CLEMSON — Saturday afternoon, Brent Venables saw “a lot more positive than negative for the first time in a while.”
Clemson’s first-year defensive coordinator has certainly earned his $800,000 annual salary working with a defense in transition this fall. The Tigers have struggled mightily, and entered the Virginia Tech game 99th nationally in rush defense and 97th in total defense – they’d allowed an average of 523 yards and 37 points to ACC opponents.
Saturday showed signs of defensive progress. The Tigers held Virginia Tech to 17 points and picked up a struggling offense in a 38-17 rout. Venables discussed the confidence boost, starting Spencer Shuey at middle linebacker, the success of his defensive line and more with reporters afterward.
On what the win means: “There are things you can learn from and get better at. Guys are used to winning. We’ve said all along we’ve got players who can play really quality defense. This is the first time we feel like we’ve played well enough, quality enough for four quarters to give ourselves a chance to win. We certainly haven’t arrived, that goes without saying. But I’m happy for our guys to have some success. You can have success, but that’s how a lot of the time it works in football. We’ve been bailed out plenty this year. I’m not saying we bailed out the offense, that’s far from the truth. We won by three scores. But we played well enough in spots to complement each other, give them good field position, come up with some big plays and some big stops.”
On the defensive line: “Our guys played hard. Take nothing away from (Virginia Tech). We didn’t make enough of those kinds of improvements. The coaches have been working incredibly hard (and the players) have. We’re going to see better offensive lines. We’re a little bit young and banged-up there. But we make no apologies. Everyone gets banged up. That’s part of the game. It helped us create a little pressure.”
On an opportunistic secondary which made three interceptions: “On two of the interceptions. (Jonathan Meeks’) pick-six and the throwback, those two plays are just discipline. Nobody’s being Superman, just staying home and do your job. It’ll be good to teach from. Those were big plays at the right time. Even in the second half they were within a couple of scores of pulling within a single score. We stopped them and it built some confidence.”
On that confidence: “Our guys feel good right now and they should. I said it Tuesday, they’ve really done a fabulous job of working their butts off and being coachable. So to see them have success it lends credibility. It’s not easy to play the game, it’s not easy to play well. We’ll need a great short week of preparation. Coach (Jim) Grobe and his staff, they do as good of a job as anyone in the country, coaching their guys well beyond their ability. They’ll have them prepared and it’ll be a challenge.”
On starting Spencer Shuey at middle linebacker: “He’s warranted the opportunity when he’s out there, even the little bit that he has in practice. He’s quick and very comfortable with what he’s doing mentally. He’s very instinctual, he finds the ball, and he’s got a great understanding of what we’re doing and helps the other guys.”
On an early fourth-down stop: “We’ve got to consistently be doing that. Coming up with some big fourth-down stops, that’s an attitude. It’s toughness, it’s being physical. We need to do it with consistency. Big confidence-builder, momentum, poise, just so much you can get out of that.”
On success coming from the defensive front: “Good defense, it all starts inside-out. You ain’t playing good here, it goes up to the middle linebacker, the triangle of those three guys and it all looks bad. You can’t mask that. You’ve got to be strong up the middle. You’ve got to get guys set in the right spots. It’s not rocket science, but there’s mental strength you have to have as well (at middle linebacker). From there it goes to your safety play. If you’re weak up the middle of the defense, you’re not going to play good defense, I don’t care what everyone else is doing. It was better today.”
On D.J. Reader and what he’s done to earn snaps: “He gets out there. He makes plays. He gets 12 snaps and makes four tackles. He’s getting off blocks and making tackles, he’s pushing the pocket. He’s not Warren Sapp yet, but he’s willing to work, he’s a young guy that doesn’t know anything yet. But Dan (Brooks) does a great job teaching him and coaching him and bringing him along. D.J’s a talented guy. He’s not a great player yet but if he works hard and continues to improve he has a chance to be great in time.”
How did the slow start affect you: “Players are a reflection of their coach. I’m a firm believer in that. So in their failures you’ve got to look at yourself first and why are these issues continuing to come up. How can you get them better? You have to self-analyze, week-in and week-out, what you do schematically and what’s the opponent seeing, what are the consistent things you’re seeing. So you want to play well. You’ve got pride and you’re used to having success and understand what it takes. To me, the mark of a great player, the mark of a really good defense, are the model of consistency. When you don’t have that you have no chance. So we’ve been incredibly inconsistent. To be better that way, gives you a little more reason for optimism.”