CLEMSON — For Corico Hawkins, learning Kevin Steele’s scheme was akin to being dropped in the deep end of the pool and being told, “Swim.”
“I was a freshman, and I was like, ‘What in the world?” Clemson’s senior linebacker said Wednesday. “Coming from a high school defense where you run one call, one coverage, and it was like, ‘Go, Corico, go,’ or ‘Go, Johnny, go.’ Coming into coach Steele’s scheme, it was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’”
Hawkins learned Steele’s system well enough to start 24 games over the past two seasons, rolling up 150 tackles in the process.
Still, this spring has been a revelation for Hawkins and the rest of the Tigers’ linebackers.
With new defensive coordinator Brent Venables on board, they’re running a simpler scheme which trades complicated line-of-scrimmage changes for instinctive moves. And they love it.
“It allows linebackers to go downhill and mess stuff up,” said senior linebacker Jonathan “Tig” Willard.
As Hawkins said, linebackers are able to “pin your ears back and just go.”
“This is my key, my read,” he said. “When the ball turns over, go. Drop back in coverage, do my thing. Once the ball turns over, I do my thing. As opposed to, ’ I’ve got to think about this and this, it’s Ok, this is what I’ve got, line here, line there, go.’”
Steele’s system was NFL-proven, but it was, indeed, complicated.
Players scrambling to get into position just before the snap was all too common a sight last season. Steele and players said they weren’t confused, but it certainly didn’t appear so on the surface.
“Sometimes (we were),” Willard said. “Mainly it was off communication, getting the whole call communicated to everyone. Our eyes were on the offense, looking back, looking here, looking there.”
Venables’ system eliminates those issues.
“There’s not a lot of stuff to do pre-snap,” Hawkins said. “It’s either ‘Left, left, left’ or ‘Right, right right.’ Those are the only calls you make, as opposed to (Steele’s system), where it’s an NFL scheme and style of defense.”
This system is instinctive, and one thing leads to another, Hawkins said.
“Your coverage responsibility takes you to your run responsibility,” he said. “Where you line up, who you cover, that’s your gap. If an offense lines up in a 30 alignment, you know what you have.”
Willard loves the simplicity.
“It’s based off the formation,” he said. “What you have to know is what formation the offense is in before you can tell what gap you have, which pass route to get. Basically, it’s about being smart pre-snap.”
With a new system comes new responsibility. Hawkins said Wednesday that he’s working at the “Will” outside linebacker spot, competing with Willard, the incumbent starter. Meanwhile, sophomore Stephone Anthony is working in the middle, where his athleticism has impressed coaches.
Junior Quandon Christian remains outside at “Sam”, although he hasn’t been impressive; Dabo Swinney said Wednesday coaches are still working to translate his talent into on-field results.
Hawkins doesn’t have a problem with the change, saying added coverage responsibilities are the only difference.
Who’ll get more playing time this fall? It might wind up who can best embrace simplicity.
“It’s making me better and making him better,” Willard said. “It’s two good guys competing, working each day to get better and better – beat each other out.”