SENECA — When Brent Venables replaced Kevin Steele as Clemson’s defensive coordinator in early January, he was expected to fix the Tigers’ issues with spread offenses and mobile quarterbacks – Steele’s biggest downfall.
Venables has plenty of experience battling spread schemes in the Big 12. But the truth is this: he’ll be expected to defend a variety of different offenses from week to week.
Be it Georgia Tech’s flexbone, Virginia Tech’s pro-style system, Maryland’s spread system or Auburn’s mysterious scheme under new coordinator Scott Loeffler in the Sept. 1 opener, Venables and Co. will face different challenges.
“How we match up against our offense may not be how we match up against Auburn, or Georgia Tech, or Florida State,” he said. “I think you need to be multiple. More offenses have the propensity to be multiple.”
Venables calls the ACC “a very multiple league.”
“Some teams want to run 80 percent of the time, some want to throw it, some are a little more like our offense, a little of both,” he said. “You’ve got no-huddle, up-tempo stuff, triple option.”
Clemson fans are likely most concerned with how Venables handles the option. Steele struggled mightily against the Yellow Jackets’ flexbone, winning only one of four meetings. Tech didn’t even have to punt in the 2009 ACC title game, running up and down Raymond James Stadium’s turf in a 39-34 win.
“I’ve been asked more than anything else about the option,” he said. “Do you know it’s hard for a lot of defenses to stop those guys?”
After laughter from gathered reporters died down, Venables identified the key to success against the flexbone: stopping them on early downs.
“They led the country in third-down conversions, and it’s the ability to have success on early downs running the football, with manageable third and twos – you can’t stop them on third down,” he said. “You let them get to third and two, third and three, third and one, they’re going to be hard to stop.”
Creating turnovers – and limiting offensive mistakes – is key to stopping the flexbone, too.
“They’re disciplined, efficient, they seldom beat themselves,” he said. “If they play someone who turns the ball over, they have a great chance to win. That’s if you’re with Oklahoma or Seneca Junior High School. They thrive on possessing the football and gaining extra possessions and taking care of the football. A turnover is like two turnovers. You can’t give up possessions.
“On fourth downs, they go for it, take advantage and attack your lack of ability to stay disciplined. That’s why they keep doing it and run the same play up the middle. If you’re not stopping the fullback, no way you’re stopping the pitch and no way you’re stopping the quarterback consistently. They start going inside out and players can’t come off the field and say, ‘I thought.’ You’ve just got to do it.’”
A key to handling versatile offenses is having versatile players.
Venables thinks he has one in freshman defensive back Travis Blanks. Blanks can line up at cornerback and safety, much like current NFL player Marcus Gilchrist or senior safety/corner Xavier Brewer.
“In an ideal situation, you’d have a guy who’s 6-foot-5, 245, runs a 4.2-second 40, can play corner, cover the slot, can run the A-gap, smash a 240-pound fullback and smash his jaw,” he said. “That guy doesn’t exist, at least in the guys I’ve coached. So you would like a guy who comes close to meeting those kinds of attributes. Travis does… some guys have ability to play multiple positions and they provide you instant depth. Most guys don’t have that ability. Travis does. That’s unique.”
His schemes can be multiple, too; Venables runs a 4-3 scheme, but two years ago, he incorporated a 3-4 system with a veteran Oklahoma defense that helped fuel a run to the Big 12 title and Fiesta Bowl win.
“When you get up and disrupt routes, get in people’s faces, that makes receivers uncomfortable and quarterbacks uncomfortable,” he said. “For us, we’ve been multiple, but you’ve got to be really good at something too instead of being average at everything. That’s the delicate balance, finding out what your guys can play, what they can handle at a high consistent level. You feed them as they go.”