On Tuesday, he told reporters the Tigers' defensive staff is sending a message to their players.
"This is a journey, not a destination. If they think they've arrived, then guess what? We've changed the destination," he said. "Nobody's arrived anywhere. We've got a long way to go."
That message is sent through his open competition for starting spots at every position.
"The biggest thing about this business is competition. If you can create competition, it makes everybody better," Steele said.
Plenty of faces return from last season's unit that ranked 67th nationally in rushing defense, 21st in pass efficiency defense, 20th in total defense, 25th in scoring defense, 7th in pass defense, 27th in sacks and 12th in tackles for loss.
Last season's starters Jarvis Jenkins and Brandon Thompson are back at tackle. So are Jamie Cumbie, Miguel Chavis and Rennie Moore.
"We've got [Josh] Watson and [Tyler] Shatley, two young guys that are very capable. We're going to give them a chance," Steele said.
Steele called the return of Da'Quan Bowers, Andre Branch and Malliciah Goodman a "pretty good luxury." Kourtnei Brown, who redshirted last season, returns too.
Entering this spring, Bowers and Goodman will line up on one-side with Branch and Brown on the opposite.
"In terms of where they're actually going to be, we don't know that," Steele said.
Brandon Maye, Corico Hawkins, Scotty Cooper, Daniel Andrews and Jonathan Willard all return at linebacker. Maye's total snaps in 2009 more than doubles the total of the other four combined.
"It's going to be very important that we get the right pieces in the right place," Steele said. "They're distinctly different…just like in the offensive backfield."
Redshirt freshmen Quandon Christian and Spencer Shuey will figure into the mix this spring and incoming freshman Justin Parker could see the field this fall.
"Freshmen could have to play, but that's OK. It's been done before," Steele said.
Looking back to last season, he estimated that about "600-something" of the snaps on defense were in nickel packages and only "180-something" were in the base 4-3.
"They help us when they go three and four wide. You take one linebacker out of the equation then and you're playing with two," Steele said.
The strength of the Clemson defense a year ago, the secondary, returns plenty of key players.
DeAndre McDaniel and Rashard Hall are back a season after both ranked among the top 20 nationally in interceptions.
"They're very intelligent. They have the ability to quarterback the defense," Steele said.
Jonathan Meeks, Spencer Adams and Carlton Lewis are also back safety, fighting for their spots, which are likely to be in reserve roles. Quarterback Michael Wade could be moved back to safety this spring.
Steele said Marcus Gilchrist's versatility to play at safety and corner makes him a "key piece to the puzzle." He'll be factored in with Coty Sensabaugh, Xavier Brewer and Byron Maxwell at cornerback this spring.
"You have to have a system to build, to put guys in place to be ready stick them in or plug them in," Steele said. "That's a little bit hard after the first year because the recruiting hasn't built up. The base hasn't built up in terms of having guys in the same system two, three, four years--recruiting to that. This is the second year of that process."
Turning up the heat
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