SENECA — Brent Venables remembers his first impression of Sam Bradford.
In 2005, Bradford served as Oklahoma’s scout team quarterback while redshirting, meaning Venables, then the Sooners’ defensive coordinator, got a daily look at him.
“I was begging for coach (Bob) Stoops to go get a (junior college) QB,” Venables said. “ ‘This guy, this isn’t the guy, coach.’”
One year later, Bradford set an NCAA freshman record for touchdown passes. He won the Heisman Trophy and was the No.1 overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams.
Venables’ lesson? Don’t rush to judgment. He’ll get plenty of opportunities for patience in his first season as Clemson’s defensive coordinator.
This fall, Venables will rely on a group of young players who’ll mix with a core of veterans in hopes of improving a defense which struggled at times under former defensive coordinator Kevin Steele.
(Bradford) is playing in the NFL,” Venables said. “As a (true) freshman he wasn’t ready, and most of them aren’t. Because of depth, sheer natural talent you say , ‘Well, we’re not going to play them very much. But they gain experience and it helps a year from now.”
11 players on Venables’ defensive two-deep are either freshmen or sophomores. Sophomores are expected to start at three of four defensive line spots, middle linebacker and a cornerback spot.
Perhaps the most important is Stephone Anthony, who pushed senior Corico Wright to an outside position, taking over the starting middle linebacker role in spring.
A former five-star signee, Anthony improved as he played last fall, but will be counted on for a much larger role in 2012.
“He’s really hungry to be a great player,” Venables said. “He’s very coachable, brings high energy every day. He’s talented, and I knew that. I watched him in high school; (Oklahoma) might have been his first offer as a junior. What a quality person, individual he is. He’s an achievement-oriented young guy.
“He cares about having his name on it and not letting his teammates down. He’s got a lot of the traits and intangibles that you want, not just players, but leaders, figureheads of program, your starting middle linebacker to have. He’s not there, but he works every day, he’s locked in. He pays attention and he’s hard on himself.”
Another year in major college football, Venables said, will make a difference this fall.
“No doubt,” he said. “Whatever he was, I think he’ll be twice the player he was last year. More than anything, not because of knowledge or experience, but just because of maturity and playing last year. It’s getting all those jitters out, like all freshmen have.”
A pair of sophomores who were limited last season will also be counted upon. Lateek Townsend missed the first four games while serving an NCAA extra-benefit suspension, and Tony Steward played in only five games before suffering his second ACL tear in as many years; he sat out spring practice while recovering.
“I was pleased with what I thought was strong engagement in meetings, but I couldn’t dedicate the whole meeting to seeing what he knew, what he retained. I needed to work and see what the guys who were going to practice knew,” Venables said of Steward.
“…I did watch his high school tape, and he can run straight ahead , explosive, very fast and I really liked his personality and what they are as people, as much as anything.”
Steward is healthy and has been fully cleared since May; Venables wants to see him make an impact.
“I hope he makes some decisions really hard about what we’re going to do as coaches with defensive personnel,” Venables said. “His mindset is, he knows he’s got an opportunity to make an impact and a group that returns experience, but again nobody showed any level of consistency to brag about.”
Townsend played primarily on special teams last fall; he’ll begin as the third-team strongside linebacker behind junior Quandon Christian.
“I love what he brings. He likes to play,” Venables said. “Football is his sanctuary. Practice is his sanctuary. I saw him improve as much as anyone in the spring, with his foundation and fundamental technique. He’s got a ways to go. The first seven, eight practices were pretty stagnant. But then little by little I started to see a little improvement every day. It was a lot easier for me to be encouraged in nourishing to him. I think he started to flourish that way.”
Tackling ability, Venables said, helps Townsend stand out.
“He’s explosive, he can run, he loves contact,” Venables said. “He’s a contact player, and a lot of guys… (you say) he’s soft, he’s not a real explosive tackler. He doesn’t have experience and he doesn’t understand all the nuances of the game yet, the intricacies of the defense. I love his willingness to be aggressive, be in attack mode. We need to find a place for him once we start.”
Another player who’ll have a place (or places) in the defense this fall is freshman defensive back Travis Blanks. He’s currently listed as the second-team strongside linebacker/nickel back behind Christian, but could line up as a cornerback, safety or nickel back.
“I love Travis and I love his attitude,” Venables said. “He’s as mature a freshman as I’ve been around. He’s really hard on himself, that’s his No.1 attribute. I’m trying to teach guys to be like Blanks. That guy comes to work every day, and makes mistakes, takes ownership, takes responsibility, and you see him in a very purposeful way go and attack that weakness the next day.
“And you can coach him hard. He’s not polished by any stretch, but I think he has a chance to be a real quality player in time. He has the foundation and makings of what a lot of special players have as far as intangibles. He’s got length, he’s got speed, he’s got instincts, good ball skills. I think he’ll be a big part of what we’re doing this year.”