CLEMSON – Through two games and 138 plays, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has a much better idea of what he has this 2013 campaign.
After giving up 545 yards and 35 points to Georgia in the opener, the Tigers defense bounced back by holding S.C. State to less than half those totals (245 yards and 13 points).
Outside of two long pass plays – both touchdowns – the FCS-level Bulldogs were held to 1.9 yards per in their other 66 plays. Running the ball 46 times, S.C. State was also held to 1.9 yards per attempt there.
“I think it was a solid performance,” Venables said. “Any time you’re playing 83 guys you’re bound to have some things you need to improve at. I liked the way our guys competed. They had great focus, great energy, were physical – all the guys out there from the first-team guys to the third and fourth.”
After last season’s struggles, the Clemson secondary was pointed to all season as the bellwether for defensive improvement – and the results are more positive than negative so far.
Alexander an 'enigma' to Venables
Last Saturday, the Tigers made history with the first pair of pick-sixes in a game ever for the school via junior cornerback Martin Jenkins’ 52-yard return and senior cornerback Darius Robinson’s 35-yard scamper.
Junior cornerback Garry Peters sits in the top-20 nationally with three pass breakups – two versus Georgia alone.
“I was pleased with our corners,” said Venables. “They had good position and played physical. That was very encouraging.
“We had a couple pick-sixes and that’s guys being sure of themselves and guys doing what we hope they would do under those circumstances.”
At the same time, the defensive backs are in the crosshairs of a yet to be fixed big-play issue.
The Tigers are in the triple-digits nationally in plays surrendered of 10-plus yards (32 – 100th), 30-plus yards (7 – 114th) and one of only 11 teams to give up three plays of 50 yards or more. Of the 30-yard plays, five have come in the passing game.
“There’s a lot of things that we can improve at. We have to eliminate big-play touchdowns,” Venables said. “It’s one thing to get some big plays, but we have to get guys on the ground.”
The Tigers’ front-seven has been about as good as advertised, playing a big role in the early rash of sacks and tackles for loss.
Clemson ranks No. 8 nationally in sacks (7), No. 14 in tackles for loss (17) and No. 12 in tackles for loss yardage (73).
They have spread the wealth too with 13 different players in on TFLs and six with at least a share of a sack.
“The front-seven and the cohesion there and the depth there, that’s probably most pleasing,” Venables said. “I think our guys are playing with great effort and being physical in the first two games – I like our effort.”
Grady Jarrett has led the way securely holding down one of the defensive tackle spots so far. The junior has four more tackles than the next nearest Tigers d-lineman (10 total).
“Grady has been really good and I’ve been pleased with his leadership,” Venables said, “and I bet you he would say two games in a year ago that he’s not nearly where he is right now and certainly not where he ended up last year. We’ve come a long way since Ball State a year ago.”
That feeling in year two of his tenure in Clemson will be tested in the next outing next Thursday at N.C. State.
Under new coach Dave Doeren and offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s spread offense, the Wolfpack are actually averaging more yards per play (6.02) and yards per game (493) than Clemson so far.
In the road ACC opener last year, the Tigers surrendered 683 yards and 49 points in a loss to a top-10 ranked Florida State. The stats, however, really can’t tell all the story of what improvement Venables is seeing out there.
“The biggest thing is that you have a lot more flexibility,” he said, “and what you can do when you change a front or are moving guys. Both the run and the playaction pressures are there without worrying about how we’ll fit and adjust it.”