GREENSBORO, N.C. – Defending today’s college offenses isn’t getting any easier.
No-huddle schemes using spread offense and Pistol formation principles are becoming more and more of a part of the ACC’s identity with each head coaching or offensive coordinator change.
In Brent Venables’ first year as Clemson’s defensive coordinator, his unit actually gave up two more yards per game (396.2) and improved eight spots nationally from the previous season (63rd in total defense). Shaving just five points a game in scoring defense, they leaped 33 spots into the top-50 nationally (48th).
They don’t really have to look much further than what they see each practice for the changing offensive landscape, and that iron sharpening iron only helps what is expected to be the strongest front-seven group yet under Dabo Swinney.
“We play against them every day so they get us in good condition because they run that same fast pace against us,” Clemson senior linebacker Spencer Shuey said at ACC media days. “A lot of times we’re not as tired because they do that. It’s comforting to know they can score as fast as they want almost and as frequently as they do.”
Armed with an experienced two-deep (84 2012 starts returning), Shuey says they now have a rotation that can keep everybody fresh and not take a step back.
“Being able to rotate guys when you go 15-play drives and have an offense that scores like ours, it’s definitely important to have depth to get guys in the game and rotate,” said Shuey, “especially in the front-seven in the most physical area. You’re taking hits all day and you’re exhausted. Being able to rotate guys and get a breather is important.”
Shuey’s emergence at middle linebacker last year marked a turn in fortune for the Tiger defense by midseason.
In his first 29 career games, he accounted for 60 tackles and one tackle for loss. Starting the final seven contests of 2012, he averaged just a tick under 10 tackles a game (9.9) for 93 total (5.5 for loss). In that same stretch, Clemson improved in total defense by 49 yards and on the scoreboard by nearly three points per game.
Motor and confidence is what makes the 6-3 230 product effective, says Venables.
“He’s a great effort guy. He’s real coachable,” said Venables, “but the success that he’s had – the respect that he’s earned and the experience – builds his confidence. He’s a very confident player within the confines of our system. When you’re sure of yourself you’re there sooner rather than later (to the football).”
Despite the success in the middle, Venables, who also coaches linebackers, is moving him to the weakside. Exiting that spot was the Tigers’ top tackler last season, Jonathan ‘Tig’ Willard (95), and back at middle linebacker is junior former five-star prospect Stephone Anthony.
Shuey says the “quarterback of the defense” role will be shared though.
“Technically, it’s (Anthony’s) role in the middle,” he said, “but after playing it last year and knowing the defense, it’s going to be a lot easier to have both of us being able to communicate it. That way we don’t have to have one guy communicating to both sides of the field.
“Having two guys out there to communicate will definitely help out and we’ve been able to build a great relationship and we’re always on the same page.”
The listed first-team linebacker crew, which also includes senior strongside linebacker Quandon Christian, topped 1,400 snaps combined last season. Shuey says they have chemistry that will translate to the field in 2013.
“We push each other. We correct each other,” he said. “I came in with Quandon so we’ve been friends since freshman year and Stephone came in two years after us and fit in with us from day one. I think it’s important to get along off the field for it to work on the field as well.”
Expectations have been set high for Tigers’ front-seven, as both Swinney and Venables have expressed their confidence in the group in the last week. Shuey, as a defensive leader, is keeping the focus on how they fit in the team concept as a whole.
“(Clemson) was definitely an offensive team last year,” Shuey said, “but there’s definitely a lot of responsibility for us as a defense for us to hold it down and put our offense in the best position possible. At the end of the day, we’re still a team – offense and defense – it’s not one thing that makes or breaks a game.
“We’re just going to go out and do to the best of our abilities to win.”