CLEMSON — Two words permeated Brent Venables’ sixteen-minute session with Clemson beat reporters Tuesday: “consistency” and “fundamentals.” The Tigers’ first-year defensive coordinator didn’t have any magic solution for what ails his unit. Clemson ranks 99th nationally in rush defense (allowing 202.7 yards per game), 97th in total defense (445.5 yards per game) and 69th in scoring defense (27.3 points per game).
Venables spent the open week working on the basics, and he hopes those fundamentals start shining through in Saturday’s noon game vs. Virginia Tech. Tuesday, Venables discussed the open week, defensive adjustments, young players and more.
Here’s an edited transcript of his session:
On the open week: “It did come at a good time. Sometimes early in the year you like to have one the first few weeks and evaluate where you’re at, review things. All things considered, how this sets up, it came at a very, very good time. Whether it’s trying to get some guys healed up, trying to evaluate your personnel, or things you’ve got to work on. We need two weeks to work all the stuff we needed to work on, but it came at a good time.”
Can you say you’ll be better in the second half?: “I hope to. I expect to. I’d be surprised if we weren’t. I think more maturity in the system. Some of the young guys getting more experience. Things we’ve had time to take a deep breath and emphasize, when you have a little more time. Having an opportunity, I said, before the season it’ll be a continuous process, the things we can and can’t do, things we have problems with, issues with, things that our guys, we’ll find out things they can’t do well and things they can do well.
“I’ve said all along our experienced guys have to play at a consistent level and let our young guys grow within the system. If that takes place the last part of the season, we’ll see a dramatic improvement.”
Talk about open date changes: “Before the season, in the early part of the season, having the Thursday night game a week from now (and a short turnaround) that was the biggest emphasis of what we wanted to accomplish and get done with our time. You don’t reinvent the wheel. It comes down to your fundamentals and technique and the players’ understanding, defense’s trained reaction, getting them trained obviously a lot better than what we have for what we’re going to see. The fundamentals of the game. The discipline it takes, the fundamentals it takes. You can grind them a little bit during that off week, knowing they have a couple days to recover. We practice very well. I think a lot of things were accomplished. The true test of what was accomplished remains to be seen. We’re going to find out real quick. But it’s pretty obvious a few of the things we’ve worked on, and that’s the fundamentals of the game.”
Depth at defensive end: “We don’t have a lot of numbers there. It’s not like we’re holding something back, in regards to a young player that just needs to come along. We need to play better there. They recognize that. It’s been addressed. I thought Corey Crawford, the past few weeks, has done some good things, playing with some more urgency, showing up. We need to continue that. We’ve got to get more production from those guys. When those guys can set the edge it takes a lot of stress off you in a lot of different ways.”
Most disappointing area: “There’s a lot of areas I’m not pleased with.”
Did you think there’d be more production at this point: “I thought we would as a defense. It starts with me. I didn’t see it like I needed to. We’ve got to put them in better positions as well. We’ve put them in positions where they can be successful.”
On young defensive tackles D.J. Reader and Carlos Watkins: “D.J’s played a little bit more. Carlos has made improvement, he’s not quite the same level, again, it’s that maturation. He’s not that far off either. A lot of it is fundamentals, it’s understanding of everything around him, when things become second nature, where he can rip loose and play. D.J’s a little more physically ready to play. He’s a big guy. D.J.’s physicalness plus his fundamentals, technique, ability to move and change direction – things happen really fast. The closer you get to the line of scrimmage the less margin for error there is for small, subtle mistakes. Whether that’s hand placement, eyes, your footwork, you make a mistake close to the line of scrimmage it could be catastrophic. The things that have been noticeable to the naked eye (with him) is right on point. He’s far from a great player right now but we’re excited about his future, the things he’s been able to contribute to at this point.”
On scheming differently to play to strengths or defensive improvement: “I think it’s a combination of the two. You’re finding out through six games what areas keep popping up. Whether guys are getting behind us, we’re missing tackles or having gap integrity issues. What a linebacker can mentally handle out there on the field, the communication process. Maybe a guy you’re leaning on isn’t quite there yet. What they can do, can’t do, you can help them with that maturation process. To me there’s no question we’ve got the right guys to be a heck of a lot more consistent than we have been and that’s the frustrating thing for me as a coach, because I’ve always felt that lies at my feet. I’m working hard to continue that evaluation process, and I expect to be.”
Any players surprise you in the off week: “Nothing surprised me in the off-week. Someone magically didn’t appear. That’s a continual thing. It doesn’t happen overnight, the level of comfort. I’m not comfortable by any stretch. The trust I believe, the communication is where it needs to be. Like any relationship you continue to foster and nourish that. More than anything else, the best teams I’ve been associated with are ones that are player-driven. The mindset, the standards, the culture that is set, they demand it from each other. We’re continually trying to push that. I think our guys understand. They’re as disappointed as anyone in our lack of consistency. And they have a willingness to try and work through and rectify the issues that are there. There’s ownership at everyone’s feet. No one has had a problem with that. But you need that to get it corrected. (People say) how come we haven’t done this… hey man, I’m with you. So that’s what we continue to go back to work, continue to demand and work on issues that are big with us.
“A lot of it is pre-snap. When we get into the game we can’t get out there and freak out. Nobody’s got to be Superman, but quit trying to do too much. Just put your eyes where we’ve been putting the ball all week at practice. We do that good things happen.”
On experience vs. Tech: “Andre Branch had four sacks, he was terrorizing (Logan Thomas). If he wants to come back and play that’s fine. Get our feet set up.”
On Logan Thomas: “Big, strong, has good composure, a big arm, strong leader. He’s an extension of running a lot of no-huddle. They’re putting a lot on him in navigating and managing that. But a great deal of experience with winning. A great deal of confidence as an individual. Very tough to tackle on some of their designed quarterback runs.”
On the Hokies’ hurry-up offense: “That’s what they started this year. I think they’ve got some playmakers. I think they’ve found who those playmakers are. They’ve got some good young backs, they’ve got three good receivers. They’re all guys that can stretch the field and make plays. They had some issues up front with some graduation and injuries. And I think last week (vs. Duke) was indicative that they’ve found some ways to make them successful. They had some explosive plays in that game and turned the game around, both through the air and on the ground. There were a handful between 35 and 84-yard big plays that brought them back, with some crucial turnovers on the defensive side of the ball.”