In 2014, the Clemson defense is set to turn a corner that Tigers fans have been waiting on since Brent Venables was hired in Pickens County. The defensive coordinator has a group that is poised to, in Year 3, push into the nation's top 10, putting itself out in front of a rebuilding Clemson offense.
A season ago, in his third year running the Tigers offense, Chad Morris pushed his unit into the nation's top 10 in scoring and total yardage for the second straight campaign. Now, as Morris goes back to the drawing board, Venables is looking to do the same and hopefully help Clemson return to a major bowl game or a College Football Playoff spot.
Bashaud Breeland and Spencer Shuey are the key departures for Venables' unit, and while both were solid pieces for the Tigers, filling the void is what Clemson has been recruiting for under Dabo Swinney. Tony Steward, a highly touted linebacker who has battled injuries, is healthy and ready to play alongside Stephone Anthony. Early enrollee Chris Register is another linebacker poised to push for playing time in 2014.
Up front, Vic Beasley is the big name, but the depth chart is filled with quality both inside and out. Grady Jarrett is a hidden gem of a defensive tackle that should be on everyone's radar for the upcoming season. Although Corey Crawford will be suspended for the season opener, the defensive end opposite Beasley will be a major factor for the bulk of the year.
This defense is ready, and while it took Venables a season longer to crack the top 25, his group has grown by leaps and bounds from Year 1 to Year 2. Now, in Year 3, with a plethora of returning contributors, all eyes are set on the top 10—and rightfully so.
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Meanwhile, Clemson's offense appears ready to take a step back toward the pack nationally. When a team goes through a major transition at quarterback, running back or wide receiver, it is rarely a recipe for smooth sailing and sustained results—especially when the changes happen at the same time.
All eyes are on the quarterback competition, and rightfully so, as rising senior Cole Stoudt battles Chad Kelly and early enrollee Deshaun Watson for the right to call himself a starter. All three have realistic chances, and this battle should spill over into the fall camp.
While the receiving corps will be battling to replace Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, it is the running back group that more folks should be focusing upon. D.J. Howard, Zac Brooks and C.J. Davidson are all running neck-and-neck for the Tigers, and as Swinney points out to Aaron Brenner in The Post and Courier, the battle will be won by the back who commits to pass protection:
You've got to be a complete player when we put you on the field, ... We don't have time to sub you; we play so fast that if you can't pass protect, you're not going in the game.
Clemson needs a solid pass-blocker to make the offense go, and Howard, Brooks and Davidson will have to show consistency to earn more field time.
Venables' defense will be the leader for the Tigers as Morris' offense finds pieces and tries to play catch-up. The unit, led by Beasley—who is a candidate for every major postseason defensive award—should find its way into the top 10, and that is the goal for a Clemson program with a rich defensive history.