Clemson defense eyes ACC challenge

Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina Clemson defensive back Garry Peters and the Tigers open ACC play at N.C. State on Thursday.

The verbal disparagement echoed through Clemson’s indoor facility, the first week of fall camp during a physical session in the trenches called a Paw Drill.

“LOSERS!! That’s how you want to start the season?!? LOSERS!!”

Spit flew from Dabo Swinney’s mouth in unison, directed at his top run-stuffers. Needless to say, the head coach wasn’t happy.

It was a slightly embarrassing moment for the much-beleaguered defensive line on Aug. 7, one of the few practices open to reporters who were thusly reading much too far into anything they saw.

More than a month later, nose guard Grady Jarrett was asked if he recalled the instance. He bit his lip. Furrowed his brow. Rubbed his chin.

“Man,” Jarrett said, straining his memory, “we had so many Paw Drills.”

It’s been an arduous process under demanding defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who’s insisted more than a few times Clemson’s defense will go as the front four go. And on multiple occasions, that unit has been targeted as the weak link of a program with championship aspirations.

No pressure or anything.

“Pretty good. Still, you want more,” Venables said. “We’ll continue to develop more guys who can rush the passer. When we do pressure, be more precise, more violent, more sure of ourselves. It’s been good enough to get to 2-0, but we have to continue to improve and evolve.”

While a three-man race persists at defensive tackle between Josh Watson, Carlos Watkins and DeShawn Williams, Jarrett’s the clear alpha dog deep in the Tigers’ defense.

“I just go out and do my job, and people follow,” Jarrett said. “I’m never going to boast myself to say I’m a leader; I like to do it by example. I feel like any of my teammates would agree with that, but I don’t force it on anybody. If they want to follow my lead, please do, because I’m going to do the right thing.”

Jarrett is third on the team with 13 tackles — true, the sample size isn’t large, but it’s unique to see a nose guard gobble up ballcarriers, but it’s no surprise to his coaches.

“You get every ounce of Grady. Every day. Everything he’s got, every day,” Swinney said. “Practice, meetings, games, everything. He’s set the tempo for that group, and the other guys have really responded well.”

Said Jarrett, “I’m paying more attention to personnel, what kinds of runs they’re going to get here, maybe what tight end or what fullback they like to run (behind). That helps me read my keys and get a feel for what they’re going to do before they snap the ball.”

Jarrett is encouraged by a solid start to 2013 — Clemson’s front seven made enough plays to knock off Georgia, and other than two long passes, totally flattened South Carolina State.

Linebackers Stephone Anthony (23) and Spencer Shuey (21) are easily Clemson’s leading tacklers; only one defensive back (Robert Smith) is in the Tigers’ top six in the category. That’s the main goal; keep opposing runners from escaping to the second level.

“That didn’t happen overnight. We all were here working over the summer,” Jarrett said. “So it needs to be recognized that work has been put in for the improvement that’s going on so far, and we’re just going to get better as the year goes on.”

It starts Thursday night at North Carolina State, which succumbed in a 62-48 shootout in Death Valley last year and racked up 597 total yards, including 493 passing yards and five touchdowns for quarterback Mike Glennon.

But Glennon is gone, and it’s a foreign system under new head coach Dave Doeren.

“They’re two completely different teams,” Venables said. “Same uniforms, but a lot different schemes.”

The Wolfpack employ plenty of pre-snap movements and work out of playaction frequently. Clemson’s defensive line will have to combat a slew of 6-6 and 6-7 blockers, though N.C. State left tackle Rob Crisp is questionable due to injury.

“They’re some big jokers,” defensive end Corey Crawford said. “We just have to go at them, be physical with them, try to keep down the whole game.

“It’s going to be exciting to see what people have to say about Clemson’s D-Line.”