CHARLOTTE, N.C. — – They played angry. And it’s easy to see why.
Following an ugly end to 2009, Clemson’s linebackers were pegged as the biggest reason behind the Tigers’ subpar defensive finish.
A year ago, Clemson held just one of its last eight foes under 128 yards rushing, with South Carolina galloping for 223 and Georgia Tech going for 333 in a 39-34 ACC title game defeat in which the Yellow Jackets didn’t punt once.
Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Kevin Steele shuffled the deck in spring, shifting junior middle linebacker Brandon Maye to the outside and installing sophomore Corico Hawkins as the new starting middle-man.
And even though Steele began with an all-new group of starters (sophomore Jonathan Willard split time with Maye, who missed four games with injuries, and redshirt freshman Quandon Christian started outside), the Tigers’ linebackers have made clear progress as 2010 winds to a close.
Entering Friday’s Meineke Car Care Bowl matchup with South Florida, Clemson is holding foes to 131.7 yards rushing per game; they’re averaging 3.5 yards per carry.
In 2009, they also averaged 3.5 ypc, but had 151.7 yards per game.
Most impressive? Clemson has held six of its last eight opponents under 97 yards rushing and all but South Carolina (29 points – 22 of which were allowed by the defense) and North Carolina (21 points) to 16 points or fewer.
Last year, six of the last eight foes scored at least 21 points (with USC rolling up 34 and Georgia Tech 39).
“I feel like we’ve made progress,” Maye said. “We progressed every week, we worked, didn’t worry about what people said about us, we came to work every week and came with a chip on our shoulder. We were more mentally prepared than we were last year, understanding our defense.”
Steele, who can be sparing with praise, knows his players have improved.
“I think they grasped the package, done a good job of that, they progressed nicely,” he said. “They get out there and do their job.”
Still, getting the linebackers to discuss their improvement can be difficult.
When asked for an explanation behind the progress Monday, Hawkins simply leaned back and pointed at defensive end Da’Quan Bowers and defensive tackle Jarvis Jenkins, flanking him on each side.
The implication? They have the All-Americans, the national award winners, the All-ACC talent on the defensive line. They do the dirty work.
Us linebackers? We just clean up the messes.
“When you’ve got the type of front we have it makes it easy to play the run,” Hawkins said. “So credit those guys. Those guys did a tremendous job up front, they caused a lot of chaos, took on two, three blockers, here and there.
“Da’Quan causes hectic times on the edge. They have to be accounted for which makes it easy for us. The holes are that wide, we run through and make the plays.”
Steele intimated as much.
“We were very good up front, they were comfortable with that,” he said. “A lot of linebacker play has to do with what’s in front of you. The linebackers take the hats off to the guys in front of them, because they make it easier.”
It is also important to note that this was their second year under Steele’s exacting watch.
Improvement was natural.
“That’s the case with anything. Second grade’s easier than first grade,” Steele quipped.
Learning a college defense is significantly tougher than, say, cursive writing, though.
And Clemson’s linebackers buried themselves in their playbooks this year.
“It’s just becoming students of the game, each and every day, every week, every time we have practice,” Hawkins said. “The extra film study, the extra studying of your playbook comes in play. As linebackers we need all that, so I think that’s the biggest part we need to get better at.”
Maye agreed – year two is much easier than year one.
“Guys have really locked in, paying attention to our roles,” he said. “The second year, we know the basics of the defense. When you do that, you know a lot more and have a chance to explore a lot more about the defense.”
This offseason, they won’t have as much anger fueling them. But Clemson’s linebackers are still focused on improvement.
“We had a great opportunity to be in some games last year and didn’t get it done,” Maye said. “We used it as motivation to study our playbooks, learn our plays. We came out and (did well), but we’ve got a lot more room to improve.”