CLEMSON, S.C. -- There is a new celebrity walking around the Clemson campus. His name is not Tajh or Sammy, though.
His name is Vic.
Racking up sack after sack on a much improved defense has made defensive end Vic Beasley one of the most recognizable players around town, earning hellos and handshakes at a clip that has surprised Beasley.
Indeed, the biggest development in this Clemson season to date has been the way the defense has ripped headlines away from the high-powered offense and made its own name. Simply put, the Tigers D cannot be called the weak link any longer.
Not when you consider what has happened through the first six games of the season:
Beasley leads the nation in sacks with nine and was the only Clemson player on the ESPN.com midseason All-American team. That’s right. The lone Clemson rep came from its defense.
The defense has held five consecutive opponents to 14 points or fewer, the first time that has happened since 1989.
Clemson ranks No. 10 in the nation in scoring defense, higher than its scoring offense (No. 17). The last time Clemson finished a season in the top 10 in the nation in scoring defense was 2007.
The Tigers rank in the top 25 in 13 statistical defensive categories.
“We came in with a big chip on our shoulder,” Beasley said. “A lot of people were doubting us and said we weren’t going to be the strength of this team, but I feel like we’ve become the strength of the team. No knock on our offense. I want our offense to be great too, but I feel like we’re making a statement to be the best in the country.”
In January 2012, coach Dabo Swinney fired Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator after a miserable 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. A performance like that would never happen again, not under his watch. Clemson had no problem playing top dollar for its assistants, and Swinney wasted no time targeting Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
In 13 seasons with the Sooners, Venables had his group ranked in the top 20 in total defense eight times. When he looked at what he would have to work with at Clemson, he knew he could mold this group into an elite unit. Almost presciently, Venables said in the spring, “I wouldn’t have come if I didn’t feel this was a place you could win every game and recruit the best players in the country.”
He talked at length about what makes a good defense, saying the best teams he has ever been associated with were player driven, bonded with a unique chemistry, a special focus and a willingness to work.
This Clemson group has all those qualities. Last week, Venables discussed the brotherhood that has developed among his players, how hard they are working and how his players just love to play. Period.
“There’s a freshness about that. It’s not like it’s pulling teeth to go to practice,” Venables said. “Guys practice well; they’re around the office a lot on their own. They’re a prideful group. We don’t spend a lot of time perpetuating anything that’s negative. Whether you start over every week, or every day or every year, to me I’m not big at living in the past, good or bad. We’ve got a group of guys that are easy to inspire, that they like to play and they respect each other. They’re high effort kind of guys.”
Seeking a new identity as a strength on the team has been a source of motivation and inspiration. Every player on this Clemson defense knows what was said after the Orange Bowl, a game that lingers still today. Like their coach, they never want to go through that again.
They rededicated themselves in the offseason, intent on becoming a more physical team that would never be outworked. So far, Clemson has demonstrated that physicality. Its front seven has done a terrific job, thanks to improved depth and the play of Beasley and fellow end Corey Crawford.
Venables said nobody has improved more than Crawford and linebacker Stephone Anthony, now starting in the middle. He described them both as playing on a different planet. The secondary has also made strides from a year ago, thanks to contributions from several freshmen and a group of veterans that has been able to stay healthy.
What’s more, these players are now in Year 2 under Venables, so improvement was expected. You can see that when comparing the defensive stats over the first six weeks of last season to the first six weeks of this season. Clemson is giving up an average of 11 fewer points and 110 fewer yards per game.
“Last year at this time, we were very inconsistent from an execution standpoint and just doing all the little things that we needed to do,” Swinney said. “But that's been the biggest improvement. Guys are where they are supposed to be and have a good feel playing with high energy, and we are just much more experienced on that side of the ball than we've been in a while.”
It has not all been perfect for Clemson. The Tigers gave up more than 200 yards rushing to Georgia and more than 300 yards rushing to Syracuse. They have given up too many big plays -- 26 for 20 or more yards (15 pass, 11 run). They are still thin on depth at linebacker and in the secondary.
But they are better. The goal is to keep on this upward trend. This is only a start.
“We feel like we’ve earned some respect over the course of these last couple of weeks,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “We know we’re not perfect and we’ve got a lot more work to do. We’re playing pretty good, but we can be a lot better. We’re working to be the best we can be.”
Then more recognition is sure to follow.