Clemson defense suffering from communication breakdown

Kevin Steele's defense has surrendered an average of 38 points the last three games.

Travis Bell

CLEMSON -- The silence has bothered Kevin Steele this season.

There is a sound to effective defensive play: players barking back and forth before the snap, communicating play calls, identifying offensive formations and adjusting their own alignments. Defenders, the good ones, are even in constant communication as the play unfolds.

The Clemson defensive coordinator knows what elite defensive play sounds like. He heard late NFL linebacker Sam Mills play while coaching with the Carolina Panthers in the mid-1990s.

"We were at practice one day and (backup linebacker) Andre Royal was messing up," Steele said. "He knows the stuff but he can't get it communicated."

Royal was behind Mills, the starter, who routinely identified the scout team's plays quickly, calling them out before the snap, along with defensive adjustments to his defensive teammates. After one particular play against the first-team defense, Steele said the offensive scout team ran the same play for the second-team defense.

"The second team goes in and Andre yells 'blah, blah, blah' and throws his helmet down and starts cussing and screaming, and he goes, 'Sam, how do you see all that stuff?,' " Steele recalled. "(Mills) said 'Andre, where were you 12 years ago?' You could see (Royal's) brain turning, and Andre said, 'I was in the fourth grade.' Well, Mills said, 'I was out there doing this.' "

Clemson has more Royals than Mills-like players this season.

Departed this season are veteran players like Marcus Gilchrist and four other defensive starters who had spent two years in Steele's scheme. They had the confidence rooted in experience to make decisive calls and proper pre-snap alignment shifts last season.

Steele said player-to-player communication has been an issue with a young defense. Clemson has fallen from 19th in the country in total defense last season (320 yards per game) to 64th this season (385 yards per game).

With most young players, Steele says there is a hesitation, a doubt, in communicating what they have diagnosed. Clemson had at times four freshmen on the field at Georgia Tech, allowing the Yellow Jackets to run for nearly 400 yards. Clemson has allowed 38 points per game the last three games.

"It's affected us," Steele said. "And not so much because they don't know what to do -- they do know what to do -- but communicating it in an effective manner, sometimes it's been a (problem) and we've had to tweak that some. … Adjusting to non-Gilly (Marcus Gilchrist), it's been a challenge."

It wasn't just defensively where communication suffered. At Georgia Tech, quarterback Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins weren't on the same page on a pass in the end zone that resulted in a key fourth-quarter interception. While the staff has said Boyd was at fault, Watkins said he should have given Boyd a signal that he was going to cut his route short and not run to the back of the end zone.

Swinney said defensive performance has had a significant dropoff from starters to reserves, which are littered with freshmen.

Steele said improving onfield communication was a focus during the bye week and will be key against Wake Forest, which spreads the field and has a dynamic receiver in Chris Givens. Wake is fourth in the ACC in passing offense, averaging 265 yards per game.

"We are starting to see more confidence in (communication)," Steele said. "They have communicated better as they've gone along. I think the open week helped us correct some of that and get them on the right page; settle them down some, if you will.

"It's not a knowledge issue -- it's an application issue."

Steele heard something Monday which he'd been waiting to hear all season: a young player, corner Martin Jenkins, having the conviction to call out the proper pre-snap adjustment in practice.

"We had a situation where it was bunched up, a situation that calls for getting us out of that, and he did it," Steele said. "It's that quick, rapid-fire execution of it."

And with that the silence, and Steele hopes a defensive slump, was broken.

ACC title game sold out

The ACC's football championship set for Dec. 3 in Charlotte is a sellout. It's the earliest the game has ever sold out. The only tickets left are the 10,000 that will be made available to each participating institution once the Atlantic and Coastal divisional championships are determined. At this point the divisional champion have not been determined, although Clemson can clinch the Atlantic title with a win over Wake Forest.