2012 Position Analysis: LB and the Defense under Brent Venables

Jeremy Brevard-US PRESSWIRE

Our last defensive review covers the defense as a whole and LB position under new DC Brent Venables, who replaced Kevin Steele after the Orange Bowl. We had our misgivings with the hire because we felt that OU had underperformed relative to their talent level on defense, which OU fans seemed to agree with, and will still withhold any conclusive judgements about his 2012 team. I think you cannot properly evaluate a defensive coordinator until after his 2nd year installing his system, so 2013 will be a better evaluation of him one way or another. We've covered BV's defensive philosophy here before, and gone over his defenses at Oklahoma in the previous offseason. This post will not revisit the schematic information.

Venables originally enrolled to play football at Garden City CC in Kansas before transferring to Kansas State under Bill Snyder, who has a habit of taking a ton of JUCO/Prep players to make up for the lack of talent in his home state. After his playing career ended, he did what a lot of KSU players do and stuck around to learn and coach under Snyder, and then Co-DC Bob Stoops. He remained there at KState as a LB coach until Bob Stoops left Florida for the Oklahoma HC job, when he brought BV in as Co-DC and LB coach with his brother Mike Stoops. When Mike left for Arizona, BV was paired with Bo Pelini and then given the full reins and remained there until last year when Mike was rehired as Co-DC. Their philosophies are very similar: stop the run and attack the offense heavily on 3rd down passing situations. It is primarily a typical 4-3 OVER defense with a lot of Nickel sets thrown in, with C3 zone as the primary coverage.

How we will evaluate Venables, as LB Coach and Defensive Coordinator.

  • Gameplanning/In-game adjustments.
  • Recruiting
  • LB discipline and gap control
  • LB pass coverage skills
  • Tackling
  • Turnovers

Venables has a good history as a recruiter, and it was a plus for him when I profiled him after the Bowden firing as a potential replacement. He was interviewed for the HC job that was given to Swinney. This is his history as a recruiter based on numbers of official recruits assigned to him by SoonerScoop.com/Rivals. We originally ran this data and a list of recruits last Winter.

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

2006

Average

Number Signed

4

5

8

7

4

5

5.5

Average Star Rating

3

3.4

3.625

3.6

3.75

3.6

3.5

--note that the average is players signed per year while AVG star rating is the overall average from the 2006 class to 2011 class.

Dabo does not like to send his Coordinators on the road from August to December, so BV doesn't get assigned as many recruits to work on the phones. He does get sent out on spot recruits or to a territory for evaluation, and spot recruits his former areas in Texas, just like The Chad. He was officially assigned Kendall Fuller, who signed with VT due to family ties. He also pulled in Adrian Baker, a DB from Florida, and former FSU commit.

Venables worked on Mackensie Alexander, the top CB in the class, with Elliott and Harbison. DT Scott Pagano's first conversations were with BV before Brooks took a leading role, but we landed Scott based on family ties to the area as much as anything else.

While theres nothing to complain about here at all, I would like to see Venables end up with more recruits to work on. Steele was a great recruiter before Clemson, and will be again for Alabama. I'd hate to see one of Venables best skills be underutilized.

Clemson Defense

I wasn't expecting a good defense this year. What I hoped for was a weak performance at the beginning of the year that would improve greatly as more youngsters got playing experience, and to finish in the 25-40 range in total D. I hoped that we could stick around the Top 40 in scoring as well.

2009-2012 Defensive Statistics
Category 2009 Ntl Rank 2010 Ntl rank 2011 Ntl Rank 2012 Ntl Rank
Rushing Defense 151.50 67th 128.46 28th 176.86 83 156.0 58
Pass Defense 162.79 7th 191.85 22nd 217.5 50 240 73
Pass Efficiency Defense 110.88 21st 116.24 27th 133.47 74 131.2 62
Scoring Defense 20.43ppg 25th 18.77 13th 29.29 81 25 46
Total Defense 314 20th 320.31 19th 394.36 71 396 64
Sacks/Gm 2.57 27th 2.38 32nd 1.85 76 2.6 22
Sacks 36 13th 31 T-28th 24 76 34 T-12
Tackles for Loss 7.29pg 12th 7.38pg 10th 5.07pg 86 6.7 29
Interceptions 21 5th 15 34th 14 31 13 T-43
Defensive FEI 16 15 50
55

We fell short of expectations, which were formulated with the crappy ACC slate of offenses in mind. Clemson's defense should have been better this year than it was. Scoring got better, but didn't reach the goal of 1 TD improvement.

What is really interesting when looking at the defensive stats is how the Sacks ranking ended in the Top 25, considering this was an area where the defense struggled for most of the season. However, in the final quarter of the season, the Tigers D started getting to the QB a bit more often. The one negative is still that on plays where they didn't get a sack, it seemed like there was very little pressure--kind of a boom or bust scenario. We can hope that this isn't just a fluke and that we can rely on the front 4 can generate a pass rush consistently throughout all of next season. Sack rate ended up being 8%, just less than the 10% goal. The Interception rate was very poor, just 3%.

Getting off the field on 3rd downs was a strength from the beginning of the season and ended with a great performance against LSU--8 three and outs and less than a 25% conversion rate...two very big reasons for the Tigers were able to beat the Bayou Bengals. Overall, the stats back up what we all saw throughout the season--not a good unit at all, and possibly the worst since the mid 70s and certainly the worst since Herring, but there was improvement through the season.

In 2009, we had two corners that I felt were underrated and underappreciated by the fans. Crezdon Butler was pretty damn good, with good size and good speed. Chancellor got shit on a little more by fans, but he was good in his own right. Both of them had good safeties helping them deep in coverage, and the coverages were not confusing to them. Well when those two graduated, we had to start Brewer and Sensabaugh, who weren't excellent cover men at the time, and had to burn Robinson's redshirt as a result. Coty improved his stock immensely this year and Brewer did improve in 2010, but they were not to the previous levels.

A problem that came up more in 2010 was the inability to be correctly adjusted to the formations pre-snap, and it looked worse in 2011. I think this pointed to the root problem of the whole Steele scheme: overcomplexity. This was Spence's problem too. Those teams spent so much time preparing everything in the playbook that they really weren't prepared at all.

In 2010, we really started to notice guys spending so much time signaling to each other that the offense would snap the ball and they would not be aligned properly. Playing defense is all about gaining and keeping your leverage, and if you aren't lined up correctly on the snap, you're putting yourselves at a disadvantage that will bite you. Even great talent can't overcome it all the time. If the Nickel or Safeties are arguing or still calling the coverage adjustment at the snap, then the scheme is not simple enough for them to execute.

In 2012 these problems did not become apparent so often as before, and it speaks to the simplicity of the scheme in the back 7 assignments. We did not spend the 10 seconds it took for the offense to snap the ball jumping up and down and pointing at formations. We did have miscommunications between adjacent DBs that led to big plays, and a complete lack of fundamentals by many of the DBs in crucial situations. This remains an area of concern for Mike Reed and BV to fix.

Each opponent merits an adjustment by the DC somehow or another. It may not be much, or it may be a total revamp. The scheme has an answer for it, but if your answer is different each week, then the players can't keep it straight in their heads, and get confused. An example would be the following: you put in 2 coverage packages for the first opponent. In the next week, you put in 2 more, and rep those, but in the game you have to execute all 4. Now if you forgot the reason why you had to use the 1st package in the 1st game, and get confused about a formation that the new opponent shows, you might call the wrong one. We did call the wrong ones. Another way to look at it is to imagine each week having 4 basic coverages, with an adjustment to each formation the offense brings you. That's too much to process in an instant in a game situation. You cannot give a defense too many things to think about: they spend too much time thinking and get reactive instead of aggressive. I don't think BV gave his defense too much this year to succeed, but the stats don't lie about their performances.

One of the reasons why we look reactive against GT is the complexity of our scheme with the answers we have to what they are doing. One of the reasons we looked so good against VT is their own relative lack of complexity, and them having O'Cain, which let us play simple and eat them alive. This has not changed with BV yet, but he'll have an extra few days to prepare for GT at home this year.

Now if Steele had focused on keeping things simpler and focusing on tackling fundamentals and jamming properly, he'd still be the DC at Clemson. Harbison might still be here too, but we've heard of friction with him and BV since August camp.

Gameplanning/In-Game Adjustments

We watch and re-watch Clemson's games each week as well as our opponents. We noted last year how well Steele manages in-game adjustments and cited the points per quarter allowed to illustrate his ability. We'll do the same for BV. Often times the defense would have just one or two bad drives in a ballgame in 09 and 10, with a key 3rd down penalty to give the opponent better field position and extend drives. That was not the case in 2011, and not much of a problem in 2012. We didn't have to give them penalties to beat our ass.

Opponent Scoring by Qtr, 2009-12
2009 2010 2011 2012
Opp 1st Qtr 76 pts, 5.4 ppg 43pts, 3.31 ppg 110pts, 7.86ppg 94pts, 7.23ppg
Opp 2nd Qtr 80 pts, 5.7 ppg 80pts, 6.15 ppg 147pts, 10.5ppg 78pts, 6 ppg
Opp 3rd Qtr 69 pts, 4.92 ppg 88pts, 5.23 ppg 99pts, 7.07ppg 97pts, 7.46 ppg
Opp 4th Qtr 58 pts, 4.14 ppg 57pts, 4.38 ppg 54pts, 3.85 ppg 54pts, 4.15 ppg

Note that this is not entirely defensive points allowed, I've not subtracted anything out, and I don't go in an extract garbage time points.

In the first quarter of every game, an opposing offense is adjusting and reading what the defense shows them, and theyre not in any rhythm, so rarely do many teams consistently rip up their competition from the opening snap. This shows in the 1st quarter statistics in 2010. It does show up as well for 2009, but the scoring there is heavily influenced by Georgia Tech's Thursday night victory. If you take out that game, the 76 drops to 55 (also recall the way they scored, two ST's TDs). In 2011 we stunk out of the gate on defense, showing poor preparation by the defensive staff.

Typically, Steele made pretty good adjustments at the half, and even with a horrific defense in 2011 that still comes out, but the 3rd quarter defense is still awful. However, the inability to prepare the defense early in games shows me that its not all about fatigue and depth with this 2011 Clemson defense. They were just plain bad.

In 2012 its hard to make a case we were significantly better at prep, because 94 pts is still a big number. At least the 2nd quarter shows that BV has made some adjustments after the first drives. I was not surprised at the 3rd quarter numbers because we have given up so many points this year, but I was with the 4th quarter. However, in 2012 by that time in most games we were up 2-3 TDs and opponents put in their backups too. In some of our bigger games the defense didn't get crucial 4th quarter stops (e.g., SC/FSU).

Clemson plays a schedule where our opponents generally ran the ball nearly 1.5-2x as much as pass. The ACC is a very defensive-oriented league, meaning there are more conservative coaches who prefer to run the ball and play defense/field position battles. Once our defense showed they were unable to stop the running game, most opponents stuck with it, and saw no need to throw the ball. While the overall YPC is ok for many games, later in the season it didn't improve, and that shows a glaring lack of defensive tackling fundamentals.

3rd down percentages are ideally under 30%, yet only the best teams get near it. Most coordinators will kill for that number, so 40% is a little more realistic. Clemson held 4 opponents under 30% in 2009, 7 under 40%. We held only 3 under 30% in 2010, 7 under 40%. For the most part in 2012 our 3rd Down Defense was simply outstanding, which amazes me given how many points and yards we gave up. Over the season Clemson was at 34% allowed. A few notable exceptions were FSU, GT and SC. We established goals of 3rd & short and long situations, and we were right at them.

Many folks put the emphasis on run defense on the linebacker group, but the run defense is a team effort from the front 7 together (actually 8, since the SS is tied to the front) along with secondary support. If the DE is not covering the C-gap when he is supposed to, then you shouldn't expect the LB to be there -- it is not his assignment. Saying your run D isn't playing well just because the LB group sucks is not a fair or accurate characterization. Saying it is playing well just because your LBs have a good game isn't fair either. Everyone has a gap they are primarily responsible for and everyone must be there. Overall, no one was really where they should've been in gap control until the Boston College game, the 5th game of the season. After that game, it was up & down a few weeks but did get better until SC, when it deteriorated altogether.

Linebackers

Now I'll diverge from reviewing our defense as a whole and look at the LB Corps in particular. The LB position is unique and probably the toughest on the field to play because of having both run and pass responsibilities on every play and coverage call. Players have to be smart, disciplined in reading keys, and with enough size to tackle big backs and handle linemen blockers, and still cover smaller RBs and TEs in man/zone coverage.

Clemson primarily played a mix of Robber and 2-Man coverage in 2009, but played much more matchup zone in 2010. Now we'll play more of a drop zone/man mix, but mostly zone. We've covered these coverage schemes before so we will not go further here. We spent last offseason covering many of the fundamentals to LB play that we need not go over here again.

2011 Clemson LB Statistics
Player Snaps Total Tackles TFL Sacks
Corico Hawkins 697 80 5 0
Tig Willard 635 75 2.5 0
Quandon Christian 411 36 1.5 0
Stephone Anthony 292 32 6 2
Spencer Shuey 48 27 (19 on ST) 0 0
Lateek Townsend 3 16 (16 ST) 0 0
Justin Parker 33 10 (7 ST) 0 0
Tony Steward 36 5 0 0
Daniel Andrews 28 5 0 0

2012 Clemson LB Statistics
Player Snaps Total Tackles TFL Sacks
Tig Willard
683 95 10.5 3
Spencer Shuey 502 93 6 1
Quandon Christian 447 40 4 2
Stephone Anthony 459 77 4.5 1
Corico Wright
163 30 0 0
Lateek Townsend 28 10 0 0
B.J. Goodson
22 4 0 0
Tony Steward 73 26 0 0

I was happy to see some tackle numbers go up compared to 2011, but overall this group underperformed its talent level for another season. A major problem that bit them and the defense in terms of yards allowed was the backside LB overflowing the play. The longest runs in football go on a cutback where the backside LB is supposed to be. If this would've been fixed our rushing yardage allowed would've been MUCH lower. The responsibility lies on the MIKE and WILL linebackers in our defensive scheme. Far too often did we have the backside cross the face of the RB -- he's supposed to retain leverage on the backside and prevent the cutbacks.

Last year, getting off blocks was a major problem for the primary MIKE linebacker, Corico Wright. He would tend to wait on the Guard to come to him instead of reading and evading the blocker. Stephone Anthony did it as well, but less often. In 2012, it began and quickly Shuey was put in, and he's big enough to handle that blocker better. However, it is important to note that our primary G-front defense in 2012 prevents the OG from getting a clean angle on the interior LBs -- it just allows the Center to come free instead -- so there was less Guard traffic at the 2nd level compared to the Under/Over, where one Guard is essentially uncovered.

There has been a slight shift in practice philosophy in that some more practices are run on 1s vs. 1s, but our sources say it varies opponent to opponent.

Key reading: Between this, getting off blocks, and tackling, the primary difficulties of the LBs become apparent. We don't jump those key reads fast enough, and that is a big contributing factor to not making plays. If you don't read the Guard, you're probably getting blocked by him. If you never read the RB movement, which is tougher with backfield motion and any kind of spread option, you won't be in position to make a tackle.

Reading keys is a big part of the issue with the backside LB, and the reason why Stephone Anthony ended up losing his starting position. If the LB isn't focused on his key and his job off the key, he'll overflow and open the cutback lane. If the MIKE loses track of the RB and comes up too close to the LOS, he can get caught in the wash and completely blocked out of the play. This happens too often for Clemson LBs for us to have a really good run defense. Its all about your discipline in key reading.

Player Reviews

Last year we said here that Rico Hawkins was not more than a servicable reserve and didn't deserve the 700 snaps he received. Apparently it took a new DC to figure this out and his total was cut to shreds.

Justin Parker spent the year on RS to heal a groin problem (one of many apparently), after we wasted two years of eligibility with less than 100 snaps each year. He returns as a RS Jr and is interchangeable at all 3 spots because of his experience, but I'd suspect more MIKE-SAM because of his size. I'm hoping the interpretation of his HS film wasn't completely wrong, but this is the year he needs to put it together.

Spencer Shuey is the highlight of the season at LB. He has been too slow to garner appreciable PT in his time here, but he lost some weight last offseason, and his knowledge of key reading and other responsibilities together won him the job from Stephone Anthony at MLB. I've said many times that I wish the guy was a step faster, because if he was he could be a really good player at the next level. He's a type that would've played alot in the old 5-2 defense or maybe the 2-gap 3-4 of 20-25 years ago. Unfortunately I still do not see him ever becoming a fast enough player to be good against the UGAs/FSUs/SCs of the schedule. He'll be just fine against anyone else who doesn't have a faster set of RBs. So far he's been working MIKE-WILL and I think he will not duplicate his snap count, but will still put up a solid count in 2013.

Tig Willard has been a dependable player amongst this group for 2 years, and I've noticed a level of improvement from him in his reading and pursuit over this season, which you can see in his statistics. I'm not sure he's reached his own ceiling as a player yet, but some problems are there in his outside pursuit of RBs/TEs in the flats and just the ability to make a play. Too often he's not there when he should be, and though he's usually in or around his gap, he doesn't jump through it. The latter did improve in 2012 as evidenced by his TFL.

Quandon Christian is again the most disappointing of the group to me. He showed some things as a freshman getting to the flats and making plays, but they've disappeared. Until he was completely benched this year, he was awful. Note that a cut in the snap total is partially due to Blanks and the preference for Nickel sets. He looks paralyzed when an obvious play could be made on the perimeter and doesn't get into the backfield when the chance is there. In the simplest terms, I don't think he trusts his reads. If he trusted them and believed the scheme worked, he might actually do something against Georgia Tech for once. This is put up or shutup time for QC: get better before August or go sit on the bench.

Anthony ranks 2nd on the disappointing list, maybe 1st for some of you who have given up on QC. I thought he would not relinquish the starting spot he took from Rico, but by midseason his snap total got slaughtered. Its not his speed, but his reading of keys. Thats how Shuey took it. SA jumps into a hole where the RB aint going to be, and gets himself stood up and blocked. I still believe he could be a great LB but I do not think he's a fit at MIKE. I think he should be outside, at either WILL or SAM, but they want to leave him at MIKE so he can get comfortable.

Clemson wasted another year of eligibility for both Townsend and Steward, with neither garnering 100 snaps. We predicted as much in August, but Dabo insisted that both be allowed to play. Townsend did not want to spend the time studying a playbook, so I have little sympathy, but I'd have put him in as a spot pass rusher since thats all he did at Marlboro Cty, and we had pass rush issues most of the year. It does not so much matter at this point with Townsend, since he took the RS year to transfer away, but its a recurring issue at Linebacker. Parker should've been redshirted as a Freshman, Townsend, and Steward also. Hopefully they'll recognize this and RS Dorian O'Daniel. Steward wasn't ready and though he shows flashes, he should've taken the RS after two knee surgeries. Right now he's working at WILL with Shuey, where he should stay.

B.J. Goodson will likely remain at MIKE and I wouldnt expect his snap total to do more than possibly double in 2013. He will need more development.

Coming off transfer is WLB/MLB Kellen Jones from Oklahoma, and according to those who saw a lot of practices with the scout team, he may challenge the starers immediately. He's got the size and the speed to play the spot, along with good instincts. This is a player to watch in 2013.

Incoming recruits are MLB Ben Boulware and OLB Dorian O'Daniel. We don't expect either to be a real factor here in 2013, and are hoping Swinney doesn't opt to not redshirt them for a 50 snap season and special teams play.

If Clemson's LBs can live up to their potential, we could be a significantly improved defense in 2013 against the run.

The Verdict

Its not right to make a serious evaluation until after year 2 under a new DC. We are disappointed by the overall performance of the defense in 2012 and expected better in several areas, but there were positives to build on. Its not as complex as the former scheme and we did show signs of good coaching from BC onwards. Fundamentals in the front 7 did improve. It must get a lot better in 2013.

The Coordinator doesn't do much recruiting, and hasn't had time to build the relationships here to make a call one way or another in this area.

We'll wait and see.

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