got to earn that right by being good at it, just like a husband or father. I think any really good football team or any good organization—whether it’s a Fortune 500 company or a football program—I think it’s driven by good leadership, so that’s what we need.”

The players on the defensive side of the ball seem to have an edginess or a chip on their shoulders—like they have something to prove. Perhaps it’s because they know last year’s unit was one of the best ever and not many are giving them a chance to stack up to that group. One thing is for sure—Coach Venables has plenty of talent and motivation with which to work this season, and it should be fun to watch them cohere as a unit.

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