CLEMSON — Before you walk, you have to be able to crawl.
Crawling leads to walking. Which leads to running. Which leads to freedom.
For the first half of this season, Brent Venables’ Clemson defense seemingly trudged along at a crawl.
As the Tigers entered their open week, they were one of the nation’s worst defenses, 96th nationally in total yardage and 102nd in run defense.
They’d allowed a staggering 523 yards and 37 points per game to ACC foes, leaving Venables to state each game was “like Groundhog Day.”
Three weeks later, Venables’ group is far from a finished product, or a truly dominant defense. But there are reasons to believe it is on the right path as No.10 Clemson (7-1, 4-1 ACC) prepares for Saturday’s 7 p.m. trip to Duke.
In each of the last two weeks, Clemson has allowed its lowest point total of the season – yielding 17 to Virginia Tech and 13 to Wake Forest. The Tigers are allowing teams only 348 yards per game, and they’ve matched their sack total through six games (seven) in eight quarters of work.
Slowly but surely, they’re moving forward and conquering the learning curve of Venables’ system.
“I think (the progress shows) the growth, at a lot of different levels,” Venables said. “From us as coaches, understanding what our guys can and can’t do, what we want them to do, and again, whether that’s a scheme thing, a fundamental thing, guys growing up in the system as players, just doing their job.
“It’s playing with better technique, fundamentals, aggressiveness because they’re sure of what they’re doing. And then our confidence in them as coaches. Again, it’s muscle memory. You continue to build on a foundation and build from there.”
Following 13 seasons at Oklahoma, spent mostly as a defensive coordinator, Venables had a firm grasp of his system and personnel – and vice versa.
Coming to Clemson was a fresh start, but also a new beginning. Tuesday, he said he isn’t “set with 11 guys, but is set with the guys we know will have an opportunity to play each week.”
That wasn’t necessarily the case early on, as Venables was forced to learn about and develop his new personnel.
“You’d be negligent if you don’t consider those things, guys strengths and their weaknesses, their experience, their skill set, there are a lot of things that go hand in hand,” he said. “It hasn’t been an easy process because you don’t know your personnel yet. You’re still learning your personnel, didn’t recruit certain guys, don’t know what they were the first day they got here, don’t know what their progression has been, don’t know how everyone thinks, don’t know a lot of things. When you don’t have a consistent 11 it’s hard to know those things at intimate levels. But we’re making progress.”
Same goes for the players Venables inherited, who were expected to embrace a simpler, more instinctive, but different scheme.
Senior cornerback Xavier Brewer credits improved focus and understanding.
“Our relationship with coach Venables is starting to grow, too,” he said. “We’re understanding more about how he changes, what he wants out of us as the game plan changes from week to week. These last few weeks, we’ve been able to do the small things right and they’ve been able to make the game better for us.”
Over the last two weeks, Clemson has allowed an average of 125 rushing yards per game, moving up 16 spots – to 86th – in the national rankings. A group of young defensive linemen, including defensive tackles Josh Watson, DeShawn Williams, Grady Jarrett and D.J. Reader, are making consistent improvement.
In Venables’ eyes, improvement up front goes “hand and hand” with overall progress.
“If you feel you’re sound in what you’re doing schematically and guys understand what they’re doing, they can stop the run, it gives you more flexibility to be more aggressive, philosophically, when the time’s right,” he said. “If you can’t do step A right, you don’t’ want to get to step B and grab for stuff.”
Stop the run, and build from there.
“Fundamentally, technically, schematically, personnel-wise, to be able to make the kind of progress we want, we’ve got to be able to stop the run with a base call,” Venables said. “If that’s 6-2 Mau-Mau, so be it. Whatever that call is, whatever you want to hang your hat on, every defense gives you that call. If you can do that it gives you a foundation and until you can do that, you have to shelve everything else.”
If you can trust the line, and you know what you’re doing, it breeds confidence and assuredness, Venables said.
“I think there’s more trust,” he said. “They trust what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and the guy next to them, getting more and more guys that can articulate coverages, fronts, why they change. They’re just understanding football and not just memorizing their jobs. When you can get to that level you can go to another place as a football player. We’re not polished in that regard at this time but there are a number of guys who are getting closer and closer in growth that way. Guys are really simplifying the game and seeing success as a result.”