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2017 Clemson Football Season Preview: Defensive Strategy

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All Hail Venables

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

Our longtime readers will know I (like most in and around Clemson) am a huge Brent Venables fan and/or a wannabe disciple. Most here in the STS community also know I have long been high on the prospects for this 2017 defense, favorably comparing it to 2014’s top ranked unit. The parallels to 2014 aren’t merely tied to the defensive side of the ball, since Clemson once again must overcome offensive turnover; like 2014, the defense will have to start strongly for Clemson to emerge from a particularly daunting September schedule. The good news: I, for one, don’t expect quite the same level of growing pains on offense as 2014, and Venables will again field a monstrous unit with more starters returning than not, this time around.

When framing admittedly high expectations for this unit, one must first understand the underlying philosophy beneath the professed strategies. Dabo Swinney’s interest in Venables early in 2012 was not merely due to the strategies Venables employed so well at Oklahoma, but because Venables proved his defenses could complement a hurry-up spread offense like Swinney brought to Clemson through Chad Morris the year before. The often over-cited — yet still accurate — concern with the hurry-up offense from a defensive perspective is that consistent failures or 3 & outs will give the ball back to the opponent too quickly and tire out your own defense, leading to the sort of snowball effect to which Clemson fell prey against UGA in the 2014 opener. In order to maximize the chances for its own offense to wear out an opponent, Clemson and Venables are hyper-aggressive in the sense that they want to force the ball back to their own offense as quickly as possible.

This is the philosophical motivation behind Clemson’s aggressive front 7 — headlined by its 1 gap 4-3 Over front — behind which Clemson led the nation in tackles for loss for each of the last 4 years. With quick, powerful linemen bent on gap penetration and edge-setting, plus the occasional linebacker fire and bullet blitzes, Clemson overwhelms the line of scrimmage, thereby forcing the opposition into obvious passing situations. This is why we very rarely see teams march down the field on a fresh Clemson defense; when Clemson is beaten, it’s usually on big, busted plays.


Base Schemes

As most here know, Clemson’s preferred defense begins with the aforementioned 4-3 Over (seriously, click the hyperlinks to go in depth). 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 more conventionally-focused 3-4 or 4-3 under.

4-3 over bubbles

In the over front, notice it is the defensive ends’ responsibility to set the respective edges in run support while the interior line and linebackers shoot and plug gaps.

In recent years, Clemson’s de facto base defense has been a 4-2-5 nickel, in which the Sam linebacker is replaced by a 3rd corner to better match 3 & 4 wide receiver sets. This will likely be less common in 2017, since Sam linebacker Dorian O’Daniel is so versatile and experienced — we do not want him off the field. When Clemson isn’t in the 4-3 though, there are plenty of options for nickel corner in Ryan Carter, K’Von Wallace, and especially Isaiah Simmons, who is making a name for himself at 3 different positions: FS, nickel, and dime box safety.

Clemson’s dime is revered here for good reason. Taking the nickel a step further, it removes a defensive tackle to add a safety. The formation and various looks shown from it are another reason why Clemson is so successful in 3rd down defense. Remember, Clemson plays aggressively up front to force 3rd & long situations, then sends pressure confusing with sound coverage behind it from the illustriously coined DIME OF DOOM. When you see this formation, it means things are going well:

The dime: notice Fields (FCB) Carter (N) and Wallace (D) in the foreground. Clemson showed a 5 man rush with 6 DBs behind it but dropped both linebackers; got the sack anyway. This is one of the few times you’ll see Clemson with deep safeties; so deep they are out of frame.

Strengths

The strength of this unit can obviously be found in its front 7. This is very likely the best starting defensive line in college football, with unnaturally quick 300+ pounders who can play multiple techniques inside plus lengthy and strong ends outside. Tre Lamar is beyond the prototypical build at Mike linebacker, and Kendall Joseph plays with the same smarts and controlled aggression at Will which Ben Boulware did before him. Throw O’Daniel’s talents into the mix and this is potentially Venables’ best linebacking unit while at Clemson — rivaling 2014.

Very few teams should find success on the ground, and then will become one-dimensional — inviting the dreaded pass rush on which Clemson thrives. With its strength against opponent run games, this plays into the philosophical desire to force unmanageable 3rd downs and should get Clemson’s offense the ball back very quickly as designed.

This should also be one of Venables most versatile defenses. O’Daniel, Carter, and Simmons best exemplify the ability to play multiple roles within the defense, but don’t forget Christian Wilkins and his ability to play three different defensive line positions. Venables has plenty of personnel options in all of his packages; he won’t necessarily need depth to field these packages with so many players cross-training, particularly in the back 7. Tanner Muse and Van Smith should be very solid at safety, and with Simmons and Carter there to provide versatile depth, the safety position should be in good hands.


Weaknesses

Last year, the primary concern was rebuilding a secondary which was already prone to busts in 2015. Many believed in addition by subtraction with new starters who would hopefully be more focused on the back end, and in most cases the wishful thinking actually came true: Clemson improved in pass defense with 3 new starting defensive backs in 2016.

In 2017 the secondary returns 2 starters, but giving up the big play will always be a concern in this aggressive defense. Clemson led the country in pass interference calls in its national title campaign, so this offseason the DBs drilled on 1v1 coverage situations while wearing boxing gloves in order to improve technique (as in fewer jersey-grabs and subsequent flags). While less a concern this year than leading into 2016, Clemson will play cornerback by committee and may experience its share of ups and downs until someone (likely Trayvon Mullen at boundary; still uncertain at field) locks down the two corner roles.


Given Clemson’s strength up front and relative weakness in the secondary — particularly corner — don’t be surprised to see more a few more conservative coverages in the back end to counter the increased likelihood offenses will try to beat Clemson over the top rather than face the defensive front. Venables will still keep his safeties shallow on standard downs, but we will probably see more cover 2 (both man and zone) and cover 4 when not sending pressure. Cover 3 and cover 1 will still rule the day when Clemson does blitz, and don’t expect the frequency to drop just because the unit is so good up front — incessant pressure isn’t just the strategy; it’s the philosophy. Expect another dominant Venables unit.