CLEMSON — Across the board, Brent Venables can relax. His job is not done, but by most measures he’s done his job.
NO MORE DEAD WEIGHT
How Clemson’s defense fared in eight ACC games last year vs. this year (league ranks in parentheses):
2012: 27.4 points (3rd), 423.1 yards (7th), 15 takeaways (5th), 55 TFLs (4th), 35.9 percent 3rd-downs (5th)
2013: 21.0 points (3rd), 366.1 yards (4th), 20 takeaways (2nd), 79 TFLs (1st), 29.2 percent 3rd-downs (3rd)
Clemson’s defense endured some serious growing pains last year, most of which were covered up by a record-setting offense powering the Tigers to 11 wins.
In 2013, with a 9-1 record and three games to go, one thing is certain to Clemson’s defensive coordinator.
“We haven’t just been outscoring people,” Venables said. “I think (our defense) has played a big part as well, or an equal part with our offense, finding a way to win our ball games.”
Brought in from Oklahoma coming into the 2012 season, Venables has now had nearly two full years to craft a persistently effective defense up front and in the back end. This past offseason was huge for evaluation and development of rising stars who hadn’t fulfilled their potential.
Having sewn up identical 7-1 conference records in each season, the before-and-after shot looks pretty attractive. The Tigers shed an average of 6.4 points and 57 yards per ACC game, while becoming even stingier on third downs and upticking their takeaways and tackles for loss.
Even the big plays, Clemson’s bugaboo under Venables, have decreased. The Tigers yielded 47 gains of 20 yards or more in eight 2012 ACC games; that number was shaved to 37 this year.
“When the game’s on the line, I think we’ve shown the ability to get a stop, to make a play, and play consistently,” Venables said. “You feel that week in and week out, outside of the Florida State game, we’ve played relatively well and made moderate improvement from a year ago.”
Only two teams — Clemson and Ohio State — have collected an interception in every game this year. The Tigers’ 13-game interception streak going back to last year is the longest in the country.
“It’s a great feeling knowing we can turn it around,” cornerback Darius Robinson said of the oft-critiqued defensive backs. “Hopefully in the future it can continue. Great players come in here, great players that are here, everybody hold on to that pride and bring Clemson back to where it used to be as far as the secondary’s concerned.”
FootballOutsiders.com developed a defensive efficiency tool called “S&P,” analyzing every snap to weigh points per play and success rate based on the down and distance. In 2011, Clemson’s defense was rated 73rd in the country by the service; it soared to 34th last year and again to 13th this fall.
“I don’t believe you win a championship on defense, or on offense. You win a championship being a great team,” head coach Dabo Swinney said.
“We’re more of a complete team now. We’re not where we’re going to be defensively. We’ve only got three seniors on this whole defensive roster. This is a good defense that’s in the process of really becoming very, very good.”
Indeed, the only sure departures are Robinson, linebackers Spencer Shuey and Quandon Christian. There’s a solid chance defensive end Vic Beasley foregoes his senior year for the NFL Draft, while linebacker Stephone Anthony, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett or other eligible third-year players could submit their names for a draft grade.
At any rate, a loaded junior class and promising younger talent (including redshirting cornerback Mackensie Alexander) means Clemson might not yet have reached its peak on defense. Since a new quarterback will be broken in next year, 2014 could be the year Clemson’s identity is turned upside down.
“Not satisfied with where we are. There’s still a lot of things we’ve got to improve,” Swinney said. “We are much, much better in a lot of areas. And we’re not done yet.”