CLEMSON — Something unusual happened on the Clemson practice fields last week after the team returned from spring break: the Clemson defense was at times outperforming the offense.
Yes, the defense that was more like a sieve than a barrier the last two seasons was outperforming an offense that returns many of the key players who helped the Tigers set all kinds of records last season.
This spring, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has installed new plays, and Tigers defenders are operating with more confidence — thanks to experience in the system — compelling the offensive staff to collectively scratch its head at times.
“Brent Venables ran two blitzes (last week) where I just said, ‘Hey, that’s tough, we have to get back to the drawing board,’ ” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Last spring, Venables, then in his first year with the program, said he was teaching “Football 101.” This spring, Venables has moved on to a more advanced classwork.
“Guys have better familiarity with (the defense),” Venables said. “They’re playing faster and more physical. We’re still a work in progress … every year is different, but I see some of the experience showing up.”
It’s not just experience that is showing up for the Clemson defense this season, it’s depth.
When asked last fall how many players he trusted on defense, Venables said between 11 and 15 — and noted he was required to field 11 players. This spring, Clemson is crossing into new territory with defensive depth.
Clemson is rotating in seven defensive tackles with the first team alone, major strides in terms of numbers. The linebacking corps is as deep and talented as its been in recent memory. And while the secondary is thin at the moment, Martin Jenkins, Bashaud Breeland and Darius Robinson are all healthy and eight defensive back signees will arrive in August.
Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley is considered a rare athlete by those in and around the program. The raw talent had eight sacks in a part-time role last season, relying solely on quickness and athleticism. So how unusual of an athlete is Beasley, who has already intercepted quarterback Tajh Boyd twice in scrimmage situations this spring?
“Freak is pretty high praise,” Venables said. “Freak is Adrian Peterson. Freak is DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins at their best. We’ll see.”
Clemson hopes Beasley earns the label “freak” as Clemson struggled to produce pressure from the defensive end position at times last season.