CLEMSON — A week before preseason practice began, Dabo Swinney and his family were enjoying a little boating time on Lake Keowee.
Swinney passed a boat, piloted by a large, shirtless man, which was pulling another boat carrying about 12 people.
Clemson’s head coach noticed a familiar face among them – his newly-hired, $800,000 per year defensive coordinator.
“I went, that’s (Brent) Venables!” Swinney recalled Tuesday, recounting the story.
10 minutes later, Swinney’s cell phone rang.
“Coach, remember where you passed me?” Venables said. “We’re broke down.”
“Are you out of gas?” Swinney asked.
“No, we’re not out of gas.”
Swinney went back to check on him. Sure enough, they were out of gas, requiring a 30-minute tow back to Venables’ lake home.
“The only thing that surprised me was that he didn’t pay attention to the gas gauge on his boat,” he said. “I guess they don’t get a lot of lake time in Norman.”
Kidding aside, Venables has enjoyed a smooth transition to his new post leading the Tigers’ defense.
With over 40 spring and preseason practices behind him, he is more than ready for the next phase: actual game coaching.
For the first time since 1999, Venables will lead an entirely new defense when No.14 Clemson takes on Auburn Saturday night inside Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. Following 13 seasons as Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator, it is an opportunity he welcomes.
“Since I’ve been here, it feels like every day feels new, the first time,” he said. “It’s exciting but it’s also a little unnerving to me. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. That’s part of the challenge, to grow from a professional standpoint. It’s been a lot of fun.”
With the season opener three days away, Swinney is just ready to get the Venables era going.
“I’m looking forward to getting on the field with him,” he said. “He’s kind of like a caged animal. We’ve got to get the guy to game day.”
When he replaced Kevin Steele in January, Venables inherited a defense which had its share of success but also plenty of struggles in 2011. The Tigers allowed 29.3 points per game, giving up 30-plus points six times, including the 70-33 Orange Bowl embarrassment at West Virginia’s hands.
He installed a simpler, more instinctive scheme which should allow players to play faster, but has steadfastly avoiding criticizing Steele or commenting on the South Beach debacle.
Venables praised his players’ adjustment – and the talent that Steele left behind. The transition, he said, was “seamless,” with “a strong willingness to buy in.”
“If you have any resistance that’s never good,” he said. “I haven’t really had to experience that. Guys have had a great deal of maturity, strong character, and guys want to win. They understand what winning is. There’s a strong foundation of success here.
“13 years ago, you go to Oklahoma, they haven’t had a winning season in five years. There’s a lot of elements, obstacles that you have to fight through. What comes with that is resistance to change. It hasn’t been that way.”
His boss is equally comfortable.
“In a game like this, you have to really understand our system and be able to apply it to what we see,” he said. “If you don’t have success (early on), you adjust to something else and do something a little different. You have to be prepared for that. I think we’re in a good spot. We’ve got our players in the right spot.”
Over the last month, Venables has seen his players’ knowledge levels progress as well.
“The last three weeks, the guys have grown more confident in what we’re doing,” he said. “They’re excited, they think they can have success, but you still have to see it on game day. It won’t be all easy, it won’t be all perfect, but that’s what I’m excited about, to see our guys in adverse conditions. The revealing of character will take place on Saturday.”
You can’t do that in a scrimmage, either.
“It’s kind of the unknown,” Venables said. “How players will respond, learning different personalities, their temperament on game day. That’s what it takes to face adversity that’s inevitable. You see who’s got that competitive edge to them, what type of leaders emerge from the mental and physical toughness that game day demands.”
Once the game kicks off, a chapter will close, and Venables’ tenure will really start to matter.
“I’ve been thinking about that all weekend,” sophomore defensive tackle Josh Watson said. “It’d be better to get this one over with and get on to the next one. I’m excited to show the world that we’re a better defense than we played our last game as, and I think we’ll do a lot better this time.”