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2017 Will be Brent Venables’ Strongest Defense Yet

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Comparing the top-ranked 2014 Clemson defense to 2017’s forthcoming unit, with Anna Hickey’s first-hand impression of Venables himself.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to PEAK OFFSEASON, in which we try and pass time by watching recruits tweet and pulling our own very bad football hot takes out of the freezer and into the nuclear-powered microwave known herein as Online. Lacking Game of Thrones theories to distract me this spring, my mind has been free to explore more football thoughts (and happy football memories) than usual while I spend lazy weekends wandering around the state with my dog. AS SUCH, I welcome all foolhardy and braggadocious commenters to join me in baiting nonbelievers and haters Online.

ASSERTION: CLEMSON’S 2017 DEFENSE WILL BE BETTER THAN THE LEGENDARY 2014 UNIT.

Clemson football’s title-defending 2017 team bears striking similarities to the 2014 team for a plenty of reasons, many of which have long been noted: departed superstars on offense; a career backup QB expected to serve as merely a stop-gap while a 5 star freshman finds his way; a defense charged with leading Clemson to victory while said offense lives through its quarterback growing pains; and a quietly-confident Brent Venables, who is likely giddy to field the latest and greatest in a string of utterly dominant Clemson defenses.

The fabled 2014 defense was the nation’s very best unit, and with the most returning experience since 2014, a number of Clemson fans expect Venables to again field a highly ranked unit, if not number one outright. Counting myself among this number, I wanted to analyze 2014’s depth chart vs 2017’s across the lineup, but I first wondered what Venables himself thinks.

So before comparing depth charts and running away with a narrative which could be dispelled by Venables, it’s prudent to first understand his general feel regarding the 2017 unit. Similar to former offensive coordinator Chad Morris, Venables’ personality makes it relatively easy to find real substance in his answers to media questions, both in words said and unsaid.

He is unlike Dabo Swinney, whose optimism (and often hyperbole) is best taken with a grain of salt, nor is he prone to the canned “coack-speak” which tells us absolutely nothing of substance or even conversational value.

From everything I have seen, Venables is quietly confident yet still outwardly motivating — as all great coaches and teachers must remain no matter how pleased — when asked about his forthcoming defense. But I wanted a primary source to back up my assertion that he knows this could be his best defense, so I asked Clemson247’s Anna Hickey for her impressions of Venables after multiple media sessions:

What sense do you get from Venables when asked about his 2017 defense?

First of all, I don’t think he feels the need to gush over his defensive line — or at least he didn’t in the spring — because it’s a group that’s not going to surprise anybody. Last year Clelin Ferrell was an unknown commodity to outsiders and there were questions on the heels of Austin Bryant’s injury and Christian Wilkins move outside. There are no questions of that nature this year.

Venables prefers to operate by surprising people with the talent he has rather than intimidating opposition by touting what he has (in the media). I get the sense he’s optimistic about the secondary this year and willing to try players at different positions. Cross-training is the name of the game for his ‘backers, too; it seemed like everyone had a go at the weak-side spot this spring. Venables is probably more concerned about replacing Ben Boulware’s intelligence and intuition than any single defensive player’s physical presence.

What makes Venables easier to read than most coaches when you mine for a revealing nugget in interviews?

How thorough and thoughtful he is in his responses. He doesn’t talk to hear himself talk, and he doesn’t throw around praise when it hasn’t been earned. So when he lights up about a player, especially in spring ball when the media can’t view everything for themselves, you know it means something.

At the same time, he’s going to guard some things. He’s not going to come out and say how good he thinks Nyles Pinckney can be in the future. Because you know when Venables says something like that, it’s going to be true, and then all of college football knows about it.

He’s also good at giving you a technical explanation if you ask for one. The more specific your questions are about a certain player and how he fits or what his limitations are, the more detail he’ll give. So he’s great for that aspect and less great for fluffy adjectives and praise, which is great by me.

Would you say he's let on to the perception that this could be his best defense?

I would say definitely not (outwardly). He'll quickly point out there are certain question marks regarding depth and personnel when asked a variation of that question. Or he'll mention the high level of competition on the schedule. He certainly wants to temper expectations, because after what was accomplished last year and how much of that is returning, he knows they'll be as high as ever.

2014 vs 2017 Positional Comparisons

Defensive Line

Strong Side Defensive End: Corey Crawford vs Austin Bryant

Crawford was a 3 year starter who spent the last two seasons with the Washington Redskins practice squad before moving on to the Arena Football league. His 6’5” frame and long arms gave him ideal leverage to set the edge — at which he was superb — but never materialized into a legitimate pass-rushing threat.

Bryant burst onto the scene in the 2015 playoff, filling in wonderfully for the injured Shaq Lawson at weak side end. Bryant was then expected to be Clemson’s top DE and strong side starter in 2016, but a broken foot in August cut his season in half and was eased back into shape late in the season. Now Bryant has developed solid technique, and is thus excellent at both setting the edge and providing a viable rush threat as an added bonus. He is a likely candidate to jump to the NFL draft in a year if his health allows for a full season.

Advantage: 2017

Weak Side Defensive End: Vic Beasley vs Clelin Ferrell

Where to begin with Beasley? The unquestioned best pass rusher in school history — all time sack leader, top 10 draft pick, and last year’s sack leader in the NFL all cement this legacy. The face of the top-ranked 2014 unit piled himself in glory and headlines as a 4-3 WDE (in over and under fronts) and even occasionally a 3-4 Jack linebacker.

Ferrell is no slouch either, however. Those who pay close attention to the program (including yours truly) saw Ferrell poised for a big year in 2016 after the spring game. A knee injury in high school forced a redshirt in 2015, but he showed elite talent in 2016 and put together a monster playoff. He is Clemson’s top pass rusher and is expected to be no later than a 2nd rounder in next year’s draft thanks to ideal size and length. Even a modest increase in production will likely launch him into the 1st round. Ferrell may prove to be a better-rounded DE, but nobody would come close to Beasley at the primary pass rushing position.

Advantage: 2014

1 Tech Defensive Tackle: Deshaun Williams vs Dexter Lawrence

Deshaun Williams served as a “super sub” for 3 years before he locked down a starting role in his senior season. Williams saved the day in Clemson’s goal line stand against Louisville and possessed good burst and athleticism for an interior lineman once he reshaped his body late in his career, which he then parlayed into a current roster spot with the Cincinnatti Bengals despite going undrafted.

Dexter Lawrence is a the latest 5 star freak defender. Already expected to be the #1 overall draft pick in 2019. There likely hasn’t been a monstrous specimen like this at Clemson since William Perry. Freshman All American and ACC Rookie of the Year, Lawrence was the force in Clemson’s interior line after Wilkins moved outside to fill in for Bryant’s injury. Lawrence can bull rush or run past interior linemen with ease. He can split double teams and chase down quarterbacks. A man this young should not be this size. A man this size should not be this quick.

Advantage: 2017

3 Tech Defensive Tackle: Grady Jarrett vs Christian Wilkins

This was hardest decision. While Beasley was the face of the defense, Jarrett was the heart and soul; probably my all-time favorite Clemson defender (though Wilkins may already be even more widely popular). An undersized and overlooked recruit, Jarrett used his elite burst and leverage from his wrestling background to excel as one of the best penetrating 3 techs Clemson has ever seen. He was a steal in the 5th round of the draft, and sacked Tom Brady 3 times himself in the most recent Super Bowl.

Christian Wilkins, meanwhile, has been just as impactful from a popularity and leadership standpoint, with a 5 star pedigree and All American production from multiple positions. Wilkins can (and has) played almost every single alignment on Clemson’s front; he can play both odd DT techniques in a 4-3 or play 4 technique in a 3-4 in the NFL. Playing both 5 and 9 tech DE last year, however, increased what was already likely 1st round stock soaring into the top 10 next year thanks to startling versatility. Like Jarrett, he will likely be the heart and soul of this year’s defense. Sentiment for Jarrett wants me to label this position even, but Wilkins has been everything Jarrett was both on and off the field, with more potential due to genetics.

Advantage: 2017

Depth

Here’s the biggest advantage for 2014: it brought Shaq Lawson, DJ Reader, Carlos Watkins, and Tavaris Barnes off the bench. All of whom are in the NFL. This sort of depth is what made the unit, and especially the defensive line, the best in the entire country.

Advantage: 2014

Linebackers

Strong Side Linebacker/Nickel: BJ Goodson/Korrin Wiggins vs Dorian O’Daniel/Isaiah Simmons

Goodson made his mark on the 2015 defense as a middle linebacker, working his way to a 4th round selection by the NY Giants. While Goodson was a solid pure strong side linebacker, he was not utilized nearly as much as the nickel back, who drew the most snaps since Clemson lacked a true nickel/Sam hybrid. Wiggins lacked ideal athleticism at the position, but made up for it in heady assignment play and aggressive work against perimeter blocking.

With Dorian O’Daniel at his disposal, Venables is able to employ 4-3 personnel far more often than he did in 2014. O’Daniel has the flexibility to sit in the box and split wide on slot receivers. When Venables does move to a nickel formation, however, he has countless options in Simmons (who likely starts at nickel when Ryan Carter plays at field corner) and various other bodies capable of the role. No position exemplifies the unit’s flexibility quite like the current Sam/nickel lineup.

Advantage: 2017

Middle Linebacker: Stephone Anthony vs Tre Lamar

Sharing captaincy and equal “heart and soul” importance with Jarrett, Stephone Anthony was the 5 star linebacker who was a rock for the unit for 3 solid years after a freshman campaign which left him benched. Likely the best pure linebacker Clemson has produced in 20+ years, Anthony had the ideal size, speed, and instincts, and intelligence which landed him in the 1st round of the 2015 NFL draft.

Tre Lamar is another 5 star who will step in at Mike after Kendall Joseph’s expected move to the weak side. Serving frequently in short yardage packages and as the primary backup to Joseph, Lamar flashed his potential as a prospect in Anthony’s physical mold — like Anthony, his mental progression is all that separates him from reaching a monstrous ceiling.

Advantage: 2014

Weak Side Linebacker: Tony Steward vs Kendall Joseph

Yet another 5 star, Steward arrived in 2011 off an ACL injury but still considered the best high school linebacker Clemson ever signed. Sadly, his freshman season was cut short by another ACL after the redshirt cutoff date. For the next two years he labored as a backup before finally making an impact as a senior in 2014, rising as a team leader with great sideline-to-sideline speed and strength. Steward is currently a free agent after being drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 2015, and if you haven’t heard of his work with ovarian cancer research, please consider donating to this charity.

Kendall Joseph is the starter at weak side linebacker after a solid season at middle linebacker next to Ben Boulware (presuming the position change sticks, which laregly depends on Lamar’s development). Joseph doesn’t have the measurables (size nor speed) NFL scouts love but his work ethic; this and his play-making ability have him on draft radars nonetheless. He is expected to lead the linebacker unit in Boulware’s stead this fall, both in terms of leadership and actual position. Determining an advantage depends on your valuation: athleticism (Steward) vs production (Joseph).

Advantage: 2017

Depth

2014 brought Ben Boulware off the bench at two different positions. What more needs to be said about the group? Unlike the defensive front, the 2017 linebacker unit has far more depth than 2014 in terms of bodies, but the quality Ben Boulware and BJ Goodson brought off the bench isn’t there yet.

Advantage: 2014

Secondary

Field Corner: Mackensie Alexander vs Ryan Carter

This is the biggest mismatch and easiest decision between the two units. Alexander entered as a 5 star (notice a trend) in 2013 and would’ve started from day 1 if not for an injury and subsequent redshirt. His two years as a starter were All American years but it was his fiery and flashy demeanor on the field (in contrast to his enigmatic silence off of it) which fed his legend.

Ryan Carter was a 2 star add-on to the 2013 class meant to cement a certain former prospect’s commitment. Carter found playing time at nickel in 2015 and impressed for his fearless tackling as much as he drew criticism for his poor coverage. Replacing Alexander last year pushed Carter outside to field corner more often in 2016, and while he improved, downfield coverage is still his weakness and thus likely the weakest link in the 2017 defense no matter who gets snaps at field corner.

Advantage: 2014

Boundary Corner: Garry Peters vs Trayvon Mullen

Garry Peters was an afterthought until a breakout season in 2014 in which he garnered All ACC honors and made a huge impact on corner blitzes. Look no further than the Louisville game that season.

Trayvon Mullen faces the unenviable task of replacing Cordrea Tankersley, but with Mullen’s length and pure corner skills he is both an athletic and technical upgrade over Peters and will fill in well for Tank. I expect him to develop into an all conference performer like Peters, but the question is when. Determining an advantage once again depends on perspective. Do you prefer an unpolished but aggressive senior finally making a mark or a supremely talented newcomer in his first heavy action?

Advantage: Slight to 2017 (it was difficult taking a sophomore with 100ish snaps ahead of a 1st team All ACC selection, but I’ll take Mullen regardless).

Strong Safety: Van Smith vs Jayron Kearse

Again, we find a battle between potential and production. Jayron Kearse was a celebrated recruit and physical force in Venables’ defense in 2014 and early in 2015. He was prone to busts quite often, but his 6’5” frame and flexibility allowed Venables to align him in different positions and even rush the passer. Despite his heavy snap count and experience, Kearse is an example of unmet potential thanks to busts — and later in his final season, poor effort/NFL distraction, which ironically left his draft stock plummeting to the 7th round.

Van Smith moves back to his original position (a much better fit for his body type and skill set) after 2 seasons at free safety. Smith struggled when tasked with man coverage early in 2016 but was much better against the pass than more recent safeties. Ultimately, Smith’s stability (although he busted TD to a tight end against Alabama too) is more important to the position than Kearse’s length.

Advantage: 2017

Free Safety: Robert Smith vs Tanner Muse

Robert Smith was uncelebrated as both a recruit and a player but was by far the most consistent defender in the 2014 secondary. Undersized and not the athletic specimen Venables usually employs at the position, Smith excelled due to positioning and “quarterbacking” the secondary without fail.

Muse is a relative newcomer for one stepping into a starting role (most of Venables’ recent new starters had heavy workloads as substitutes in previous years) but he did make an impact on the second half of the season. He made plenty of plays on special teams (blocked punt vs Alabama) and even logged crucial snaps on defense late in the title game. Muse is the prototypical safety in terms of size and speed, and his physique is far better suited to the position than either of the Smiths (Robert in 2014 and Van in 2016) who preceded him. Again, a toss up between steady production and potential, but on the back end I’ll take consistency.

Advantage: 2014

Depth

For all its depth up front, the 2014 secondary wasn’t particularly deep or diverse in its personnel. 2017 meanwhile, has multiple players training at different positions. Van Smith has 2 years at free safety. K’Von Wallace looks like the second best corner on the team behind Mullen and will find a workload at nickel and box safety in addition to relieving Mullen at boundary corner. Isaiah Simmons is the backup at free safety and possible starter at nickel. Field corner will be a committee approach with three proven contributors. Venables has more options than ever in the back end.

Advantage: 2017

FINAL TALLY: THIS IS GOOD

2014: 6 advantages — WDE, DL depth, MLB, LB depth, FCB, FS
2017: 8 advantages — SDE, 1DT, 3DT, Nickel/SLB, WLB, BCB, SS, Secondary depth

Therefore I can happily conclude that I expect the 2017 Clemson defense to be as dominant as 2014. Whether it will result in the same statistical ranking as 2014 falls relies on many different variables (Clemson faces far better quarterbacks this year than in 2014, when it faced admittedly poor QBs all season) but in analyzing the lineup and its depth, 2017 is subjectively a better unit. Even if you flip one of the labeled advantages, the squads are even. This obviously bodes well for Clemson’s season — who wouldn’t take a defense equal to (or perhaps better than) 2014?

So don’t expect much of a drop off in Clemson this season (looking at you, Midlands fans). This could very well be the top defense in college football again.