Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables sees himself in a position that’s as hard to coach as any.
Over the last three seasons, the Tiger ‘D’ has ranked as high as No. 1 nationally in total, pass efficiency and third down defense and top-25 all three years in total, scoring, pass and third down ‘D.’ The aggressive nature of the attack has manifested in three consecutive seasons atop college football in total tackles for loss (9.3 per game).
Two teams had a chance to three-peat on top-10 defenses in 2015, as Clemson does in 2016, falling short with respectable top-30 units (Louisville, 18th; Michigan State, 26th).
Each of his four seasons so far, Venables has harnessed a ‘chip on the shoulder’ mentality, but given recent success, that might be a little harder go-to in 2016.
“Handling adversity is easy, I think, because you can coach your players very hard through adversity,” Venables said. “You’ve got their attention. You’ve got humility. One of the hardest things to sustain in success is handling success. When you’re dealing with 18-19-20-year-old guys, you don’t know whether they’re talking about draft status or All-American. This next game, are you going to get their ‘A’ game? Are players respecting the game and playing at a high level?
“Really, going against yourself every day is the biggest challenge that you have. Fighting complacency and fighting that you’ve arrived and all the outside chatter. That is a huge challenge and that’s why it’s hard to sustain success and that’s the mark of a great program.”
Alabama, who Clemson is all too familiar with, has been one of those great programs with only one finish outside the top-10 on defense since 2008. And that non-10-best finish? 12th (2014).
“Just looking at last year – sustaining that grind and staying at a real high pitch, week-in, week-out is really hard to do,” Venables said. “That’s why the really great programs – I use a program like Alabama, that’s what they‘ve been doing better than most people. Coach (Dabo) Swinney doesn’t get satisfied as a CEO and a lot of times you see those programs that for 4-5-straight years they’ve been on top and then they really can’t maintain it – it usually happens from inside-out.
“Coaches get complacent. Players that you recruit think that they can just show up and you’re going to have success. They don’t know that you have work to do and sometimes you can be a victim of your own success.”
The Tiger ‘D’ returns four starters and 21 lettermen (counting 2014 starter Korrin Wiggins). Coming out of spring, Swinney is confident there’s strength in numbers, despite the lack of returning starts.
“I am pleased with where we are on defense,” the Clemson coach said in his spring assessment. “I’m encouraged because I believe we will have more competitive depth than we had last year. Last year our first 11 could play against anybody, but after that there were so many freshmen that we held our breath the first team guys did not get hurt.
“There was not a dropoff in talent, but there was in terms of experience.”
What experience is there makes up the leadership, such as Hanna product and senior linebacker Ben Boulware, and Venables likes where they’re at there as a team.
“When you have great leadership with your best players, a guy like Deshaun (Watson), who’s got incredible, impeccable character and integrity and humility – it’s easier for guys to follow,” he said. “For us as a defense, it’s Ben. He’s got the loud personality, but he loves to work. Loves to grind. I can coach him really, really hard. He accepts it.
“You’ve got to have those kind of guys – pillars of the program for other guys to follow and try to maintain.”