METAIRIE, La. -- Everywhere Brent Venables has been, he has coached a future New Orleans Saints middle linebacker. Mark Simoneau at Kansas State. Curtis Lofton at Oklahoma. And now Clemson’s Stephone Anthony, whom the Saints drafted with the 31st pick in Round 1.
“Those three guys, there’s a lot of similarities,” said Venables, who has spent the last three years as defensive coordinator at Clemson, which led the nation in total defense last season (260.8 yards per game). “Those are three damn good ones.”
Venables said those similarities include maturity, decision-making, love and passion for the game, toughness and leadership -- a word the coach used repeatedly while describing Anthony.
Acording to Venables, Lofton was the most instinctive (“crazy, crazy, crazy good” instincts), a tackling machine, a model of consistency. Simoneau was a great worker, super tough and physical, and could run like hell. Anthony, meanwhile, shares a lot of those qualities while also being faster and probably the most naturally gifted of the bunch.
“Stephone, he’s probably the total package when you put it all together,” Venables said.
Clemson won at least 10 games in each of Anthony’s four seasons there, including the last two spent as a captain and signal-caller from the “Mike” linebacker position.
“He was the main ... it all had to go through him,” Venables said of Anthony’s role in a defense that also featured the Atlanta Falcons’ first-round pick, Vic Beasley, and two fifth-round draft picks this year. “If you’re average at middle linebacker, I don’t care what everybody else is doing, you’re gonna get exposed. (Anthony) was a dominant, disruptive figure during those (last) three 10-plus-win seasons.”
The 6-foot-3, 245-pounder finished his college career with 35 starts, 330 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 34.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, 13 pass breakups and five forced fumbles.
Venables said Anthony has a “unique blend of size, speed and athletic ability” that allowed him to match up in coverage against backs, tight ends and even No. 3 receivers on occasion while still being able to “stone a 250-pound fullback in the hole.”
“So he can play sideline to sideline, but he can play downhill as a run stopper, too,” said Venables, who noted Anthony could have also made a bigger impact as a blitzer -- but that was something he wasn’t asked to do much.
The knocks on Anthony from scouting analysts are that his lateral agility isn’t as impressive as his straight-line speed and, as ESPN’s Todd McShay wrote, he needs to keep improving his recognition skills and technique.
Anthony showed great recognition, though, during the highlight moment of his career, which came during one of the highlight moments in the history of the Clemson football program. Anthony sealed the Tigers’ Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State in January 2014 with a late interception.
“He saved our butt in the Ohio State game,” Venables said.
The Tigers were leading 40-35 with less than two minutes remaining, but then they threw an interception near midfield, giving Ohio State a chance to come back. Two plays later, Anthony snagged his own interception while he was squatting in the middle of the field, spying mobile Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller.
Anthony had to leap and lean to his right a bit to make the catch.
“He had had a monster game up to that point, but we needed the stop of all stops to win the game,” Venables said. “For us in the Orange Bowl in the BCS, on the biggest stage, the biggest game, he makes a great play at the right time. And he played that way the last couple years.”
Venables spent just as much time praising Anthony for his off-the-field traits -- just as Saints coach Sean Payton did the night Anthony got drafted. Venables said leadership and taking charge of the other players were “naturally part of his DNA.”
“He’s a prototypical pro already, Day 1 when he comes in there,” said Venables, who noted Anthony is a little more vocal and outspoken than Lofton and Simoneau were in college -- in a good way.
“He’ll be vocal, not antagonistic,” Venables said. “He likes to work, and he likes to have guys around him that like to work and like to grind. He loves to grind. He’s the first one at the meeting, he’s the last one to leave, he’s always watching extra tape, taking notes, setting an example that way. He’s never been late to a meeting in three years, mentally or physically. ...
“He’ll have this sense of desperation coming in there, that whatever the Saints expected him to be, he wants to exceed those expectations more than anybody.”
Ultimately, that expectation is for Anthony to follow Simoneau, Jonathan Vilma and Lofton in an impressive line of “Mike” linebackers who have quarterbacked the Saints’ defense over the past decade. Right now, veteran David Hawthorne is penciled into that role. But if Anthony plans on exceeding early expectations, it will make for one of New Orleans’ most compelling training camp battles.