CLEMSON — For Clemson’s defense, watching film of last week’s 47-31 win over Georgia Tech wasn’t as bad as you might imagine.
Yes, the Yellow Jackets exposed tackling issues and rolled up 483 yards of total offense, leading the game until a 17-0 game-ending run sealed the outcome.
But as defensive coordinator Brent Venables pointed out, it’ll likely be the last time this season that Clemson will be confronted with the flexbone.
“It was not really difficult to watch the film,” said senior “Will” linebacker Tig Willard. “We know coaching-wise that we’re not going to see that offense again this year. He let some things go. Some other things, (Venables) said, ‘You’ve got to do this and this better.’”
Room for improvement certainly remains. Clemson allows 445 yards per game of total offense, which ranks 96th nationally. The Tigers yield 27.3 points per game, which ranks 71st. And they allow 202 yards of rushing per game, which ranks 102nd.
Where do the improvements start? Tackling. The Tigers struggled wrapping up and tackling Georgia Tech, continuing a trend which has dogged the defense through the first half of 2012.
“Shoot, that’s the biggest part of the game, to get the other person on the ground,” Willard said. “I feel we’ll focus more on tackling. The DBs might focus on looking at the ball, ball control, just going up and getting the ball. The linebackers will focus more on tackling and reading the ball off the defensive line. More of eyes and hands, just going in and attacking the ball.”
Clemson will do just “thud” tackling – where a player runs into a teammate and wraps up but doesn’t take them to the ground – during its off week. The past two weeks, the Tigers went live, which helped greatly in simulating Georgia Tech’s cut blocking.
“I felt like practice was way harder than the actual game,” Willard said. “ I felt like we got cut way more. I felt like we were well prepared when Georgia Tech came in. I feel like the cut blocks, everyone played them good and everyone was on their feet and running. I felt really good about going live all week.”
Saying tackling must improve is easy to say, but far harder in principle.
“It’s the most basic fundamental,” Willard said. “To actually say that it is tough to tackle… you have more elusive backs like (Andre) Ellington, who are going to sit there and shake you. Back in the day, everyone was trying to run downhill, run you over. Now it’s stop and go, stop and go. It’s more about being able to get your body in front of theirs and actually deliver a blow.”
Clemson’s linebackers have done plenty of that this season. Of the Tigers’ top three tacklers, two are linebackers and a third – freshman Travis Blanks – has spent his time in a hybrid linebacker/defensive back role, starting three games at “Sam” linebacker and the Georgia Tech game at safety.
Sophomore Stephone Anthony leads the team with 51 tackles, 2.5 for loss. Willard has 41 tackles, 2.5 for loss, and a sack. Blanks has 32 tackles, one for loss.
Meanwhile, junior Quandon Christian, junior Spencer Shuey and senior Corico Wright (who spent the past two seasons as the starting middle linebacker) have all seen significant action.
“I feel like we’ve got more depth than we did last year,” Willard said. “Our first-string guys and our second-string guys are on the same page and anyone can come in and play. I feel like as a group, everybody has the same standard and everyone’s willing to make adjustments. I feel like the linebacker corps has improved a lot.”
With six weeks left, Willard admits that trend must continue, starting with him.
“I feel like I played very average,” he said. “Still a lot to improve on, knowledge-wise, knowledge of the defense and where I’m supposed to be at. My problems are things that are easily corrected like eyes, using hands, getting off blocks and pursuing the ball.”