CLEMSON — As a linebacker at Tennessee, Kevin Steele, in his own estimation, “wasn’t good.”
“I was really good at reading the cards for the other team (as a scout player),” Clemson’s defensive coordinator said Tuesday.
One day, when Steele missed a tackle in a spring scrimmage, veteran coach Johnny Majors noticed. Oh, did he.
He kept Steele after practice, and while Majors leaned on a tackling dummy and watched, Steele tackled an offensive lineman. 38 times.
“I was so angry I don’t remember how I felt,” Steele said. “Actually I was pretty excited that the head coach paid attention to me.”
And next time he had a chance to make a tackle, he got it right.
Those old-school methods are long gone; as Steele put it, “if we returned to the Junction Boys – which we could’ve done before now – it wouldn’t be an issue. I’d probably be in jail, because they don’t let you coach like that no more.”
Steele can’t fix Clemson’s tackling issues that way, but he shed some light Tuesday on how they will be fixed – with good old-fashioned hard work. He said the Tigers missed 16 tackles for 145 yards Saturday against Wofford, which is simply unacceptable.
“Something’s going to change. Something’s going to change,” he said. “When you’re extremely irritated about something, it’s better to keep your mouth shut. I’m old enough to know and old-school enough to know that if we do it a certain way, and it doesn’t work, I know the old way works.”
Steele said he has known for some time that tackling would be an issue, but didn’t elaborate.
“ I saw it coming, OK? I saw it coming,” he said. “Just leave it at that. I saw it coming. We’ll get it fixed. We’ll get it fixed.”
The NCAA does not keep or release stats on missed tackles, but entering Saturday’s visit from No.21 Auburn, Clemson’s defensive statistics are alarming.
Clemson has allowed 411 yards of total offense per game, 90th nationally, and 218.5 yards rushing per game, 107th.
Asked the most positive things about his defense so far, Steele responded “that we’ve got practice time and a lot of season to get better.”
Tackling is the biggest issue, and Steele says the problem is isolated in a small handful of players, noting that he can name “five or six” starters that have zero or one missed tackle in two games, but a handful of players who have “eight, nine, 10.”
“You’d be surprised if you broke it down,” he said. “It’s a select few, not en masse.”
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The problem, he says, is correctable and simple.
“I’ve had a lot of things where I looked out there and said, ‘Dadgum, how we going to fix this,’” he said. “But you know what? It’d be like the chief mechanic at Ford Motor Company in Detroit Michigan, asking him, ‘Do you know how to change oil?’”
“You may give him one of those computer questions on something that’s going wrong under the hood with all that computer stuff, and he may need some technicians to help you. But changing the oil, I bet he can get done. It’s the base rudiments of coaching defensive football.”
What’s the fix? Repetition.
Or, as Steele said it, “repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition.”
“Encouraging guys through work that we’re going to get this thing done,” he said. “We’re going to step on their toes and wrap up. We’re going to do that.”
Complicating the matter is the fact that Clemson doesn’t tackle much live in practice. The Tigers have a tackling circuit every Tuesday, but as Steele noted, getting the Mike Bellamys of the world hurt wouldn’t be acceptable, just as it wouldn’t be acceptable if Brandon Thompson or Quandon Christian was injured in practice in a tackling-related drill.
Even in spring practice, tackling is limited; when Steele played for Majors, spring practice was unlimited. Now, the NCAA allows 15 practices, three of which are spent in shorts with limited padding.
“It frustrates you every single day in practice,” he said. “But you don’t go live in practice. People would be shocked. People don’t tackle in practice any more. Don’t go to the ground. Yeah, they step on their toes and wrap up, but stepping on their toes and wrapping up a guy you’re not carrying to the ground is different than carrying a guy to the ground.”
Defensive tackle Rennie Moore says he and his teammates need to be less passive and “pull the trigger,” saying “there should be an alarm going off in your head.”
“I’d rather anybody miss a tackle pulling the trigger, knowing he gave it his all, rather than waiting for someone to come hit him,” Moore said. “We’re a defense. We hit first. That’s pure, point blank.”
Majors’ not-so-gentle coaching sent Steele a message. He can’t send the same message, but he’s confident his will work nonetheless.
“I can’t go play for them, and no, I can’t make the tackle,” he said. “ But, I can coach it and get it corrected as a coaching staff. We can and we will.”