GWINN DAVIS MEDIA

The Clemson defense held Georgia Tech to 294 yards of total offense Thursday. Gwinn Davis / Special to The Post and Courier

CLEMSON — Linebacker Isaiah Simmons knows what's been said about Clemson's defense.

As the Tigers grinded through fall camp in the oppressive South Carolina heat, fans, talking heads and maybe even opposing coaches reached a consensus on the defending national champions: Clemson's offense was elite. Its defense was vulnerable. 

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"The expectation was that we weren't going to be good at the linebacker and defensive line positions because of all of the experience that left," Simmons, a starting linebacker, said.

That the Tigers have new faces scattered across the defense is not up for debate; defensive coordinator Brent Venables returns just four starters. But if the unit's performance Thursday in Clemson's 52-14 season-opening win over Georgia Tech is any indication, Clemson's defense will be just fine.

The Tigers didn't allow the Yellow Jackets to score until the third quarter and forced four turnovers in the victory, their most in a game since the 2015 season.

The game, on Oct. 3, 2015, was a 24-22 win over Notre Dame. Things were different then. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence was a sophomore at Cartersville High School (Georgia). Clemson hadn't won a national title since 1981. Coach Dabo Swinney was not the highest paid coach in the history of college sports. 

Expectations around the program are higher now, of course. Thursday's contest marked the first televised game on the new ACC Network. 

The defense rose to the challenge. Most headlines coming from the game focused on Lawrence's hit on Georgia Tech defensive back Tre Swilling and running back Travis Etienne's 205-yard, three-touchdown performance, but in the background Clemson's defense flustered the Yellow Jackets.

"(It was) the first game for a lot of guys as (starters), and I thought they performed well," Venables said. 

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Georgia Tech quarterback Tobias Oliver threw the ball just nine times, instead relying on his feet. He rushed for 56 yards on 20 carries, at one point breaking a 39-yard run but never finding the end zone. Running back Jordan Mason put the Yellow Jackets on the board with a 7-yard rush less than five minutes into the second half, but by then the game was long out of reach.

Georgia Tech would dive into its depth chart, playing reserve quarterbacks James Graham and Lucas Johnson, but not before Oliver threw a couple of interceptions.

The first came about midway through the second quarter. Swilling's 41-yard interception return placed Georgia Tech at Clemson's 2-yard line, but after a 1-yard run from Oliver on first down, the Tigers forced a pair of stops. On fourth down, Oliver rolled right and lofted a ball to the corner of the end zone. 

Linebacker James Skalski tipped the ball. Safety Denzel Johnson recognized an opportunity. 

"I saw the ball," safety Denzel Johnson said. "Then the quarterback. I looked the quarterback in the eyes and he looked me in the eyes."

Johnson snagged the ball in the air, lowered his shoulder and bounced Oliver to the ground. Another Yellow Jackets player tackled him from behind, stopping him at the 6-yard line, but the statement had been made.

"Fourth down stops are a big deal," said Simmons, who recorded a game-high 10 tackles. "That is something we really pride ourselves in.

"They were just running the ball, downhill, downhill, downhill. Of course, [the trenches] was a new void that everybody was questioning. But I was proud of the guys for what they did."

He wasn't the only one. The Death Valley crowd exploded for Johnson's interception, and then again when safety Tanner Muse intercepted Oliver in the third quarter. 

Georgia Tech also suffered three fumbles — two of which Clemson recovered — and recorded just 294 yards of total offense in the defeat, the third fewest in the ACC opening weekend. 

More difficult challenges await for Clemson. Texas A&M, which comes to Death Valley on Saturday, gained 478 yards of offense in its 41-7 over Texas State in its first game.

The opener was an encouraging sign for Clemson, though. It was a one-sided affair, and both offensive and defensive players shone. But Venables believes his young group has room to grow. 

"We left some money on the table," he said.

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland graduate.

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