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Brent Venables’ Number-Crunching Consistency

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Where, offensively, Clemson has yet to deal with this extent of personnel attrition, at least under the current regime, as far as the defense is concerned, the perennial, sweeping turnover of NFL talent is all becoming a bit trite, stale, even boring.

Many of the talking points surrounding Clemson's impending title defense, in 2017, center around having to replace a bevy of future pros on either side of the ball.

For Dabo Swinney's offense, this may well be a viable concern. For Brent Venables' defense, this is becoming old hat.

Where, offensively, Clemson has yet to deal with this extent of personnel attrition, at least under the current regime, as far as the defense is concerned, the perennial, sweeping turnover of NFL talent is all becoming a bit trite, stale, even boring.

After falling out of legendary Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder's coaching tree, and bouncing betwixt the limbs of Oklahoma's Bob Stoops', Brent Venables made his way to Clemson in 2012.

The Tigers immediately showed marked improvement, under Venables, having been one of the worst defenses in college football the year prior.

After losing cornerback Coty Sensabaugh, defensive tackle Brandon Thompson, and defensive end Andre Branch, the venerable Venables impact was felt from the get go.

A largely inexperienced unit, and without any players to truly call his own, in as much as he had not recruited any of them, the defense still managed to make multi-faceted strides in the right direction.

Venables' calling card is creating pressure, and while the results were, ultimately, yet to reveal themselves, Clemson was far better than anyone expected, at least in that respect.

The Tigers compiled 87 tackles for loss and 34 sacks in 2012, 28th and 20th in the country, respectively. They were 46th in scoring defense, 56th in touchdowns allowed per possession and 64th in total defense and opponent adjusted defensive efficiency, but, as previously stated, the more easily digestible statistical success was just on the horizon.

As the sun set on Venables' first season at Clemson, even the most optimistic Tiger could have hardly expected what was to come.

Only two players were drafted from Clemson's 2012 defense, defensive lineman Malliciah Goodman and safety Jonathan Meeks.

With so many returning starters, the improvement from Venables' first season to his second may have been even more cavernous than that seen in his debut campaign.

Under the defensive coordinator's tutelage, and in concert with his philosophy, Vic Beasley emerged as one of the nation's premier edge rushers. With Grady Jarrett, now an acclaimed disruptive interior force, in tow and Bashaud Breeland holding down the backend, Clemson was all of a sudden one of the scarier defenses around.

In 2013, their tackle for loss total jumped to 123 (first in the country), their 30 forced turnovers were in the top ten and the scoring and total defense both finished in the top 25, up from 46th and 64th, only twelve months prior, and 81st and 71st from 24 months before.

Adjusted for opposition, Clemson's defense was 21st in all of college football, up from 64th, as well.

If that was the new normal, Brent Venables could have resigned as a brilliant success, whenever that time were to have come. However, Clemson's "new normal" was, extraordinarily, yet to be established.

2014 was even better, or, depending upon where your loyalties lie, worse... much, much terrifyingly worse.

With a couple of fairly substantially shocking non-NFL declarations, the only Tiger drafted from the 2013 was Breeland.

Having Beasley and Jarrett back, alongside Corey Crawford and Stephone Anthony, Clemson was poised to have the best front seven in college football. But could the talent up front overcome the perceived deficiencies of the sophomore laden secondary?

Spoiler alert, yes. Not only did the front seven live up to the hype, but the defense as a whole was the best in college football, in 2014.

That group once again led all comers with 131 tackles for loss, 260.8 yards allowed per game, and the first overall opponent adjusted defensive efficiency. The front seven was as good as advertised, recording a tackle for loss, pass defensed or forced fumble on 15.8% plays, themselves, also first in the country. If you include the secondary's production, they did one of the aforementioned acts on 23.2% of plays, again first in the country. And their opponent adjusted sack rate was second in the country.

Using the more traditional measure, they were in the top five in scoring, rushing and passing defense, and only allowed a touchdown on 13% of drives, good for second, nationally.

Brent Venables 2014 defense should have been one of the best in the nation, and it was the best. There's something to be said for living up to lofty expectations, but the succeeding two years are what separate him from the pack.

He's not the best at what he does by being the best when he's supposed to, it's by being amongst the best when he's not.

The 2015 NFL Draft took Beasley, Anthony, and Jarrett, as well as outside linebacker Tony Steward. Also amongst the departed contributors were Crawford, fellow defensive linemen DeShawn Williams and Josh Watson, and defensive backs Robert Smith and Garry Peters.

In light of that, all signs pointed towards the shooting star of 2014 to burn out and come hurtling back to earth, in 2015.

Instead, the fresh, new core of Shaq Lawson, Ben Boulware, Mackensie Alexander, B.J. Goodson, Kevin Dodd, Carlos Watkins, and safeties T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse matched, and in places improved upon the foundation laid by their predecessors.

Again, the Tigers finished first in tackles for loss, and actually had more sacks than in 2014. They held in the top ten in total defense, the top 20 in rush and pass defense, and the top 25 in scoring defense.

They jumped from 34th to 24th in turnovers created.

After having the top defensive efficiency in 2014, they fell only to fifth. The front seven, so highly touted a year prior that finished first in havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defensed, or forced fumbles per play), only showed a 1.7% drop in havoc rate, also fifth in the country. And, once again, they repeated as the nation's leader in standard down sack rate.

In 2014, Clemson's defense was supposed be one of the best, and it was the best. In 2015, Clemson's defense was supposed to be just alright, and it was, conservatively, in the top five, at minimum.

Sure, doing the incredible once could be construed as luck. Doing it twice should be considered genius.

Reminiscent of 2015, the departures for the 2016 draft were sprawling and potentially devastating. Those included Lawson, Dodd, Alexander, Green, Goodson, Kearse, and defensive lineman D.J. Reader.

And again, the dream, or nightmare for opposing offenses, should have come to an abrupt end.

Beginning up front, as it always does with Venables, Clemson maintained the freshly emanating status quo.

Freshman defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence was revelatory, racking up 47 total quarterback pressures. The most pressures any freshman had compiled over the preceding three seasons was 26, a record Lawrence obliterated.

Content with Lawrence and Watkins in the interior, Venables kicked sophomore Christian Wilkins out to the edge, where he blossomed into the most improved defensive player in the ACC. With the move, Wilkins' pressures per play vaulted from one per 14.2 snaps in 2015 to one per 9.5, last season.

Watkins, the veteran leader of the position group quietly continued his dominance, as one of just four players with at least 40 pressures and 35 defensive stops.

There was plenty of work to be done on the backend too, though.

With T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse off to the professional ranks, Jadar Johnson stepped up in a big way, allowing an impressive one touchdown and 24 catches on the 44 balls thrown into his coverage.

And after Mackensie Alexander's early exit, Cordrea Tankersley proved to be as good as, if not better than, his former teammate, with an allowed passer rating of 41.2 over his two seasons as a full-time starter. For context, if the quarterback takes the snap and proceeds to slam the ball, Gronk-style, into the planet's very crust on every down, his passer rating would be 39.6.

Those unforeseen contributions, behind the leadership of Ben Boulware, in Brent Venables' system, saw Clemson, as should now be expected, soar to the sport's highest mountain top, not just in the defensive statistics, but with a championship.

All in all, now for the fourth consecutive season, Clemson led the nation in tackles for loss. It had one more sack than in 2015. It jumped into the top ten in forced turnovers, scoring and total defense. From 19th in touchdowns allowed per possession in 2015, it was 14th with six points against on a meager 18.3% of drives.

The Tigers remained in the top ten in opponent adjusted defensive efficiency and their havoc rate improved back near the 2014 numbers, recording a tackle for loss, pass defensed, or forced fumble on 22.1% of snaps, good for fourth overall.

Once again, some of the game's biggest stars are gone from Clemson, ahead of their 2017 title defense. Watkins, Tankersley, Boulware, and Johnson are out.

However, if history is any indication, it doesn't much matter. As long as Brent Venables is running the show, Clemson doesn't have a thing in the world to worry about defensively.

Dabo Swinney, on the other hand, has never dealt with this kind of roster attrition on his offense. The champion Tigers are losing some serious weapons, kind of like Venables has lost the past three years of his tenure.

Maybe those guys should chat.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP