Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables is in wait-and-see mode as the Tigers move into the second half of spring practice.
Asked repeatedly to talk about the specific defensive players, on Friday Venables repeatedly declined to make a definitive judgment. There has been, he said, both good and bad in every player's performance.
"I don't know - I've just got a big picture in mind," Venables said. “We’re making progress. Guys have better familiarity with their responsibilities. They’re competing hard, playing more physical. We’re still a work in progress, still trying to put all the pieces together.
"Every year is different, but I do see some of the experience returning, showing up. Everybody always says it starts up front. Those guys have really been consistent. I’m really pleased with their progress in picking up from where they left off a year ago, continuing to improve. We’ve got a good group to go against. It’s been give and take. I’m pleased with where we’re at right now, but we’ve still got a long ways to go, and still have the rest of the spring, summer and fall camp. We’ve still got work to do.”
Dabo Swinney said earlier in the week that the Tiger defense is "head and shoulders" ahead of where it was at this time last spring.
Venables agreed, but only up to a point.
"On the front seven, I would agree; after that, we'll see," Venables said. "I'm not disagreeing. The front seven are more consistent, but they still have to get better. So I'd say there's a lot more clarity up front and a lot more uncertainty in back than there was a year ago."
When he took over Clemson's defense last spring, Venables had the services of three experienced senior starters in Xavier Brewer, Rashard Hall and Jonathan Meeks.
With those players gone, and numbers already thin, Venables is working this spring with a group that includes eight scholarship defensive backs, including first semester freshman Jadar Johnson and junior Martin Jenkins, who is not yet back at full-speed after missing last season with surgery. Clemson signed seven defensive backs in February, and Venables knows that some will have to play in the fall.
"There's going to be a group of guys coming in, unfortunately, that are going to have to help us," he said. "How much they can, we'll see. It's not ideal, but it's like with Travis Blanks last season, and he was mature enough to handle it.
"You don't know until you start working with them. You get to know them in recruiting, but until they get here you don't know how quickly they'll learn or how hard you can coach them. You don't know their competitiveness and tough-mindedness, or how much they've worked before they got here.
"There's so much unknown, so we'll just see."
Venables said he likes the players that he and secondary coach Mike Reed are working with this spring.
"These guys have the right substance to them," he said. "We just have to keep working them and keep sawing away, improving our fundamentals and our mental and physical toughness."
Venables said part of his reluctance to overly praise his defensive backs is related to last season.
“I want to see it - I want to see it," he said. "A year ago, I thought those guys were pretty solid. In fall camp, they were. But then they didn’t perform with the consistency that it takes, mentally or physically.
"So it'll be a process, with guys coming in here, to add some depth.”