clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Opponent Breakdown: Clemson Defense

New, 71 comments

Brent Venables has one of the best defenses in the country again. He has to find a way to slow down an improved Lamar Jackson.

CFP National Championship Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

I’ve said it in this space before and I’ll say it again. Brent Venables is the best defensive coordinator in the country. Venables reloads on his side of the ball every year and he does it with a mix of 5-stars and 3-stars. Clemson won the national championship last year on the back of it’s defense and they returned nearly everyone this year. Kent State didn’t provide much to learn about the defense this year but a dominant performance against Auburn showed some real improvements for an already stout defense.

Clemson has been and will likely always been known for their great defensive lines. The NFL is littered with guys that either played at end or tackle for the Tigers. Last season, they had their first year with a depth issue in a good while. Austin Bryant was injured during the offseason and Christian Wilkins was moved to defensive end to take his spot. Also, Clelin Ferrell was a redshirt freshman tasked with being the key pass rusher at right end. Clemson still finished 10th in sacks per game and 3rd in tackles for loss.

The starting four is improved this year with Bryant back and Wilkins playing in his natural spot at tackle. Ferrell ended last season on a tear and picked up where he left off this year. You also have all 340 pounds of Dexter Lawrence back in the middle. The front seven dominated Auburn from the second drive of the game on. Bryant ended the game with 4 sacks and Ferrell had 5 tackles and a strip-sack. Wilkins was in the backfield all night causing havoc and flustering Jared Stidham. Then you have to account for how well they all played the run.

These guys do such a great job of eating up blocks and allowing their linebackers to run free behind them. Multiple times Clemson linebackers got to the hole before the running back last week. We saw it a lot during short yardage plays last year where Louisville would try to get Lamar Jackson wide and Ben Boulware was there waiting for him. Clemson is very unselfish and guys really understand their assignments and that their role is to execute those assignments. It starts with a great line that can do it all.

At the linebacker spot you get a good example of how Clemson’s improved recruiting is paying off. Tre Lamar was the 3rd ranked middle linebacker in his class and stepped right into the lineup with Boulware graduating. Kendall Joseph moved over to the Will linebacker spot and Clemson barely skips a beat after losing their leading tackler and vocal leader. One play that really stood out to me when it comes to guys stepping up is after Jalen Williams got a tackle for loss against Kent State. Joseph was livid with Dorian O’Daniel because he wasn’t lined up correctly at the snap. The camera focused in on him and it showed him getting on Williams next . He had just made a really good play and it still wasn’t good enough. That leadership and the standard is what makes the defense work and Joseph has taken on that role.

The Tigers didn’t play a lot of guys last year against Louisville. Boulware and Joseph didn’t leave the game and Wilkins and the other defensive linemen barely did. Louisville also ran 102 plays which is absolutely ridiculous. For some context, the 51 plays UofL ran in the first half was only 15 less than Alabama ran in the entire national championship that had plenty of scoring. Clemson got to Lamar early and often last year but couldn’t even make him uncomfortably by the middle of the third quarter. Their depth this year should help that. Jalen Williams was a starter at the start of last season and Chad Smith has played well in his few drives behind Tre Lamar. You might remember Tre Lamar giving up a long pass to Cole Hikutini early in last year’s game. He blew the coverage and Hikutini was wide open. The backups this year have played in a big game and some played last year. Venables likely has more trust in them and wouldn’t have a problem using them to give his starters a break.

One of the most impressive things I saw in Clemson’s beat down of Auburn was how well they covered in the back end. Pressuring the quarterback doesn’t matter much if you can’t cover receivers as we all learned last year as Louisville fans. The Tiger’s secondary shined last week, only giving up one pass over 10 yards and breaking up multiple deep passes. Clemson is physical and gets called for more pass interference calls than you’d like but why not give up 15 yards if you know you’re getting beat for 30? Against Auburn they got two early flags but really did well to avoid them the rest of the game. They’re all fast guys that can run with just about anyone and they did just that. A few times they even ran the route for the receiver and didn’t even give an opportunity to make the play.

Louisville has been killing teams with their short passing game and passes down the seam. Dez Fitzpatrick has shown to be the perfect inside receiver while Jaylen Smith has been lights out on short routes across the middle. Smith’s route on his long touchdown last week was absolutely perfect and he beat one of the best corners in the country. Clemson will be the first team that plays press coverage on the outside for the majority of the game. I also expect them to play closer to the inside receivers to try to take away the quick throws or at least disrupt some of the timing throws. If that’s the case, Louisville will have to try to take advantage of the safeties in coverage as they’re bigger and could have some issues keeping up with guys like Traveon Samuel.