Tigers starting from square one
Brent Venables has not spoken to Clemson defensive players about their Orange Bowl performance.
The new Clemson defensive coordinator said he did not watch more than a quarter of the game in which the defense he has inherited gave up nine touchdowns to West Virginia. Venables has come to Clemson with an open mind and blank slate regarding the team's suspect defense.
But perhaps what the Orange Bowl performance has allowed for is Clemson players to be more engaged in learning a new defensive philosophy this spring, in listening to the lectures of a new defensive voice.
Venables considers himself a teacher. Venables has called the beginning of spring practice something of an introductory course to his defense. Rather than moving quickly through terminology and defensive plays, he has moved methodically, teaching base concepts.
"The better they understand the whys and the hows, the better they'll understand what they are supposed to do within the scheme," Venables said. "We are starting from square one trying to get them to develop a football sense, kind of football 101."
Football 101 at Clemson must include the subject of tackling, an area where the Tigers have struggled.
"This is such a high-stress (spacing) game now more than ever," Venables said. "The offense forces you to defend the field, every inch, sideline to sideline. Because of that the space stress, the margin for error is that much less. The technique, the fundamentals, are more important than ever."
Former defensive coordinator Kevin Steele lamented the lack of tackling permitted by offensive coaches, saying his defense participated in no live tackling during the season. But Venables said tackling was also limited at Oklahoma.
"It's not whether it is a Clemson thing, it's really all across the country where people are dealing with (limited tackling)," Venable said. "When you go visit somebody, you are always trying to find better ways to become a better tackling team.
"Experience helps. Guys knowing what to do. Trusting the guy next to him. And again, developing through muscle memory. Understand the discipline, who is where, leveraging the football … Trying to develop that toughness that mindset through a lot of competition where you are trying to quantify a winner and a loser, whether it's the paw drill, a short yardage drill, things of that nature."
Like Chad Morris, Venables prefers his defense first master a few concepts rather than being average and a wide assortment of plays.
"They have really picked up on the ability to leverage the football," Venables said. "Keep the football inside, don't let it get outside of you."
Clemson players like linebacker Stephone Anthony say the language of Venables' system is easier to absorb.
Anthony said the system is "simple, but not too simple."
The Clemson linebackers will play more zone under Venables than Steele, which could help eliminate the success some mobile quarterbacks have had against Clemson the last three seasons.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Venables is asking less of his players on the field, allowing them to play more instinctively.
Still, there will come a time when the material will become more advanced.
"If you think you are just going to line up in one thing anymore you would be very naïve," Venables said. "(But) as with anything, if they are having to think too much it's the old adage where it's paralysis by analysis."