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Venables’ Defense Does What it Does

By Jim Johnson
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For all the talk about Deshaun Watson and company, last year, there is no telling where Clemson’s program would be without Brent Venables. His impact was, perhaps, never as evident as it was tonight against Auburn.

For all the talk about Deshaun Watson and company, last year, there is no telling where Clemson’s program would be without Brent Venables. His impact was, perhaps, never as evident as it was tonight against Auburn.

The Tigers immediately showed marked improvement, under Venables, back in 2012, having been one of the worst defenses in college football the year prior.

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 that season, 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.

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.

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.

After having the top defensive efficiency in 2014, they fell only to fifth, in 2015. 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.

Beginning up front, in 2016, 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.

All in all, at that point 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.

Tonight, against Auburn, Brent Venables’ defense proved itself as it has time and time again.

Lawrence and Wilkins were as good as advertised, setting the tone up front. As a whole, the defense compiled 11 sacks, just one shy of tying the school record.

Austin Bryant emerged as a potential star, with a team high 4 sacks, on the evening.

All in all, the home team allowed just 117 yards of offense on 66 snaps, for an average of 1.77 yards per play.

What Dabo Swinney has done for Clemson can not be understated, nor can the undeniable greatness of Deshaun Watson, in leading his Tigers to a championship, last season. However, while the points may come and go, along with the transcendent talents on offense, as long as Brent Venables is in charge of the defense, and the mantra of ‘defense wins championships’ remains intact, Clemson will always be in the conversation.

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