CLEMSON — For the first time in 13 years, Brent Venables is a little bit lost.
And he loves it.
Clemson’s defensive coordinator is seven practices into teaching new charges his system.
For the first time since 1998, he’s doing it somewhere other than the familiar confines of Oklahoma’s practice fields.
Venables was hired to energize a group that struggled at times to pick up Kevin Steele’s complicated system, and he has found that doing so gives him a boost, too.
“It’s obviously different,” he said this week, “because you’re having to coach coaches and the older guys, so everyone’s young that way. It forces me individually to get out of my comfort zone, and it’s been good and healthy for me, too, to take myself out of it. Put everyone else in their shoes and see it from their perspective.”
He has been somewhat vague about the actual principles of his system, but players have said that it is simpler than Steele’s scheme, encouraging them to play instinctively.
During a 10-minute conversation with reporters, Venables named few names, but spoke positively about his new charges’ overall reaction to the new system.
“Guys are hungry,” he said. “A lot of guys feel like they’ve got a lot to prove, a willingness to stay the course and pay attention, give their best every day. I’m seeing a lot of correction, which is good, both mentally and physically.”
Their attitude towards change, he said, has been exceptional.
“The guys that have played, been through things, it’s a group that’s got good experience, a group that’s got good football intelligence and they’re working on a lot of little things right now,” he said. “We’re trying to develop guys, find out what their strengths are, what they need to work on. At the same time, it’s a reflection of a lot of the defensive guys. They’ve got a hunger, a great attitude and a willingness to work to get better.”
Installing that defense has been a gradual process. When asked how much of it he had installed, Venables said he didn’t have a percentage, but it was “not a whole lot.”
“We’re giving it to them just a little bit at a time, and they’ve handled it pretty well,” he said. “We’ve got to find out what guys can do, where guys can be successful in a position, and get our guys to understand all the little things that it takes to play well. That’s a process.”
Spring is about teaching the basics, setting the stage for what is to come.
Without intangibles, the details don’t matter much.
“You’ve got to get a foundation in,” he said. “With a foundation you can put a defense in. All those schemes aren’t any good if you don’t have attitude, toughness, intelligence, guys playing with effort and the fundamentals.
“We’re trying to get all those things to become second nature, to develop that mindset, toughness and culture that you need weekly. Guys get invested in playing well individually and collectively. That’s most important to us right now.”
He said he continues to mix and match at linebacker, but with a deep, young group left behind by Steele, the cupboard certainly isn’t bare.
At defensive tackle, where freshman DeShawn Williams and sophomore Tavaris Barnes have been early standouts, Venables has been pleasantly surprised with the overall toughness and fight, saying “those are guys we feel we can definitely win with.”
Defensive end, where senior Malliciah Goodman is the only returning starter, appears more of an issue.
“That’s where I’m a little more concerned, to be honest,” he said. “We’ve got some guys with talent and ability, but we’re not experienced there. I know we’re not deep and experienced inside, but I think we have a couple more players, depth-wise. The development of down-the-line guys has to come along at defensive end.”
There’s time for that. Two weeks remain in spring practice, and the opener against Auburn is still over five months away. For now, patience is a pleasant virtue for Venables.
“It’s very healthy for me to teach (the defense) in the purest form. In its infant stages,” he said. “My emphasis, more than anything, is to get guys to be technically and fundamentally sound and play hard and physical. Schemes will come at some point.”