SUNSET – Just about a year ago, Dabo Swinney confidently told a skeptical media assembled that Clemson’s defensive front-seven was going to be a strength by season’s end.
That defensive unit – led by then second-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables – was coming off as middle-of-the-road a performance as any in 2012 (64th in total defense).
“I stood here last year (in front of the media) and y’all almost turned your cameras off,” Swinney said Tuesday at his annual media golf outing at The Reserve at Lake Keowee. “Y’all asked what the strength of the team was and were waiting for me to talk about Tajh or Sammy. I said the strength of our team will really be our front-seven. And that’s really the way it worked out. We led the nation in tackles for loss and top 25 in just about everything defensively. It was exciting to see that play, despite having some flaws.
Swinney sees 'great' defense
“I think this year defensively we have a chance to be as complete a unit as I’ve had as a head coach.”
Clemson returns seven starters on defense, which includes senior defensive end Vic Beasley – the nation’s leading returner in sacks (13) and tackles for loss (23) and former five-star middle linebacker Stephone Anthony, who was also among the nation’s leaders with 15 TFLs.
Venables is playing both sides of the preseason hype machine, finding a way to simultaneously temper expectations and question why they aren’t even higher.
“I think we have proven depth upfront,” said Venables. “I think we’re talented across the board, but sometimes the talent doesn’t always equate to production. Not trying to be evasive, ‘great’ and ‘the best’ – I don’t take those words lightly.
“What I loved about last year’s unit that really has nothing to do with this year’s unit outside of some of the same guys back – is how we got better. How we found an identity and continued to improve form the beginning of the year to the end. As a coach, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing your guys get better.”
Coaching talented squads at both Oklahoma and Kansas State before his TigerTown stay, Venables has seen the good and bad from top prospects and experience returning.
“It’s not happened much, but there’s been a year or two there where you’ve had a talented and experienced team coming back and you underperform,” Venables said. “It’s real simple to identify – some guys just not playing as hard. Not investing as much, taking things for granted – a lot of the little things. Not great leadership, not handling adversity well. Guys that are coming back and now they think they’ve arrived and they think they’re doing everyone else a favor by coming back. I’ve had that. That can be a cancer to your team.”
Where some programs seemingly have automatic bids into the top-15 and top-10 preseason, Clemson hasn’t quite earned that right - a general feel nationally that the Tigers will take a step back losing key offensive weapons. Commanding a nation-pacing unit returning its stars, Venables has taken note of the unspoken-yet-hinted disrespect.
Expectations high for Beasley, Clemson DEs
“To me that’s an indictment on we lost two guys and that’s our whole team and they’re questioning everybody else and don’t think much of them,” said Venables. “Within our own conference, they’re talking about our secondary and talk about all the talent that’s back there, but I know a lot of people’s conversation they’re way on down the totem pole. And we are as a program, apparently. We have a lot to prove and lot to earn a lot of respect. If you’re a good solid program, you’re in the top-15 talk – it don’t matter. I think a lot of people don’t have us there.
“That’s fine, you have to go out and earn it.”
For the head coach, Swinney – heading into his sixth full season – he’s just looking for the team effort, but he’d be surprised if they aren’t anchored by their defenders.
“We got to go do it,” said Swinney. “All it is, is a bunch of talk and projections and looks good on paper, but I know this, when the season is over, I’ll be highly disappointed if we’re not a great defense and have not had a great performance from these guys.”