CLEMSON, S.C. — When Georgia Tech visits Clemson Thursday night, it will mark the first time since the 1993 and '94 seasons that a team has visited Memorial Stadium in consecutive years.
The Tigers surely welcome the thought of the Yellow Jackets’ return.
After all, it was Tech’s last trip to Death Valley that marked the beginning of the Tigers’ steady defensive improvement under defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
Following the utter nadir of the 2012 Orange Bowl and a 70-33 loss to West Virginia that ultimately led to defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s departure, the Tigers spent the first five games of the 2012 season struggling to pick up Venables’ system.
Clemson allowed at least 27 points in three of its first five games, including a 49-37 defeat at Florida State. And for the first 47 minutes against Georgia Tech, the Tigers did little to slow down the Yellow Jackets, who took a 31-30 lead with 13 minutes to go.
But after the Tigers took a 38-31 lead, the tide turned for the defense. Linebacker Spencer Shuey hammered Orwin Smith for a safety, and Clemson rolled to a 47-31 win.
Over the last 17 games, Clemson’s defense has shown significant improvement. The Tigers have allowed more than 27 points just three times and enter Thursday night’s game ranked 23rd nationally in scoring defense, allowing 20.6 points per game. They are also 32nd in total defense, 33rd in rush defense and 49th in pass defense.
Clemson is allowing 3.2 points per game fewer than it was a year ago, 37.9 yards of total offense less than it was a year ago and 5.1 yards per play as compared with 5.8 at this time a year ago.
How do you explain such improvement? Here’s a look at why the Tigers defense is no longer a liability.
The defensive line has matured
Two years ago, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney responded to a question about his defensive line’s struggles by telling a reporter to check back with him in two years, when the linemen were juniors.
His comment has proved prophetic.
Clemson is in the top 10 nationally in both sacks and tackles for loss, keyed by breakout star junior defensive end Vic Beasley. Beasley has 10 sacks and 15 tackles for loss and ranks in the top five nationally in both categories. He is a semifinalist for the Lombardi Award, given to the nation’s top lineman or linebacker. Fellow end Corey Crawford has 31 tackles, three sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. This time a year ago, Clemson had 18 sacks as a team. This year? 30.
Junior defensive tackle Grady Jarrett has matured into one of the ACC’s top defensive linemen, an exceptional run-stuffer. And the line has depth, too.
Junior Josh Watson, junior DeShawn Williams, sophomore D.J. Reader and sophomore Carlos Watkins have all started alongside Jarrett at the other defensive tackle spot. This week, Clemson lists Reader, Watson and Williams as co-starters. It is a reflection of their steady play that the defense doesn’t miss a beat when any of the three are in the game.
The line’s improvement has created a solid foundation for the unit’s overall progress.
Spencer Shuey and Stephone Anthony are dominant
Shuey’s game-changing safety against Tech was his first career tackle for loss. He supplanted Anthony, a former 5-star recruit, as the Tigers’ middle linebacker for the rest of the season and made 76 tackles over the final eight games.
This spring, Shuey moved to “Will” linebacker to replace graduated senior Tig Willard and Anthony moved back into his former middle linebacker role. Both have been consistent presences in opponents’ backfields. Anthony has a team-leading 89 tackles and Shuey is second with 83. Anthony has 10 tackles for loss and Shuey has 4.5. Both are a huge reason why Clemson is allowing 32 fewer rushing yards per game than it was a year ago through nine games and has 85 tackles for loss, as compared with 55 through nine games a year ago.
The secondary is healthier and better
A year ago, Clemson’s secondary was the weakest part of the defense. The Tigers allowed 240.3 yards passing per game with a young, beat-up group. Darius Robinson missed the second half of the season after breaking his ankle against the Yellow Jackets. Martin Jenkins redshirted after undergoing groin surgery and Bashaud Breeland struggled all season with groin and hamstring injuries, undergoing groin surgery in December.
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Clemson sports information
At one point, the secondary was so shorthanded that receiver Adam Humphries was pressed into duty as a cornerback.
This fall, Robinson, now a senior, is healthy. So are Breeland and Jenkins, and their presences have been duly noted.
In addition, sophomore Travis Blanks and junior Robert Smith, neither of whom had started a game at safety before this season, have steadily improved as the season has worn on.
Clemson is allowing 17 yards fewer per game passing than it did a year ago and has 15 interceptions, five more than it had at this point a year ago.
The improvement has come across the board, which is reflected in the Tigers’ overall success.
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