CLEMSON - With more veterans than strangers lining up across the Clemson defense, All-American defensive end Vic Beasley made a semi-startling admission.
"We've got a lot of experience, so things come kind of easy for us," he said Friday after the second of 15 spring practices.
Head coach Dabo Swinney had insisted three days prior he planned to push the defense's senior starters - Beasley, Corey Crawford, Grady Jarrett, Stephone Anthony and Robert Smith - out of their comfort zone.
"I want him to challenge us," Beasley said. "Because we tend to slack off, we tend to feel like we're such great players - I mean, we're all good players, but there's always room for improvement."
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables, hard-nosed as you'd expect an old-school defensive coordinator to be, has a simple solution for making his older players feel the heat.
"Show 'em the tape," Venables said. "I don't mean to be ugly, but we've got a lot of work to do. Everybody has to get better.
"You've got to be critical. You've got to tell them the truth. Give them the good, the bad, the ugly. As you teach some of the new guys, you show them what it's supposed to look like. But you gotta show them all the bad plays, and there's plenty of them."
With the bulk of Clemson's pass-rushers and run-stoppers returning from last year's squad, which led the nation with 123 tackles for loss, the Holy Grail has been dubbed.
"No. 1. Best defense in the country," Beasley said. "We don't want to get scored on. We don't want to give up no points. We want to lead the country in every category."
Beasley wasn't alone in his proclamation. Smith, a safety out of Woodland, said "I want to be No. 1" twice in terms of defensive rankings.
"In my last year, I would like to say when I left Clemson University, we were the No. 1 defense in the nation. I want to be the No. 1 secondary in the nation," Smith said. "I could always come back, point people to the tombstones, and say, we beat LSU, we beat Ohio State, and I would like to say my last year, we were national champions, No. 1 in defense and No. 1 in the secondary."
Those goals are unlikely, but not as preposterous as they might have been before Venables was hired two years ago to turn around a wayward defense.
In 2013, the Tigers ranked 16th in pass defense and 25th in total defense. In 2009, Clemson was seventh in pass defense, the school's highest such ranking since 1939 when it was fourth.
The Tigers have led the nation in total defense once, yielding a paltry 216.9 yards per game in 1990.
"There's still a lot of room for improvement if we want to be a top-5, top-10 type of defense," Swinney said. "That's what we want to be; we want to be the best."
It won't happen if the big plays persist. Clemson allowed 11 gains of 50 yards or more, and 27 of at least 30 yards, in 13 games last year.
"Just being reactive to things, like screens and draws, is our biggest concern this year," Beasley said. "Especially because when we played South Carolina, that's what hurt us the most."
Venables identified the majority of breakdowns as physical, as in miscues after the ball is snapped, though he'll also emphasize presnap formations in his educational moments this spring.
"Missed tackle, missed leverage on a route, misfit in a run game, a safety's not where he's supposed to be or a 'backer pushes the ball the wrong way," Venables said, "those are all things you throw in their face right now."
An even faster tempo during practice than normal, or extra work after sessions, could be in store spanning the next month.
"You're going to get what you demand," Venables said. "We have a good group of humble guys. They'll follow our lead."
It was only two years ago the Tigers were outside the top 70 in total defense, and Venables' predecessor, Kevin Steele, was dismissed after the 70-33 Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia.
Defensive players on the roster at the time, and today, remember how badly they were mocked.
"We've got to put the work in to be great. If we don't put the work in, we won't be great," Anthony said. "People can say all they want to say about us, but if we aren't working, we aren't going to be that."
For the first time in a few years, Clemson's defense is trying to prove people right, not wrong.
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