CLEMSON — Isaiah Simmons never misses a high-five. Whenever Clemson's offense jogs off the field, after a touchdown or a turnover or anything in between, Simmons makes sure to embrace each teammate.
"I just want them to know, we always got their back," the linebacker said.
Simmons, a redshirt junior, is having a special season. So is Clemson's defense, which is tied for ninth in the nation with 15 takeaways. Entering the season, Clemson's offense was supposed to be the stronger unit, with the defense playing catch-up after a mass exodus of stars leaving for the NFL.
Things have played out in reverse so far. Seven games into the season, the Tigers' offense has been questioned by outsiders. The defense, led by Simmons and senior safety K'Von Wallace — who defensive coordinator Brent Venables referred to as the unit's two most versatile players — has been dominant. But the defense's appetite for success has hardly been sated.
"Nobody's hungry — everybody's starving," Simmons said.
Both Simmons and Wallace declared Monday they are looking for shutouts, which have eluded the group so far this season. The Tigers are ranked No. 5 in the nation in total defense, having allowed an average of 256 yards per game, but not once have they held an opponent scoreless.
The key to such a feat, Wallace said, is improved tackling.
"I want to actually be a team that dominates them from the beginning whistle to the last whistle," he said. "In order to do that, we have to dominate each and every snap."
Simmons echoed that sentiment. Though he leads the team in solo tackles (40) and sacks (6), he said he is his biggest critic, adding he can work on the "little things," like using more efficient tackling techniques and being one step quicker on some plays.
More than anything, it's Simmons' mindset that's proved infectious for his teammates. Same with Wallace.
"K'Von's a great leader," coach Dabo Swinney said.
Wallace said he felt responsible for the incident involving Andrew Booth Jr. during Saturday's game at Louisville. Booth was removed from the game after punching a Cardinals player in the face, and then was forced to ride the bus home while his teammates boarded a flight.
Wallace, a senior, said he's noticed lots of similarities between himself and Booth — a 5-star recruit — in terms of both their upbringing and the passion with which they play. Wallace played a minimal role as a true freshman, too.
"There are a lot of things that go on in people's lives that we don't know about, and a lot of time we use football to express that anger," Wallace said. "Sometimes that can get ahead of us."
Simmons on Monday questioned widespread criticism of quarterback Trevor Lawrence, pointing out that Clemson is undefeated this season with the sophomore under center. Lawrence has attracted blame because of his decision-making; he's thrown eight interception this season after recording just four as a freshman.
Saturday, after each of Lawrence's two first-quarter interceptions, Clemson's defense responded by giving the ball right back to Lawrence, first with a fumble caused by defensive end Justin Foster and recovered by defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney, then by forcing the Cardinals to punt after a three-and-out.
Lawrence's play sharpened from there, and the defense continued to excel, despite being without defensive end Xavier Thomas (concussion) for the entire contest. Cornerback A.J. Terrell recorded an interception early in the fourth quarter that gave the ball back to Clemson on Louisvile's 25-yard-line. Five plays later, junior running back Darien Rencher scampered into the end zone for his first career rushing touchdown.
Venables said his team committed its fewest mental errors in a game this season against Louisville, but insisted there is room for improvement – pointing out that Clemson also logged a season high in missed tackles.
Wallace (28 tackles, one sack, two interceptions) believes that can be remedied, starting this Saturday against Boston College, a physical unit that leans on a power running game. Junior A.J. Dillon, the Eagles' 6-foot, 250-pound running back, leads the ACC in rushing yards per game (138.3) and rushing touchdowns (9).
But he hasn't had to run against the Tigers.
"When it's all said and done," Wallace said, "I believe this could be the best defense to ever come through Clemson."