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New-look defense doesn't change Clemson's expectations

Linebacker Ben Boulware says the Tigers are in rebuilding mode after losing several starters from last season's team. Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Dabo Swinney was standing at a podium, lauding the haul of new talent he'd signed for Clemson's 2016 recruiting class when the previous year's star attraction bounded into the room.

"I was just teaching the young boys some plays," Christian Wilkins announced to his coach and a room packed with media.

Swinney beamed, wrapping an arm around Wilkins like a proud father. If this is the future of the Clemson defense, Swinney's job should be easy.

After all, Wilkins has been on campus a mere eight months, but he's already established himself as a rising star on the field and a respected leader off it. It started last summer, when Wilkins' alarm would buzz early in the morning, and off he'd trudge to the gym or the practice facility to work on technique and build strength. The results on the field were immediate and impressive, and so when the midyear enrollees for 2016 arrived, Wilkins' approach attracted a crowd.

"The beauty of what Christian's all about," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said, "is he brings four or five buddies wherever he goes."

It's infectious, and that's the idea. It's trickle-down development, and the fruits of that plan were evident in the Tigers' first scrimmage this week, as Wilkins' protege (and fellow five-star defensive tackle) Dexter Lawrence dominated in his first competitive scrimmage as a college player.

For Wilkins, the leadership job comes naturally. It's part of his personality. But for Clemson's defense, which has lost a combined 16 starters the past two years, it's an absolute necessity. The next-man-up culture Venables has worked to instill isn't just cliché. It's been reality. So as the Tigers look to return to the College Football Playoff this season with a defense that looks far different than last season's unit, no one is panicking. They've done all this before.

"It's a little easier this year, because we did the exact same thing last year," linebacker Ben Boulware said. "We're just rebuilding each year. We know how to do that."

Venables' temperament wavers anywhere between manic enthusiasm and terrifying ferocity, when it comes to coaching up his players, but the one thing he doesn't do is sugar coat a bad situation. He calls 'em like he sees 'em, which is why it's a bit surprising to note the calmness with which he views the current situation on Clemson's defense.

He said goodbye to his two starting defensive ends, a pair that combined for 24.5 sacks last season. But Venables raves about the size and athleticism of Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell and Richard Yeargin -- a group with virtually no serious experience that will now be the anchor of the Clemson pass rush.

He'll be without B.J. Goodson, his star linebacker who led last season's team with 108 tackles. No matter. Two freshmen enrolled early, and Venables loves what he's seen from them so far.

In the aftermath of a loss to Alabama in the national championship game, Venables learned he'd lose four members of his secondary, all early departures to the NFL. And yet, even that final blow wasn't enough to dampen his spirits about what might be in store for this new Tigers' defensive backfield.

Change is inevitable in college football, Venables said, and while Clemson is facing its share of it now, there are ample silver linings.

"If I was worried about some immature guys there, or we weren't as athletic as we'd like them, those would be issues you'd be concerned about," Venables said. "But we've got some good length, guys that can run, guys that know how to work. There are intangibles there that make you believe these guys will come along."

That's not to say this spring hasn't been without its share of flubs, or that Venables hasn't unleashed his ire upon some overwhelmed novices on defense. That's par for the course, and both the growing pains and the tough love go with the territory.

In fact, the way Wilkins sees it, that's the magic that makes this transition manageable.

"He expects just as much out of the third- or fourth-team guys," Wilkins said. "If you're Ben Boulware or a freshman, he expects you to do what he wants. And if you don't, he'll be on you until you do it right."

A year ago, when Venables was shifting Boulware and Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd into staring roles, they'd been prepared -- toughness forged through time in Venables' demanding system. This year, however, things aren't so simple. The reserves stepping into bigger jobs saw relatively few snaps last season, and the fresh faces on campus are getting their first taste of the Tigers' way. It's a crash course on Venables' system -- like the amp in "Spinal Tap," an already intense spring now turned up to 11.

"He brings a level of intensity and focus that not many people can bring day in and day out," Boulware said of his coordinator. "He wants to be the best, win every snap, and that will to go to work every day. I don't know anybody on the staff -- probably in the country -- that works harder than Coach Venables does."

Venables is the same whirlwind of energy, and the questions peppering the Clemson defense aren't much different than a year ago, but the context has changed.

The fourth-quarter unraveling against Alabama was the final moment in the careers of some Clemson greats, but for those who remain, it's now the foundation for this year's defense.

It's not that motivation was in short supply. Venables sees to that. But Wilkins and the rest of the new-look Tigers' defense know how close they came to a championship last season, and the departures only serve as a reminder that the effort must improve this year if they want to take that final step.

"I'm just making sure everyone's getting better," Wilkins said. "I know we're going to need to grind even more than we did last year because I know how much hungrier I am getting that far and losing the big game. That pains me so much."

The grind. That's what Venables loves about all this. Sure, it's a tough road ahead, getting a slew of fresh-faced freshmen ready for the big time and prepping last year's benchwarmers to move from the shadows to the spotlight. That's the grind. That's what it's all about.

"I connect with a lot of those younger guys because I know what it's like," Wilkins said. "I know the investment to get ready to play."

Sure, there are concerns, Venables said. Every coach has them this time of year. But just because Venables hasn't found all the answers yet doesn't mean they're not out there on the practice field. Like Wilkins, they're learning the investment it takes to play.

Venables has done all this before. There's a standard at Clemson now, so the past serves as a prelude for what's to come rather than a reminder of who's no longer in the locker room.

"I'm pretty tough to please," Venables said of his freshmen, "but these guys have exceeded my expectations in terms of maturity and work ethic and toughness."

So what's there to worry about? This is how it's supposed to be, and while the fresh faces are still learning the ropes, the blueprint to get the next group of Clemson's star defenders ready was set in motion long ago.