CLEMSON — As Clemson’s regular season enters its final week, there is little question the Tigers’ linebackers have improved in their first season under defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ watch.
They’re older. They’re deeper. They’re smarter.
They’re a big reason why the Tigers’ defense has taken a step forward as a unit.
To prove it, however, one major test stands in their way: South Carolina junior quarterback Connor Shaw.
A year ago, Shaw shredded Clemson’s defense, accounting for four touchdowns, 107 rushing yards and 210 passing yards in the Gamecocks’ 34-13 victory. Shaw is questionable for the teams’ Saturday showdown with a foot injury, but if he plays, containing him will be job one for Venables’ unit.
“He’s had great success the last two years,” Venables said of Shaw. “You just look at the team success and it’s reflective of the quarterback play. And it’ll be a huge challenge, one that our guys are very aware of. He was a big part of their success against us last year, running and throwing both. It’ll be a big challenge.”
Shaw averages 33.9 rushing and 173.9 passing yards per game, and has yet to reach the rushing heights he found last November against Clemson. He rushed for 92 yards in the season opener at Vanderbilt, but has surpassed 50 yards only twice more – going for 78 against Georgia and 76 against Kentucky.
Keeping plays alive with his legs presents the Tigers’ biggest challenge.
“Some guys are just runners, some guys are just throwers – when guys can do both, it makes it much more difficult, much more stressful in all facets of your defense,” Venables said. “It makes things a little more complicated. It extends plays, can create big plays if you don’t maintain discipline, whether it’s up front or discipline in your rush lanes, or discipline in the back end, trying to do too much. When do I come off my guy? They do a great job of working the scramble drill, fighting to get open.”
Senior “Will” linebacker Tig Willard, whose 80 tackles rank second on the roster behind junior middle linebacker Spencer Shuey (82), says staying in rush lanes and staying disciplined is a key.
“We’re keeping our vision back a little bit and that helped us a lot,” he said. “We’re going to try and keep that mentality and keep on going.”
Clemson is 73rd nationally in rush defense, allowing 163 yards per game. It has enjoyed mixed results against mobile quarterbacks. Florida State’s E.J. Manuel rolled up 102 rushing yards and 482 total yards in the Seminoles’ 49-37 win. Georgia Tech’s Tevin Washington, an option quarterback, had 104 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas gained 99 yards and scored a touchdown on 21 carries.
“Whatever game plan we used against Manuel, we don’t want to use it this week,” Venables said.
Keeping Shaw contained is the biggest key.
“When you’re containing him in your rush lanes, covering the right people with good coverage and technique, it’s not as hard to defend,” Venables said. “When one of those things breaks down, and he breaks out of the pocket, gets outside, those things, that’s when bad things can happen.”
Overall, Venables feels his linebackers have improved, with depth as one of the biggest indicators. 2011’s starting middle linebacker, senior Corico Wright, is now Willard’s backup. Five-star sophomore Stephone Anthony began the season as the starting middle linebacker, but has been supplanted by Shuey – although he still has 76 tackles, third on the roster behind Shuey and Willard.
“I like our leadership, our attitude. I think that’s where it all starts,” Venables said. “Off the field, it’s the ability to manage things and understand what we’re trying to do, week-in and week-out. There’s been growth there, improvement fundamentally, I’ve been very pleased with that and still working on trying to get better in that regard. I think there’s a toughness about the group I’ve grown to appreciate. It’s really developed.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says the combination of experience and Venables’ simpler system has paid dividends.
“We’re not quite as complex as we were last year,” he said. “There’s some carryover but the package is a little simple. We’ve got youth up front and good competition. Brent has done a fantastic job with them. We’re much better overall, as a front seven for sure, than what we were when he came here earlier this year.”
In Clemson’s biggest game of the year, they’ll get their biggest test.
“We’ve got a good game plan going in,” Shuey said. “As a defense, we’ve got to contain (Shaw) and have our coverage locked down. It’s going to be a tough week.”