ACC Week: One Big Question for Clemson, The Brent Venables Defensive Impact?


Few foods taste better than a quality orange. Conversely, a bad orange can leave a horrible taste in one’s mouth few others can match. Clemson has had the latter lingering on its taste buds since January.

Sure, the Tigers vastly exceeded pre-season expectations. CU won 10 games, including two over Virginia Tech and a defeat of Florida State. The Tigers also won the ACC championship for the first time in the BCS era. All this was accomplished with a young roster, which would seemingly build hope for the coming season.

But the BCS record 70 points Clemson surrendered in its Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia are more the enduring symbols looming into 2012. More than the superstar turn of true freshman Sammy Watkins; more than the development of Tajh Boyd into a very capable quarterback; more even than Dabo Swinney’s energetic victory speeches.

Dana Holgorsen’s uptempo offense laid the Tiger defense to waste. And while Geno Smith and Co. exploited CU the most noticeably, the Mountaineers were hardly the only team to do so. The Tigers surrendered 102 points in their three other losses, all of which came on Oct. 29 or later. CU had walked a tightrope en route to its perfect start, allowing 30-plus three times. Included in those contests were outputs of 45 and 38 by Maryland and North Carolina: 22 and 10 more than each averaged throughout the season.

Whether resignation or firing, the Tigers’ defensive woes were enough to lead to a coaching shake-up. Out went Kevin Steele, in came Brent Venables from Oklahoma.

Venables is tasked with getting CU to a level on that side of the ball worthy of the Tigers’ explosive offense. And at nearly 34 points per game, the Tiger offense was indeed championship level, so preventing foes from scoring is the major hurdle between CU and title contention.

Doing so will be no easy feat. Take away the most productive member of a defense that struggled with him, and the duty becomes even more monumental. Andre Branch was tremendous last season, registering 10.5 sacks. His departure strikes a major blow to the Tigers’ already suspect pass rush; the loss of tackle Brandon Thompson with Branch compounds it.

Sooner defenses typically got outstanding pass rushing from its linebacking corps. Last season for example, Ronnell Lewis and Corey Nelson were crucial rushing complements to end Frank Alexander.

Clemson could become especially reliant on linebacker blitzes in Venables’ first campaign. Jonathan Willard was a leading contributor in the 2011 defense. Stephone Anthony has no shortage of promise, a five star prospect when he committed to Swinney. His six tackles for loss in his true freshman campaign were among the best on the roster, but he’ll need to produce even more in year two.

Swinney celebrated Venables’ “instincts” during spring football. The head coach’s comments seem to imply a more fluid approach than Steele’s. Emphasis on simplicity, e.g. trusting the players’ abilities over schematics, could be the breath of fresh air the Tigers need.

The fresh start CU is getting is also reflected in Venables. At Oklahoma, he oversaw some of the nation’s best defenses from 2004 through 2011. And while the ’11 Sooners were still good enough to rank No. 31 in total points allowed through the season, they allowed 41 (Texas Tech), 45 (Baylor) and 44 (Oklahoma State). With the addition of head coach Bob Stoops’ brother Mike back to the OU staff as a co-coordinator, Venables’ pursuit of opportunity elsewhere is understandable.