CLEMSON — One week into preseason practice, Brent Venables loves the spirit his new Clemson defense has shown.
“We’re making improvement,” Venables said Saturday following the Tigers’ first scrimmage of preseason. “Every so often along the way, we’re stubbing our toe, but we’ve got to keep fighting. It’s a long fall camp and you have to have big-picture in mind, show maturity and toughness. It’s about working hard, start getting in the middle of the grind. Now’s when you’ve got to bite down and fight through that two-a-day mindset.”
Venables said he needs one thing, above all else, from his defense: more depth. The Tigers are breaking in a young defensive line and are particularly thin at defensive end, although sophomores Tavaris Barnes and Vic Beasley have impressed in reserve roles behind Malliciah Goodman and Corey Crawford.
Watson: 'Most special team I've played with'
“We have to stay healthy,” he said. “Assuming our guys continue to come with the same positive mindset, willingness to work, invest in the process, that’s what it’s about. If they continue to grind they’ll get better. We’ll be ready to play.”
One player who might not be ready is linebacker Tony Steward. The sophomore is coming off his second ACL tear in as many years and knees, and proclaimed himself healthy last week. Venables said Steward is “comfortable in the defense” and “did well” Saturday before raising the specter of a redshirt season.
Steward played in only five games before tearing his ACL last season, and Clemson’s appeal for a redshirt year was denied by the NCAA. However, he would be eligible to redshirt this season.
“I don’t know,” Venables said when asked if Steward would contribute this fall. “I’m a, look at next week, next month, next year kind of guy. We’ll see. I don’t want to waste anybody’s time, either. I want to make sure we’re looking at the big picture, not just living at the moment.”
Steward, Venables said, is adjusting well to his system.
“He was a little bit slower at first overall top-end speed, where he’d take the run-through, burst through blocks,” he said. “But now you’re seeing that show up as well. As far as his understanding, his positioning, where his help is, he has a very solid understanding of that. I’m proud of him. You’re hoping he was listening all spring.”
Another player who is redshirting – Oklahoma transfer linebacker Kellen Jones – is making a difference, Venables said.
“He has a very competitive attitude,” Venables said. “He loves to play, loves to compete, loves to practice, loves all things football. He’s quick, he’s explosive, he’s sudden. A high-energy, physical, disruptive guy. He shows up and he’s like a stick of dynamite.”
Jones has a “strong future”, Venables said; he had 10 tackles in 12 games as an Oklahoma freshman. He can play all three linebacker positions.
“He can bring leadership right now. He can help a mindset right now,” he said. “Those guys that aren’t playing right now can either detract from what you’re doing or they can contribute. Redshirt freshman, sophomore, doesn’t matter. If you’re going to contribute to this team there’s always a role for everyone. He understands that. He knows where he is right now; he’s here.”