CLEMSON — As Brent Venables spoke with reporters about his defense Wednesday night, an opportunistic fireworks technician saw his moment.
In the distance, above Memorial Stadium, the pyrotechnics shot off like cannons, one after another, as Clemson’s new defensive coordinator answered a question about his linebackers.
BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM!
“That timing was perfect,” Venables said wryly, “for our linebackers.”
Clemson was testing fireworks for games this fall, but fans would love for the Tigers’ defense to make a similar impact.
Last fall, under now-departed defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, they were too often the moveable object. Following the first day of practice in full pads, Venables saw some positive signs for his new group.
“It’s guys being physical, flying around,” he said. “The PAW (inside) drill was fun. There’s some give and take, some good, some bad. There’s good battles, good competition and guys being physical.”
Venables is known for his work with linebackers, and he generally appears pleased with the group he has inherited.
Sophomore Stephone Anthony will start in the middle, with seniors Corico Wright and Jonathan “Tig” Willard working at “Will” and junior Quandon Christian working at “Sam” or strongside linebacker, which can also function as a fifth defensive back.
He said Wright has been “better than he was in the spring,” with Willard “really consistent” and Christian has “stepped up his competiveness.”
“I like the progress they’ve made,” Venables said. “I’m always wanting more, got a lot of work to still do, but they’re making improvement in all the little things. We’ve got good leadership, good toughness. I like the way they practice, we coach them hard and they play with a good deal of intelligence. They’re very locked in.”
Those linebackers were maligned a year ago, but Venables believes in their potential.
“I think we’ve got really good talent and I think we’ve got some really fine players, and I think we have a chance to make strong improvement if guys continue to work on all the little things, guys continue to invest in the process and how they play well,” he said. “They’ve got respect for that process now, and now it’s consistency they’ve got to bring it with every day. I think it has a chance to be a consistent solid part of our defense.”
Venables admits the Tigers are “thin” at cornerback, but he’s happy with the depth at safety, where seniors Rashard Hall, Xavier Brewer and Jonathan Meeks are fighting for two starting spots. Sophomore Robert Smith has emerged as a solid backup.
There are questions about Hall’s health after offseason surgery to repair a knee injury that hampered him throughout 2011, but Venables has been happy with what he’s shown thus far.
“He’s not limping around or having any kind of limitations. Whether or not he’s not completely sure of himself, I don’t think he shows that,” Venables said. “He’s shown suddenness, instincts, coverage ability and explosive tackling ability. I think in his mind he’s probably trying to knock the rust off a little bit. He’s taken eight, nine months off and come back, but he really wants to do well and contribute. He’s working really hard every day.”
Same goes for highly-touted freshman defensive tackles Carlos Watkins and D.J. Reader, who hope to have an impact in the line rotation this fall.
“They’ve done well,” Venables said. “They’re big, strong, can move their feet, they’ve shown quickness, they’ve shown ability to leverage, like a lot of young guys, want to stand straight up and down on their back feet every once in a while, get blown into linebackers’ legs, but I like them. They’ve got good attitudes and they’re not afraid to compete.”
They’ll likely fit in behind sophomores DeShawn Williams and Grady Jarrett, who have emerged as leaders for the starting roles vacated by Brandon Thompson and Rennie Moore.
“They’ve got great toughness,” Venables said of the sophomores. “They’re not afraid to compete. They’ve got really good natural strength and quickness, instinctive guys, they’re battlers, they’re fighters, they’re athletic, they can stay on their feet. They’re going to give us a chance inside.”