Clemson D won't blame late-season slump on lack of depth
RALPH D. RUSSO
Nov. 19, 2015
CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson's top-ranked defense came at teams in waves last season, smothering opponents with nearly two full units of talented and experienced players.
Without that same depth this year, the Tigers have slipped into a late-season slump.
No. 1 Clemson's last three opponents have popped some long plays and put up the two highest point totals against the Tigers this season.
"We've got to get it fixed," coach Dabo Swinney said as Clemson (10-0, 7-0) prepared to complete its Atlantic Coast Conference schedule against Wake Forest (3-7, 1-5) on Saturday.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables said more attention to detail and less freelancing by the Tigers would patch many of the holes.
Another issue might not be so easy to solve. Last year Clemson regularly used about 18 players on defense and ranked near or at the top of the national rankings in just about every important statistical category.
This season many of those backups moved up the depth chart so the first-team was in good shape even though only a couple starters returned. That depth, however, has been hard to duplicate. The Tigers' core rotation is down to about 14 players.
The players and coaches dismiss any suggestion that the defense is wearing down.
"I don't think it plays a role at all," linebacker B.J. Goodson said. "We're all in great football shape to play a full-length game like that."
Swinney pointed out Clemson's defense played only 55 plays against Syracuse. The Tigers allowed 80 yards on 48 of those snaps and 242 on the other seven.
"I think our depth has showed up when we needed it," Swinney said. "I think we've really developed up front like we hoped we would."
The return of defensive tackle D.J. Reader, who was away from the team most of the season for personal reasons, along with the rapid development of highly touted freshman Christian Wilkins have given the Tigers a solid rotation on interior linemen.
At linebacker and defensive end, it has been a different story. Linebackers Goodson and Ben Boulware, backups last year, have been the team's most productive players this season. They rarely come off the field. Defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd are taking the vast majority of the reps.
"We've been fortunate. For the most part we've been pretty healthy as a football team," Swinney said. "I was very concerned in August. Not about the talent, but if we'd of had a big injury defensively."
Venables challenged his defense this week to be the unit that was allowing 262.3 yards per game after shutting out Miami and not the one that has allowed 357.3 yards per game against North Carolina State, Florida State and Syracuse.
"Maybe these last few weeks, when we haven't looked very good, maybe that's who we really are," Venables told his players. "Maybe the first six, seven games were smoke and mirrors."
Venables said success and that No. 1 ranking might have caused some complacency.
"How you handle success is everything as human beings," Venables said. "What's the natural tendency? You're feeling good, you've been knocking everybody out, everybody's telling you you're the champ, rubbing up on your shoulders. All you got to do is show up, you're the best there's ever been. And you let your guard down."
Also, not having a second-team filled with players who are legitimate threats to steal playing time can make a starter get a little too comfortable.
"I think you'd be negligent and naive to believe that doesn't sometimes play a part in it," Venables said. "Keeping a guy desperate to know his job and do his job, I think competition brings the best out of people, for sure. When you don't have it to the level you want, it can work against you, certainly."
Expect Clemson to get right this weekend. Wake Forest ranks 114th in the nation in yards per play at (4.75). The Tigers still lead FBS in third-down conversion defense and three-and-outs forced.
"I still have great faith in my teammates and coaches," Goodson said. "We're going to work hard and put out a great performance this week."
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP