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2016 Clemson Football Season Preview: Defensive Strategy

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South Carolina v Clemson Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images

Once again, Clemson shipped a truckload of defenders wholesale to the NFL and Brent Venables must replace a large number of snaps from a great defense. Last year, I rolled my eyes at the ignorant assertion Clemson’s defense would fall off the map with the return of only two starters, since most of the new starters had significant experience to to go along with undeniable talent. This year that is not the case, but there could be more depth across the unit.

While twice as many starters return to the 2016 Clemson defense, the 2015 Clemson defense was so thin that this year’s replacements lack the experience of 2015’s new starters. This is of course a cause for concern, but Venables has given us a different reason each year which show he is one of, if not the best defensive coordinator in CFB:

  • 2012: Venables stabilized the unit after the unspeakable Orange Bowl.
  • 2013: furthered the growth and featured a surprisingly good, almost great defense.
  • 2014: top ranked defense in the land in most major categories.
  • 2015: lost 9 starters and produced a top 10 defense despite little depth, sent even more players to the NFL.

Now Venables has to work his magic with mostly players who are heavy on talent yet light on experience, but he has earned the benefit of the doubt as far as player development and scheme are concerned; the cupboard is far from bare for our premier defensive teacher.

Base Scheme

As most of you know, Clemson’s preferred defense begins with the 4-3 over. It only puts 4 men on the line of scrimmage — thus inviting the offense to rush into 3 of the red “bubbles” in the diagram below — yet mitigates the run threat by featuring quick, aggressive defensive linemen. With its aggression up front and flexibility in the back 7, the 4-3 over is better suited to stop modern CFB’s spread offenses than the 3-4 or 4-3 under.

While the 4-3 has always been the base, Venables has used the 4-2-5 nickel more frequently than the 4-3 due to the prevalence of opponent 3+ wide receiver formations. In the nickel, Clemson replaces the Sam (strong side) linebacker with a third corner which allows Clemson to match 3 corners on 3 receivers, yet keep its linebackers and a safety inside to defend the run. Over the second half of 2015, we saw Mackensie Alexander slide into the nickel role in place of Travis Blanks, leaving Adrian Baker to take Alexander’s place at field corner:

A cornerback is on each receiver, allowing the free safety to drop into the box for run support.

Of course I’d be remiss if I did not mention Clemson’s go-to on 3rd downs, the aptly named Dime of Doom (nickname credit to TheKraken). This is a 3-2-6 formation in which Clemson takes the nickel a step further: remove a defensive tackle and replace him with third safety, placed in the box with the two linebackers to show a menacing blitz look. It works tremendously due to the speed on the field and the pre-snap confusion, with as many as 6 men on the line prepared to blitz.

Clemson’s dime is designed for speed and confusion, both in coverage and the pass rush.

Strengths

The greatest strength of this Clemson defense is obviously the talent, depth, and versatility at defensive tackle. Carlos Watkins is a potential first rounder at the 3 technique; Christian Wilkins can and will play 3 different positions (1, 3, and SDE); Scott Pagano is a truckload at 1 technique when he keeps his pad level down. Oh and you may have heard about a certain 342 pound freshman:

Dexter Lawrence makes a great position a potentially elite position. The strength up front will play into the hands of the overall team strategy: take away the run as Venables always prefers, and harrass opposing quarterbacks who must try to match Deshaun Watson.

Don’t expect opponents to find much running room inside this year, either.

Unlike last year, we may also find depth at linebacker thanks to the early arrival of 5 star freshmen Tre Lamar and Shaq Smith — Lamar may even beat out Kendall Joseph at middle linebacker before long. As 2015 wore on, Clemson’s defense was hampered by the wear and tear that comes with one guy playing all the snaps at Mike and Will. BJ Goodson stayed strong all year despite no healthy option in Joseph to spell him, but Boulware’s tired legs and bum shoulder really did Clemson no favors in November.

Lamar and Joseph are in a battle at Mike which is only good for our linebacker depth. In fact, don’t be too surprised if Lamar earns the job sooner rather than later. He is the physically perfect Mike and experience is all that holds him back. And have I mentioned Dorian O’Daniel at Sam? O’Daniel is a breakout star who will finally find the snaps he long deserved.

Smith though is laboring through the typical freshman growing pains and is on the redshirt bubble. It is crucial that Smith show enough improvement to avoid the redshirt and give Boulware the rest he needs — there is too big a drop-off after Boulware unless Shaq can earn the staff’s trust and get himself on the field. The expectation here is that Boulware gets us through Auburn before Shaq earns a heavy workload vs Troy and SC State to prepare him for snaps vs Georgia Tech and Louisville, where Boulware will need to stay fresh throughout.

Surprisingly, there may be depth at safety with the improvement of Tanner Muse and the returning health of Korrin Wiggins. Wiggins’ availability is paramount to a new-look secondary since he can be plugged into three different positions (both safety slots and the nickel corner). Combine his versatility with the plucky Ryan Carter’s ability to cover multiple positions as well, and the safety position isn’t such a dire situation at all.

Weaknesses

Busts. So many busts both in gap integrity (Syracuse, NC State) and pass coverage (Alabama, Georgia Tech, South Carolina) kept Clemson from pulling away from inferior opponents before it finally cost the Tigers a title. With such aggressive linebackers you have to take the good with the bad; havoc is a crucial part of Venables’ defensive philosophy but aggression is liable to pull a linebacker out of his gap and into the scrum, leaving gaping holes with mere seal blocks up front:

Goodson filled Boulware’s gap and left a gaping hole.

The only weak spot in the starting lineup can be found in Mackensie Alexander’s replacement, whomever he may be. Adrian Baker likely would’ve locked down the job by now, but with a torn ACL in the spring I see no way he contributes effectively this season. As of this writing, Mark Fields gets the nod with freshman phenom Trayvon Mullen and Ryan Carter splitting snaps with him. Fields is supremely talented — perhaps more physically capable than Alexander — but doesn’t have the technique or aura Alexander used to lock down his side of the field these last two years. Mullen is coming on very strong and I expect him to earn a starter’s share of snaps at field corner (or as part of the rotation at nickel).

This defense’s other glaring weakness can be found in defensive end depth. I am particularly high on Clelin Ferrell, but he along with Richard Yeargin and Austin Bryant are the only reliable true defensive ends on the roster. This was already alarming before Bryant was lost for the first month of the season; now the depth is perilously thin and we are another injury away from absolute disaster.

Wilkins will now almost certainly start at SDE against Auburn — where setting the edge on outside runs will be far more important than a pass rush — which led us to pull small DT/slow DE Jabril Robinson out to DE and may even force Clemson to burn the redshirt on the unready freshman Xavier Kelly, presuming he recovers from his moped accident in time.

Needless to say, all anxious eyes will be on defensive end and field cornerback when we kick off on the Plains. Get through the opener as we should, and the defense should be in decent shape by the Louisville game.

Strategy

In 2015 we enjoyed aggressive coverages and exotic fire zone blitzes thanks to outstanding cornerback play. Venables’ faith in Alexander and Tankersley afforded him the luxury to play a surprising amount of cover 1 and cover 3 — meaning one safety was able to crash the line of scrimmage to help shut down the run. Aside from a handful of busts each game, it worked beautifully.

In 2016, the strategy is more difficult to predict with yet another year of alarming turnover; the most impactful being field corner and defensive end, of course. Will Venables compensate for the concern at corner with more cover 2, leaning on his defensive line to shut down the run on its own? Or will he stay aggressive and take his lumps at corner? The answers vary by opponent and situation, but what we know for certain is Venables won’t change his aggressive philosophy.

Clemson’s base coverage is actually a cover 4, or quarters, which pairs 4 deep zones with 3 underneath zones behind a 4 man rush:

As you can see from the strengths listed, it is everything Venables needs to be aggressive against the run (safety help) and to provide help for the corners against deep routes. The drawbacks, unsurprisingly, can be found in susceptibility to play-action, flat coverage (Boulware vs a tight end on the weak side is scary), and long crossing routes.

Another coverage I hope to see again is cover 3, simply because it is so versatile; you can drop 7 (3 deep, 4 underneath) or send almost any combination of blitzes in front of 3 deep zones in the back. Cover 3 allows a safety to be even more aggressive in run support because he can fly into the box and find himself in his assigned zone, whereas in cover 4 or cover 2 he would risk being burned by play-action.

If you paid attention to last season’s film reviews, you know Clemson called plenty of cover 3 last year since it helped shut down the run and the cornerback play was excellent. Needless to say, it is far more risky this year and I expect a return to primarily quarters coverage. If we start to see a lot of cover 3, though, it means Venables trusts his cornerbacks outside...or we’re struggling against the run. I find the former more likely than the latter.

Venables isn’t prone to coach-speak or hyperbole, so when he says he expects to field a good defense you have to believe him. He wants an aggressive, fast defense and entering his 5th year at Clemson, you know he has the players to do so even if many are scarily light on experience. I for one am not mashing the panic button as I was after the spring game. And if our fears in the secondary, at defensive end, or in gap integrity do materialize...it’s not like Clemson is incapable of winning a shootout.