Swinney, Steele like defense's added depth, flexibility

Clemson linebacker Corico Hawkins tackles Wake Forest running back Josh Harris in the second quarter at BB&T Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Photo by Ken Ruinard

Clemson linebacker Corico Hawkins tackles Wake Forest running back Josh Harris in the second quarter at BB&T Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C.

— If anything, Dabo Swinney is getting more joy out of his defense this August.

“It’s a lot more fun to go watch Kevin (Steele’s) individual period,” Swinney said Tuesday night, referring to his defensive coordinator’s work with linebackers. “Last year we’d have coaches, managers, everyone work drills – he’s got a lot of bodies over there.”

Such news defines two big early themes early on for Clemson’s defense: depth and flexibility.

While the Tigers are still trying to fill the holes left by graduations and NFL draft departures from defensive line stalwarts like Da'Quan Bowers, Jarvis Jenkins and Miguel Chavis and secondary veterans DeAndre McDaniel, Marcus Gilchrist and Byron Maxwell, they’re finding depth and new ways to use it.

Steele is experimenting with 3-4 defensive front looks run by the likes of Alabama and the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots, as well as TCU’s 4-2-5 scheme.

Swinney thinks this could pay huge dividends, while noting that Clemson did play some “odd” front last year, depending on the matchups opposing offenses provided.

“We’ve got more ability to be the dynamic, flexible defense we want to be,” he said. “Whether it’s a four-man front, a three-man front or standing up at defensive end. I think we’ve been a little limited the last couple years what we can do – this year, we’ll have more options.”

Steele has made it clear that the 3-4 looks aren’t wholesale change – it’s more about showing opposing offenses a different look and allowing ends like Andre Branch and Corey Crawford to drop back as pass-rushing linebackers or drop into coverage.

We’ve still got our day job,” he said Tuesday. “We’re just experimenting at night. We’re not throwing everything out. Just a couple of little wrinkles.”

One huge wrinkle has come at linebacker, where a talented group of recruits has added depth and bred competition. Five-star recruits Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward lead the way, but less-heralded B.J. Goodson and Lateek Townsend could also press for playing time this season.

“They’re exactly what we thought in the recruiting process, exactly what we evaluated,” Swinney said. “We’re pushing them a lot, they’re getting opportunity… They’re good-looking guys. It’s the right looking group. Kevin does a great job with them, really pleased with all those young guys.”

He’s equally happy with the veteran front-liners.

“Quandon (Christian) is having a great camp, and Tig Willard, the same thing,” Swinney said. “Corico (Hawkins) is kind of that rock in (the middle). That’s a blessing for us. We’ve got some really sharp guys who’ve had to develop to get where they are. And we’ve got some really talented young guys who, once we get them up to speed, will be able to help us.”

Competition is also brewing in the secondary, where freshman Bashaud Breeland is challenging juniors Coty Sensabaugh and Xavier Brewer for a starting role. Steele said Tuesday that sophomore Martin Jenkins is also battling Brewer at nickel, and Swinney has mentioned redshirt freshman corner Garry Peters as an early standout as well at both corner and safety.

“It’s like any other position on our defense,” he said. “We’ve got some veteran guys who’ve played a lot, then it’s talent, but young talent. It’s going to be interesting.”

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