SUNSET – Clemson’s offense has led the charge to 21 wins in the last two seasons, but taking the next step defensively – that’s what Dabo Swinney is counting on for going from good to great in 2013.
“When it’s all said and done, defense will be a strength for us,” the Tigers’ coach said at his media golf outing Tuesday, “and we need it to be a strength if we’re really going to be a great football team.”
Taking over the defense last year, Brent Venables made aggressiveness a priority and it didn’t take quickly.
Halfway through the season, Clemson ranked 104th nationally in sacks, and that was translating to the scoreboard, giving up over 27 points a game despite a 5-1 start.
2013 Clemson defense breakdown, pt. 1
“You have to be able to get consistent pressure upfront,” Venables said. “It was an issue for us the first part of the season, but when we got better that way, we got better overall as a defense. There was a lot of movement and changing parts a year ago.
“It took a little while to get our front-seven to play with any kind of consistency and chemistry. But once guys got a good understanding of what they can do and particularly upfront, we solved some issues and got substantially better.”
That they did, after compiling seven sacks in the first six games – the Tigers posted 27 in the final seven contests, which was good enough for a finish third in the ACC and 22nd nationally.
Returning six players off from that d-line who played 230 or more snaps, and having similar depth at linebacker, the established front-seven is something Clemson will hang its hat on this season.
“Do they improve and is the talent there? The answer is yes and yes,” Swinney said. “We’ve got really good talent in our front-seven and they got better. They carried it throughout the offseason and now their understanding of what we’re doing is much better.
“They’ve all had their noses’ bloodied. People have not been very complimentary of them. We were a very average defense last year. We played to our strengths. I really feel like that’s changed.”
That strength upfront is what Venables and Swinney hope will help a secondary losing three starters and welcoming eight freshman defensive backs. A secondary that also struggled to begin with last season, giving up 45 completions of 20 yards or more (nine in one game against N.C. State).
“The issues we need to get more clarity in (in fall camp) is our secondary in particular,” said Venables, “and whether or not we can consistently create a pass rush with four guys. That’s going to be imperative to the growth of any secondary, experienced or not.”
Clemson’s challenge for a second-straight season is no buffer of a Sun Belt season opener, but rather, hosting a possible top-five Georgia Bulldogs’ team come August 31st.
Georgia’s yards and yards per game totals don’t knock you over, but the efficiency, averaging less plays, is the key.
Senior Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray was the only signal-caller in the nation to average 10 yards per pass (10.09), and both rising sophomore tailbacks, Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, averaged over six yards per carry among the nation’s leaders last season.
“They have an experienced playcaller and their quarterback is like another coach,” Venables said. “He is a great player and (he has) a great supporting cast. Veteran offensive line (and) obviously, the running backs are all-world. They’re as good as advertised.”
The Tigers’ defensive coordinator says he’s far from in game mode yet though – more so ready to get into the grind of fall camp.
“Every game has its time,” Venables said. “It’s still a month or so away and it’ll get here soon enough. They present a lot of challenges for everybody they play.
“They’ve got a heck of a football team coming back, but we feel like we do as well.”