Clemson’s defense has come a long way since that disastrous 2012 Orange Bowl, when West Virginia ran up 70 points against the Tigers in a game that defined the public perception of the unit for the better part of the next two seasons.
Now, as Clemson wraps up its 2014 spring practice, it’s the offense with question marks and the defense that coach Dabo Swinney thinks could be one of the nation’s best.
“We’re going to be really salty on defense,” Swinney said. “I don’t have any doubt our defense is going to be much better."
The progress started in earnest last season, when Clemson led the nation in tackles for loss. But while the front seven thrived in 2013, the secondary was still a work in progress, particularly at safety, where three freshmen lined the Tigers’ two-deep depth chart. The inexperience left Clemson particularly vulnerable on the deep ball, and the results were predictably frustrating. The secondary posted strong numbers in the aggregate, but specific struggles turned games.
“We were top-15 in the country in passing defense,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. [Note: Clemson was actually No. 16 nationally.] “What does that mean? It means we gave up too many big plays.”
Indeed, the overall numbers -- even on deep balls -- look pretty good. Opposing quarterbacks completed just 37.5 percent of their throws of 15 yards or longer in 2013, according to ESPN Stats & Info, with 10 interceptions to go with five TD passes.
But dig into specifics, and that’s where some of Clemson’s defensive struggles come into focus.
• Against Georgia in the season opener, Clemson allowed three passing plays of 30 yards or longer. The heroics of Tajh Boyd and the offense still managed to overcome UGA’s big plays, and Clemson escaped with a win.
• Against Florida State, the Tigers’ D allowed a whopping seven passing plays of 20 yards or more -- or one out of every five throws Jameis Winston made in the game. It was a season-defining loss for Clemson.
• For the season, Clemson allowed 16 passing plays of 30 yards or longer, fifth-most in the ACC, in spite of being one of the conference’s top defenses overall.
• On third-down plays in 2013, Clemson allowed nine passing plays of 25 yards or longer. Only five AQ-conference teams in the nation allowed more.
But though the big plays in the passing game were a concern last fall, Venables has reason to feel more comfortable in 2014. Like the young defensive linemen who struggled so badly in 2011 and 2012 only to develop into a force last season, the safeties who were burned at times in 2013 are now more seasoned. And when it comes to matchups, Venables likes what he has at the position.
“We needed to improve there, and I believe we will. We’re longer, more athletic overall,” Venables said, pointing to Jayron Kearse (6-4, 205), Jadar Johnson (6-2, 195) and converted receiver T.J. Green (6-3, 200) as prime examples. “I really believe we’ll be really good at safety. It’s hard for me to throw many compliments, so I really believe in those guys. [They’re] all long, 6-2-plus. They can cover up some ground. They have a physical presence to them.”
Add in the physical presence from its four returning starters on the defensive line, it’s easy to see why Swinney calls this perhaps the most complete defense he’s had at Clemson.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Venables' work in the secondary is done. While the safeties struggled at times in 2013, Clemson could rely on corners Bashaud Breeland and Darius Robinson to keep opposing receivers in check. Both are gone now, along with Will linebacker Spencer Shuey, and Venables said those positions will be the key to the defense’s success in 2014.
Still, there’s plenty to work with at Clemson, and there’s a good chance it’s the defense that will carry the load for the Tigers this fall, especially early in the season.
“Last year, I felt the front seven would be a strength, but we were going to be a little vulnerable in the back end,” Swinney said. “But this year, we’re going to be a complete group. … And any time you have a chance to be dominant on defense, you have a chance to win a bunch of games.”