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2013 Position Analysis: LB and the Defense under Brent Venables

Tyler Smith

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. We withheld judgement on the 2012 team defense because it was his first season as DC. 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. 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 being his primary coverage in 2012 and more 2 and M2M coverage this year with the freedom his CB's gave him.

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

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 last 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.

This year, Venables mainly landed LB recruits, of which we signed too many. BV's South Florida territory netted Richard Yeargin III, a big OLB who we could see moving up to WDE. He also loved Jalen Williams and Kendall Joseph, and went to bat for their offers and commitments. Venables also worked with Tony Elliott on Korie Rogers, and is credited with Cannon Smith but we don't really count Smith because his dad is a BOT member.

I am hoping BV gets more time to recruit around Atlanta and S Florida because he's too good not to be on the road as much as his duties allow.

Clemson Defense

I was expecting Clemson to have been better in 2012, and when they turned out to be one of the worst in my memory of Clemson football I revised my realistic expectations downwards for 2013, hoping to just finish in the Top 30. I still believe Top 20 should be where Clemson defenses always end up, with the talent we can get and especially considering the weak offenses we play. I was pleasantly surprised we finished 25th and tied for 24th in scoring, which is the most important of them all. Just think of where they'd be with better safety play.

2009-2013 Defensive Statistics
Category 2009 Ntl Rank 2010 Ntl rank 2011 Ntl Rank 2012 Ntl Rank 2013 Ntl Rank
Rushing Defense 151.50 67th 128.46 28th 176.86 83 156.0 58 155.7 52
Pass Defense 162.79 7th 191.85 22nd 217.5 50 240 73 201.0 16
Pass Efficiency Defense 110.88 21st 116.24 27th 133.47 74 131.2 62 114.20 19
Scoring Defense 20.43ppg 25th 18.77 13th 29.29 81 25 46 22.2 T-24
Total Defense 314 20th 320.31 19th 394.36 71 396 64 356.7 25
Sacks/Gm 2.57 27th 2.38 32nd 1.85 76 2.6 22 2.92 T-13
Sacks 36 13th 31 T-28th 24 76 34 T-12 38 T-12
Tackles for Loss 7.29pg 12th 7.38pg 10th 5.07pg 86 6.7 29 9.5 1
Interceptions 21 5th 15 34th 14 31 13 T-43 18 T-13
Defensive FEI 16 15 50 55 17

And now the advanced statistical measures, just for Brent Venables' tenure as DC.

Advanced Defensive Stats under Brent Venables
Statistic 2012 2013
Defensive FEI Rank 55 17
Defensive Eff (unadjusted) Rank 54 20
First Down Rate 50 1
Available Yards 46 7
Explosive Drives 91 48
Methodical Drives 14 14
S&P+ Rank 34 12
Pass 95 17
Rushing 55 12
Drive Efficiency 25 13
Defensive F/+ 51 13

I'll just say that as a unit, I'm most proud of the pass defense and the improvement we made there. I knew what we had in Breeland, but its the improvement from Robinson and the other backups, along with Smith for the 2nd part of the year, that really raised the defensive numbers. Robinson was a liability in 2012, and Peters was inconsistent, for example. As you can see, the total sacks ended up about the same, so even though we certainly did have better pass rush in 2013 (2012's totals should really be considered as being from game 5 onwards), the unit's improvement in efficiency is not entirely attributed to the D-line.

They were, however, largely responsible for most of the scoring allowed, and that mainly the deep safety positions.

I'm still a bit surprised by the rushing defense figures, considering how well we handled the main RB of most of our opponents, but its skewed a bit by some big run games and our struggles to truly stop a mobile QB. In most contests the run defense was nothing to complain about, but it does show that we have plenty of room to improve. Defenses that can stop the run on command can completely control a football game.

But the best improvements a defense makes is in the 2nd year under a new coordinator, and I'm not expecting anywhere near this level of improvement in 2014. I think we'll have some teething issues in the secondary that will drop the passing yards allowed, but I do think they have the ability to end up in the Top 15 in scoring defense and hopefully get that run defense figure down by 20 yards or so.

Gameplanning/In-game Adjustments

In 2012, Venables had to do some things to "hide" the weakness of the secondary in some spots. To do that, you can try mixing coverages more. Conversely you can keep it very basic and always give the weaker player (e.g., Robinson) some safety help over the top. As you can see from the passing numbers, its still hard to keep players hidden. Film don't lie.

I don't think he had to hide anyone at all in 2013. He may have set Smith deeper and brought Blanks down a few more times in support, but I didn't see that as hiding Blanks' problems.

3rd down percentages are ideally under 30%, yet only the best teams get near it. Clemson got 30.8% for the season. We held 3 opponents below 20% (Ohio State, NC St and WF) and 8 below 30%. We have goals on 3rd & short vs 3rd & long, and did very well with each. They played their worst in the game we wanted most, giving up 52% to Connor Shaw's scrambles.

In both of Venables seasons here in Tigertown, they have been exceptionally good at getting off the field on 3rd downs overall.

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. I don't have a player that comes to mind as frequently not being in his gap this year. We had a few spots where a DT would get washed out of his hole, or Beasley could get doubled, but the longest runs we allowed were due to overpursuit by the backside LB or a Safety not being where he should've been.

But there didn't seem to be a big need for many big adjustments this year. Usually we had a good gameplan going in and there wasn't much to change besides varying the coverages at times. The glaring one is SC, however, and why we couldn't find a way to not let Spurrier out-formation us for his QB to run free is a black mark on a good defensive season for Venables.


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. In 2012 we'll played more of a drop zone/man mix, but mostly zone. In 2013 we played a little more M2M coverage because our CBs actually figured out how to jam someone properly and the LBs could pick up RBs a little better. We've covered these coverage schemes before and have gone over the fundamentals of LB play previously.

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

2013 Clemson LB Statistics
Player Snaps Total Tackles TFL Sacks
Spencer Shuey 747 119 7.5 1
Stephone Anthony 802 131 13.5 4
Quandon Christian 489 49 8 1
Tony Steward 167 37 3.5 1
Ben Boulware 73 25 1.5 0
Kellen Jones 37 11 2 1
TJ Burrell 80 11 0 0
BJ Goodson 33 7 0 0

You can see that even with a loaded scholarship stable of LBs, its really only 4 guys who play, and mainly 3. We play against pro-style teams which necessitates a real SAM, but its only roughly half the time. The rest of the time we're playing Nickel/4-2-5 sets and someone else is on the slot receiver. So why does Clemson carry so many linebackers on scholarship, and why did we sign a boatload more this year?

A problem we pointed out often in 2012 was that the backside LB kept overrunning plays. The MIKE or WILL have their flow-to and flow-away gaps, and if the man on the backside overruns it, it opens up a cutback lane that usually goes for a chunk of yards. We didn't do that as often in 2013, and its a big reason why the defense improved in scoring. I think we gave up more yards off the edges or when a DB had fill responsibilities than anything else.

In reading keys, both Anthony and Shuey greatly improved, but Anthony especially. He would eagerly jump into gaps and get himself washed out or open a cutback in '12, but in '13 he stuck with his reads and you can see his tackles and TFL numbers went way up. All of that is film study of the opponent and reading the keys to anticipate better.

Player Review

Stephone Anthony's progression is the story of this group. He became more disciplined in reading his keys. That leads to making more plays in the open field. He tackled anyone who came his way. I do not see him as a great coverage linebacker, particularly in zone. He lets his opponent get leverage on him too easily. He has to make more contact against guys coming up the seam, and not let them get deeper where the Safeties can screw it up - which they did in 2013. If he can keep it up otherwise, and improve his ability to cover guys, he can really shoot up the draft boards next May.

Spencer Shuey is a very dependable player we'll miss next season. He's not the fastest but he makes up for it with film study and sticking with his reads. He hits hard and doesn't screw up tackles. That helps him be in the right position to make a play, even if he couldn't run down a guy like James Wilder or Todd Gurley in the open field.

Quan Christian still ranks highly on the disappointing list for his career, but I think this is the first year since his freshman season that he really bought into the system and cut it loose. For the last couple years he's played tentative, almost like he didn't believe what he was seeing or wasn't sure of himself. It wasn't that he didnt have the speed to play the spot or couldn't tackle, he just didn't do the job and it always looked like he didn't trust his read. You can see above that he didn't really play much more and didn't make many more tackles year over year, but I do think he improved as a player.

We noticed Steward a little more this past season, and you do see flashes of ability still there. 167 snaps isn't much to gauge a weakness other than knowledge of the system and experience playing, but he's the man this year and its his last chance to prove he's still the player he was in HS - with the sickest LB film I have ever seen.

Boulware and Jones are the two who will push for PT the most, but I can't see either unseating Anthony, obviously. Steward is the one at most risk of losing his spot to one of them. Both Boulware and Jones are superaggressive players and it makes me a little nervous when they rush a gap so quickly. When they are properly reigned in they will both be at least decent players, and I think both will turn out pretty good.

Burrell will challenge for SAM/SS duty and Goodson's snaps will at least double.

The Verdict

Two years are in and I think Venables has done a good job in improving this defense after a horrid 2012. Our fundamentals are much better. We tackle much better as a group. We learned how to jam someone at the LOS, finally. I think our DL and front 7 as a group will have to carry this team in 2014, moreso than many may think right now.

Venables has done well in recruiting and we constantly see him mentioned in recruiting articles, which we didn't see as much of with Steele (who was a former Rivals recruiter of the year). He's still building his relationships here but he's getting the job done.