CLEMSON — Brent Venables says his new Clemson defense “has got to crawl, then walk, and then jog, and then sprint.”
27 practices remain before the Sept. 1 opener against Auburn, and the Tigers’ new-look system is far from a finished product.
As Venables digs into the grind that is preseason practice, however, he is pleased with the progress his new charges have shown from spring drills.
“The guys are excited,” he said Saturday night. “They have great energy, great enthusiasm, they’re hungry for practice. We’ve got really good leadership, good carryover from the spring, guys are experienced players, experienced athletes, done a really good job of knowing what to do. I’m pleased with their effort.”
Venables says it is clear that his players bought into his system fully during “voluntary” summer workouts, which coaches cannot observe.
“You can see the guys have really worked at it. They’ve put themselves in the right place mentally,” he said. “With summer conditioning, you don’t feel like you have to start over from a mental standpoint. That comes from great maturity, great leadership. I think we’ve got great leadership in the front end at linebacker and in the back end.”
He covered a number of topics during a 10-minute chat with reporters, touching on players returning from injury and those seeking to fulfill their potential.
One of the most popular topics was sophomore “Will” linebacker Tony Steward, who is returning from his second ACL tear in as many years, and doing quite well.
“He’s gonna start, actually,” Venables said with a knowing grin to laughs from reporters. “He’s doing well, though. For a guy who just went through his first two practices in the system, he’s been in good position on the football. He knows what he’s doing. He’s not lost. I’ve been happy for him. It looks like he’s feeling confident. No lingering physical affects right now.”
Steward didn’t go through spring practice while rehabbing his knee, which left Venables wondering exactly what he’ d get despite Steward’s solid understanding of the system on paper.
“He’s moving really well, has a good solid understanding of what his responsibilities are, what his alignments are, what his keys are,” Venables said. “I felt like that when he wasn’t practicing, but you just never know until they get out there and do it.”
He’s currently working behind seniors Corico Wright (formerly Hawkins) and Jonathan “Tig” Willard, who are enjoying a spirited battle for the starting role.
“He’s done really well with the move to weakside linebacker,” Venables said of Wright. “He understands the position, fits in with it well, has got a good strong mental grasp of it. I hope it’s a really strong battle for he and Tig.
“From what I’ve seen up to this point, I feel comfortable with the two of them, that there’s one really good quality player there, that can play with consistency and play at a high level. Tig’s battling. It’ll be fun to watch.”
Another battle is forming at the “Sam” position between freshman Travis Blanks, junior Quandon Christian and sophomore Lateek Townsend. The position is a hybrid between linebacker and defensive back, which fits both Blanks and Christian well.
“We’ve got a good competition going there, and competition makes everyone better,” Venables said. “(Blanks) and Quandon are battling it out and we’ve got Lateek working both outside positions, he’s picked up on that well. Travis is hungry, very coachable, gained a lot of weight since he’s been here, put on strength, weight and knowledge. He says he feels night and day to where he was in the spring and I think he was pretty solid in the spring. I think he’s moving around more confident right now.”
Sophomore Tavaris Barnes has moved from defensive tackle to defensive end, which Venables says “gives us a more athletic body” with good experience, speed and quickness.
That frees up potential playing time for true freshmen Carlos Watkins and D.J. Reader, who look like, well, freshmen. Venables says their playing time hinges on how fast they pick up his system.
“It’s how quickly they seem to play, how sure they are of themselves,” he said. “They’re learning a new language, some new techniques, new discipline about gap control and pad leverage and putting eyes in the right place. They’re two big, strong athletic guys. In time I think they’ll have a chance to be solid players for us.”
Of course, no real judgments can be made until the pads go on and Clemson goes through a scrimmage; the Tigers’ first scrimmage will be at Memorial Stadium next Saturday.
“I’m pulling for all of them, but course, once we start grading scrimmages, that’s when we start massaging depth charts,” he said. “It’s easy now to be right. Still a challenge, trust me. But you’ve got to grade out best with the most consistency.”