2014 SPRING GAME
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson, S.C.
CLEMSON - The narrative doesn't make sense to proud Clemson defensive players.
What's this, now, about the Tigers having an offensive identity, racking up points while tolerating the occasional defensive shutdown?
"It's never really been, in our minds, an offensive team," defensive tackle D.J. Reader said. "We've always thought of it as a defensive team because we believe defense wins championships. We know we've got to go out there and take ownership as a defense."
OK, it's not just media-driven or public perception that Clemson's been good only because it outscores opponents in a new-age shootout. Facts back it up: four games in 2013, four games in 2012 and five games in 2011, Clemson won despite allowing at least 27 points.
"We've got a lot of work to do to be an elite defense," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "We (aren't) the kind of consistent defense we want to be or are capable of being."
In the many months in between the 2013 and 2014 campaigns, storylines arise. The main one outside Death Valley: is this the year Clemson's defense makes the leap? Is it time, as the Tigers transition their offensive stars but return the defensive core, they forgo 40-35 thrillers for 17-13 grinders?
Does this spring feel any different, Vic Beasley?
"No, no, I don't feel different," said the All-American defensive end, casually. "I feel like we were a good bit of the leadership last year. We set the tone for the game, and we'll do the same this year."
There were obvious bright spots: carrying Clemson to victory in a 24-14 scuffle with Boston College, allowing 14 points or less in five straight games, and creating turnovers on four of Ohio State's five final possessions in the Orange Bowl.
Beasley, Reader, Grady Jarrett, Corey Crawford and the entire defensive line - who had a national-best 123 tackles for loss - return from last year. So does linebacker and leading tackler Stephone Anthony, plus No. 4 tackler Robert Smith at strong safety and breakout free safety Jayron Kearse.
The most optimism Venables will express, besides the clear returning experience, is his players' inherent football smarts, plus their hunger to never settle for mediocrity.
"Last year is this year, this year is this year. I love that, because you don't have to worry about what you didn't do necessarily right last year," Venables said. "Everybody starts over with a clean slate; from the competition to the new track record, you gotta write the book on it. Leaders develop, chemistry develops."
The priority this spring is addressing the cornerbacks, as starters Darius Robinson and Bashaud Breeland departed.
While top reserves but injury-prone veterans Martin Jenkins and Garry Peters are back, freshmen Mackensie Alexander and Adrian Baker have been identified as standout practice players coming off their freshman year.
"Those two guys in particularly," Venables said, "give you reason to believe that by the end of fall camp, we're going to have some guys ready to play."
Even Beasley has noticed, when he's not worried about his own play. Alexander and Baker can't speak for themselves until they enter a game this fall, so their most famous teammate will.
"The main difference is our secondary," Beasley said. "Those guys are stepping up and making big plays for us. I feel like they're going to have a larger effect on this year's outcome."
Venables has always voiced his preference to roll out experienced players over touted but unproven youngsters. He might not have much of a choice at corner in 2014.
"I'm a firm believer that if you've seen them do it once, then you've got to believe that it's there. That gives you a reason to be optimistic," Venables said.
"They're not ever going to act like a third-year player, these young guys. But do they have the mental capacity to come out and compete every day, having the right kind of intensity, the right kind of focus, the right kind of maturity to put bad plays behind them? Those are things you want and hope they're able to do."
Clemson shaved 40 yards off its per-game average, jumping from the No. 64-rated defense in 2012 to No. 24 last year. So the Tigers are on the right track.
"I think we know what they're capable of doing," Venables said. "But will we do it again? We'll see. I'm not assuming everything. We need to get better. Everybody across the board."
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