Clemson defense ready for fresh start

In trying to get acclimated to his new roster, first-year Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said he intentionally didn’t watch a lot of film of last season’s defense.

Why would he?

The Tigers ranked No. 81 in scoring defense, No. 83 in rushing defense, and No. 71 in total defense.

And then there was the -- well, you know … the Orange Bowl.

“I wanted to make my judgments based on how they worked through winter conditioning workouts, spring ball and I’ll judge them again when we come back for two-a-days,” Venables said. “It’s important for a number of guys to let them know it’s an opportunity to turn over a new leaf, reinvent themselves and reestablish themselves, and hopefully collectively together we can play the kind of defense I know all Clemson fans wants us to play, where we’re suffocating people and playing in a relentless manner.”

Clemson’s defense will continue its makeover under Venables this summer, and its progress will be key to the Tigers’ hopes of defending their ACC title. One of the team’s biggest tasks will be replacing three starters on the defensive line. Despite the struggles of the defense last year, the trio of Andre Branch, Brandon Thompson and Rennie Moore helped Clemson to the conference title by holding Virginia Tech to just 13 points and one touchdown in 120 minutes of football.

Still, Venables has a lot of work to do this summer. Branch led the team with 17 tackles for loss, including an ACC-best 10.5 sacks. Thompson was fourth on the team in tackles with 77 and Moore had 58, including 10 tackles for loss. Venables said a lack of depth across the board is his biggest concern.

“The linebackers probably have a few more numbers in regards to guys who are going to be ready to play,” he said, “but the overall numbers and lack of experience up front in the front four, that’s probably the biggest thing.”

Venables will coach the linebackers, a talented group that returns all three starters and a trio of talented sophomores waiting in the wings. Corico Hawkins led Clemson’s linebackers in tackles last season with 80, and Jonathan “Tig” Williard is another returning starter who had 75 tackles last season. Starter Quandon Christian, a starting outside linebacker, had 36 tackles in 14 games. Sophomores Stephone Anthony, Tony Steward and Lateek Townsend -- all highly touted recruits -- should all see more playing time this fall.

“It is a talented group,” Venables said. “We’re trying to establish the basics, in regards to football knowledge, fundamentals, techniques, playing physical, and really a lot of the basics, finding out what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are, what they can and can’t do, and find ways to put them in positions to be successful. We’re developing leadership as well, and finding out who the playmakers are. I like the group. I like the attitude, I like the work ethic, and I like the progress we made this spring. We made a little bit of progress in all the areas. We have to keep making progress. But I was pleased with the group overall.”

Venables said he’s not concerned with the perception of Clemson’s defense, which was humiliated by West Virginia in a 70-33 loss the last time it took the field. When asked how much he plans to change, Venables said, “we’re going to do what we do.”

“We’ll base out of the 4-3 and work from there,” he said. “I want our guys to get really good at the basics of what we do.”

Under Venables, there’s no looking back now for Clemson’s defense.