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Brent Venables says Clemson's freshmen have 'exceeded expectations'

Clemson kicks off spring practice today, and on the defensive side of the ball, there are some big questions looming after so many stars have moved on to the NFL. To find out where things stand, we caught up with Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

Q. Having replaced so much talent last year with great success, does that make it a little easier to do it again, like a template is there?

A. There are a few spots, and it’s pretty obvious, where we have players with experience returning or quality backups. A year ago, we had a bunch of guys that had played a bunch of snaps, Shaq [Lawson] and [Kevin] Dodd and B.J. Goodson, that had played significant snaps. T.J. Green. All those guys inside. We had a bunch of experience coming back. This year, not quite as much. Quality, talented young guys. That’s the issue. That’s the concern. We’ve got to grow some guys up quickly. We’re replacing guys with young guys when you look at D-end or corner or safety.

Q. And as opposed to 2014 when you had spots to fill in the secondary or 2015 when there was so much turnover up front, you kind of have holes all over this spring.

A. That’s probably accurate. Both levels -- at D-end, at linebacker and in the secondary, we lost premier players. But we do feel really good about our interior defensive line. I think that’s going to be excellent. There’s a bunch of young ones there -- Austin [Bryant], Clelin [Ferrell], Richard Yeargin, Chris Register. He’s a hybrid kind of guy that we’re hoping he develops into a quality D-end. It’s a huge spring and huge opportunity for a guy like him. We really need him to come through.

Q. How have those young guys that will be stepping in at defensive end responded?

A. I like how those guys work. I’m not just throwing coaching cliches out there. Those guys know how to work. They’re an intelligent group of guys. They’re athletic. And we have some length there. If I was worried about some immature guys there or we weren’t as athletic as we’d like them, those would be issues you’d be concerned about. But Austin and Cleland are both around 263, 268. Yeargin’s at 260. Register is around 255. We’re not dealing with 230-pound guys. We’ve got some good length, guys that can run, and guys that know how to work. So there’s a set of intangibles there that makes you believe these guys will come along. They just need the reps.

Q. You’re much more settled on the interior of the line. Can that help ease those transitions with guys like Carlos Watkins and Christian Wilkins?

A. Christian Wilkins hadn’t gone through a hard weight program. He’d been a basketball player his whole career, then for six months prior to getting on campus, he wore a cast because he had scaphoid surgery. With that, you can’t do dumbbell weights, squats -- there are so many limitations. So what he’s been able to do in the weight room is pretty amazing.

Q. I’m guessing other ACC coaches aren’t going to be happy to hear Christian has gotten even better.

A. He’s as hard-working of a player as I’ve been around. He’s in the mold of Deshawn Williams and Grady Jarrett and that kind of work ethic, high motor, loves to be in the weight room and do extra. And the beauty of what Christian’s all about is, he brings four or five buddies wherever he goes. He’s been an incredible leader, along with some other guys. Carlos Watkins has a completely different look in his eye, the way he’s led. It’s like, wow, where’s this guy been? It’s refreshing. I also love the athletic ability of Christian. He can bend and move his feet and has great burst. We’ll look at him playing some defensive end on early downs, just to get him some experience this spring.

Q. Knowing depth is a concern but reps are valuable, how do you balance getting guys practice time but limiting risk of injuries?

A. You’ve got to be smart. Injuries are a part of the game, but the only way you can develop is by playing and taking reps. We do have some other guys we don’t know as much about and some guys we know a lot about. Whether it’s Carlos or [Ben] Boulware, they’re not sitting out the spring. I can promise you. They need work like everyone. Some of it’s a feel, some of it’s a plan. It’s managing it.

Q. You’ve also got some early enrollees who could play a lot. How have they looked so far?

A. I’m pretty tough to please, and these guys have exceeded my expectations in terms of maturity, work ethic, toughness, motor, intelligence -- just go down the list. Nyles Pinckney, he moves, he’s explosive. He’s a little more mature Grady Jarrett at a young age. We’ll see if he can hold his jock strap as he continues to develop. Dexter Lawrence -- his size, agility and humility. You can’t get him out of the indoor facility. They’re over there yesterday just killing it. Just learning in film sessions with Christian, in there with the markers on the board, Xs and Os with the younger players, holding them accountable. Those guys have responded real well. And linebacker -- those guys are hungry and tough and very talented.