Some thoughts on Clemson’s hiring of Brent Venables as defensive coordinator:
1. The Tigers are playing in the big leagues now.
Not too long along, a search for a new coordinator might have found Clemson’s head coach scrounging the roster of so-called ‘mid-majors’ for suitable candidates. That’s not been the case for a while, but Dabo Swinney’s targeting and quick hiring of the man who has coordinated the defense at Oklahoma for most of the past decade puts an exclamation point on how far Clemson has come in terms of competitiveness for top personnel.
Clemson is serious about wanting championship football, and while the administration – principally Terry Don Phillips and Jim Barker – took a road less traveled three years ago in elevating Dabo Swinney to the head coaching position for a bargain-basement price, they’ve subsequently stepped to the plate and rewarded performance in a big way.
Money was apparently no object in making Chad Morris the nation’s highest paid coordinator, and again so in making an offer attractive enough to lure Venables away from Oklahoma. Clemson wants to compete against the likes of Alabama, LSU and Oklahoma on the stage, and is willing to pay what it takes to play in that arena.
2. The move is a good one for Venables.
No matter how Oklahoma chose to spin it, Bob Stoops’ hiring of his brother as defensive co-coordinator amounted to a demotion for Venables, who is of the age and experience to be a viable candidate for a head coaching position.
In newspaper and website coverage of Venables-Clemson story from Oklahoma’s perspective, the choice was repeatedly posed as one of personal opportunity versus loyalty to a program that he’s been a part of for most of his coaching career (since 1999).
Venables, then 37, was interviewed for Clemson’s head coaching position in November, 2008, just before Dabo Swinney had the ‘interim’ tag removed from his title. If Venables is successful at Clemson, he’ll certainly be courted again.
But in the meantime, he’s got a job to do.
3. Venables is a good fit for Clemson’s current situation.
At his press conference last Friday, Dabo Swinney danced all around his reasons for parting ways with Kevin Steele. At one point, he declared it to be a case of philosophical differences, and then, when pressed to describe his own defensive philosophy, he pretty much described what Steele was already doing.
A look at what other successful defensive coordinators are doing to counteract various incarnations of the spread offensive attack shows, as well, that Steele and Venables are on roughly the same page, and by consensus, the right page.
So it can be assumed that Swinney’s “philosophical differences’ with Steele and his presumed “philosophical agreement” with Venables isn’t a strictly X-and-O affair.
Spread offenses, coupled with mobile on-the-run quarterbacks, ended up being Steele’s bottom line downfall.
In hiring Venables as a replacement, it would be perhaps impossible for Swinney to have found a defensive coach with more experience than Venables at defending high-powered spread offenses, which are the rule rather than the exception in the Big 12.
4. The most obvious numbers don’t always tell the whole story.
Statistically, Oklahoma’s last two defenses have been average in terms of national standing – 53rd nationally in 2010 and 55th last year. But look back a year, and you’ll find a Venables-coached defense that ranked eighth nationally in total yardage allowed.
All those numbers need to be considered in context – in opposition to a steady stream of ‘Air Raid’ type offenses that push the pace and rack up the kind of play-count numbers that Chad Morris wants for Clemson’s offense.
A better indicator of overall performance is scoring defense. The Sooners led the Big 12 last season, giving up just 22.1 points per game. Teams in the Big 12 averaged 34.5 points per contest, which led the nation.
5. So what it is that Dabo wants?
This is just a guess: that Swinney is more interested in performance than in scheme; and that his differences with Steele had something to do with the difficulty of teaching his particular system to young, talented, but inexperienced players.
Steele’s system, which he described as “comprehensive” rather than “complicated” or “complex,” did a first-rate job of preparing players for NFL careers. But the Tigers’ youngest players – which in some cases are their most talented players – have had a hard time catching on to the degree that they can perform consistently, with minimal breakdowns.
Last February, Clemson signed the nation’s top-rated class of linebackers. Yet by mid-season, no starters had been displaced by freshmen. By the end of the year, only Stephone Anthony had worked his way into the starting, top-tier mix. Tony Steward might have done, had he not suffered his ACL injury. Lateek Townsend ended up being a valuable special teams player, while B.J. Goodson and Colton Walls redshirted.
Likewise, it has taken the Tigers’ youngest defensive backs time to grow into the system.
This year’s drop-off is strongly proportional to the experience level of the Tigers’ personnel. Next season, 61 players out of Clemson’s 85 will be freshmen or sophomores. If Venables can get more from the Tigers’ youngest defensive players, then Swinney’s move will prove to be a good one.