- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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The jokes about the Clemson defense began during the Orange Bowl and have kept on rolling.
The most stale line by far: "Wait. I think West Virginia just scored again."
The Tigers have heard them all after a 70-33 loss to the Mountaineers on the biggest stage of the season. But there is nobody laughing in Clemson.
With a new defensive coordinator in Brent Venables and a new season ahead, there would be no better way to make the jokes stop than with an impressive performance against Auburn in the opener Saturday. This group simply cannot afford anything less.
"I'm ready for a new beginning," safety Rashard Hall said.
He is not the only one. Questions about this defense have trailed Clemson since the final seconds ticked away in Miami, becoming a dominant storyline going into this season. Coach Dabo Swinney promptly fired Kevin Steele after the loss and brought in Venables, whose impeccable credentials at Oklahoma alone give the Tigers an upgrade.
The reviews so far have been extremely flattering.
"He brings a lot of excitement, a lot of energy. ... Brent Venables is one of the best coaches I've ever had," Hall said. "Just the way he leads, his enthusiasm. He is real purposeful and a get-after-it kind of guy. We have all really responded to that."
Linebacker Corico Wright told local reporters: "We love what Coach Venables has brought to the table for us, what he's asked us to do. He has a lot of energy. He's a teacher, he makes sure we know what we're doing. From a defense standpoint, you see guys attacking the football whether it's in the air or on the ground, that's going to be the biggest difference for us this year."
The first order of business for Venables is rebuilding up front. With Andre Branch and Brandon Thompson gone, Malliciah Goodman is the lone returning starter on the defensive line and must take the next step in his development to carry this team. He is just about the only certainty along the line.
Grady Jarrett, DeShawn Williams and Corey Crawford are all sophomores and expected to start, with Josh Watson and Vic Beasley also expected to be big contributors. There are going to be changes at linebacker, as well, with the emergence of Quandon Christian and true freshman Travis Blanks. Wright is playing outside behind Tig Willard, after Stephone Anthony emerged in the middle last year.
Then, in the secondary, Hall, Xavier Brewer and Jonathan Meeks will all play at safety, and Darius Robinson takes over for Coty Sensabaugh at cornerback. Swinney was asked this week for his thoughts on who would emerge as a defensive playmaker this year, and he essentially said that was a large unknown.
The answers will start to come Saturday.
"There’ll be some good, there’ll be some bad," Venables told reporters in Clemson. "That’s what this season is about. The best teams I’ve had have gotten better over the course of the year. You find out what your strengths and weaknesses are. Game day is part of that process. Putting guys in the right spots, hopefully we’ve been able to identify that but maybe after the first game it isn’t what you thought it was. Hopefully at the end of the day there’ll be more passing grades than not. That means you played well. You want to see your guys play with great discipline, toughness and effort. You have that, you have a strong foundation."
16hMax Olson and Jake Trotter