CLEMSON — On some winter night in the aftermath of Clemson’s chest-puffing victory over LSU in last year’s Chick-fil-A Bowl, defensive coordinator Brent Venables sat down to watch tape of the Tigers’ next opponent.
No. 5 Georgia at No. 8 Clemson
When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: Memorial Stadium
Radio: WQSC 1340 AM
On the web: Tune in to our halftime chat at postand courier.com/section/clemson
Venables had to shudder at least a little it. A year removed from his Oklahoma tenure where he respected the work of his counterparts at nearby Nebraska, Venables couldn’t believe how Georgia made the nation’s stingiest secondary look completely lost.
“They annihilated the No. 1 pass defense in the country,” Venables said. “They’re really good at what they do.”
Clemson is not the No. 1 pass defense in the country. Far, far from it.
Between a lack of obvious shutdown corners and a nasty rash of injuries during fall camp stunting player development, the Tigers’ secondary will need a yeoman’s effort to contain Aaron Murray, the SEC coaches’ pick as first-team all-conference quarterback, and a stable of receivers and wide receivers.
“Oh, it’s a concern. It’s definitely a concern,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said of his secondary. “They’re just better. They’re wiser. They had another year to grow up and mature … we have the depth. It’s just inexperienced depth.”
The biggest question marks for the Clemson defense in week one are at cornerback and defensive line. At any given time, Darius Robinson, Bashaud Breeland, Martin Jenkins and Garry Peters will share tasks on the perimeter covering the combination of Malcolm Mitchell, Michael Bennett, Chris Conley and Justin Scott-Wesley.
Then there’s tight ends Arthur Lynch, a preseason watch lister, and Jay Rome, whose father Stan played football and basketball at Clemson. Six different Bulldogs caught at least 20 passes from Murray last year, and none more than 42.
Throw in the one-two punch of tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall — “highlight players, man. Two young boys that got it,” said Clemson linebacker Stephone Anthony — and the Bulldogs’ balance is daunting.
“Proven playmakers. They’re very precise in what they’re doing,” Venables said. “They can bloody your nose and beat you to death in the run game, and they’re really good from a timing standpoint to speed, their ability to attack the deep ball. Their ability to take the top off the defense is as good as anybody.”
Venables has touted the defensive line’s depth and toughness all offseason. Grady Jarrett will start at nose guard, Josh Watson and DeShawn Williams will rotate in at defensive tackle, Vic Beasley’s job is to chase down Murray while Corey Crawford will contain the run.
All five players are juniors.
“We’re more physical than what we were (in 2012). That comes from guys being sure of themselves,” Venables said. “Most young players play in a timid way. Well, this isn’t a timid sport. If you’re playing on your heels, or you’re unsure of yourself, you’re not going to be physical.”
No cornerbacks or defensive linemen met with reporters this week leading up to the Saturday night showdown. They’ll have to let their production on the field, under the bright lights, speak for them.
Both safeties, though, had one last chance to speak their peace and speak for the secondary.
“We’ve prepared just as much as anybody else has,” sophomore free safety Travis Blanks said. “I don’t see us failing because we’ve prepared well for this game. Time will tell. We’ll see Saturday night.”
And from junior strong safety Robert Smith: “Nobody wants to be the question mark. But it’s up to us to change that. We’re accountable for all our actions.”
Smith’s four keys to the game: play disciplined, play fast, play physical and be relentless to the ball.
“It’s a chance to solidify our name,” Smith said. “We want to show we’re a real contender for the national championship.”
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