By PETE IACOBELLI
The Associated Press
Clemson once again has a dominating defense that delivers crunching hits and game-changing interceptions that has helped the Tigers ascend to the top of college football.
That seems to be an annual summary of Clemson, it’s just the names that change from year to year.
Despite losing six starters on defense from its national championship game last January, the Tigers (5-0, 4-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) are once more among the leaders in fewest yards allowed in their latest title run.
Tigers safety Nolan Turner, a sometimes starter before cracking the lineup this season, believes part of the success stems from players working to make their mark.
“The guys we bring in and just the commitment of the players,” the senior said. “Just waiting for their turn to make something happen.”
Clemson is third nationally in yards given up at 264.4 per game. The Tigers will put that to the test against Syracuse (1-4, 1-3) on Saturday.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, in his ninth season, has literally seen star players come and go. Two years back, it was a front four worth of NFL first rounders led by end Clelin Ferrell (No. 4 overall) and tackles Christian Wilkins (No. 13) and Dexter Lawrence (No. 17).
This past spring, the departures were led by do-it-all linebacker Isaiah Simmons, taken No. 8 overall by Arizona along with cornerback A.J. Terrell, chosen 16th by Atlanta.
Yet, Clemson is fifth in fewest points allowed at 12 a game, less than it had a season ago.
For Venables, it’s a combination of third- and fourth-year players making the most of their opportunities like leading tackler in linebacker Baylon Spector and youngsters like freshman sack leader Myles Murphy finding a near seamless entrance into the starting lineup.
“It doesn’t ever feel easy,” he said. “It feels hard.”
Venables has overseen Clemson’s defensive rise that’s dovetailed with the Tigers’ dominance in college football. The Tigers have won five straight Atlantic Coast Conference championships and national titles after the 2016 and 2018 seasons.
Clemson is again on track once more to win the league and return to College Football Playoff for the sixth consecutive season.
Venables said the Tigers are nowhere near a finished product this season.
“We’re still without question a work in progress in figuring those things out, what we can do, what we can’t do, what we can develop into,” Venables said. “There are so many new faces on that two-and-three deep” lineup.
All, though, are making plays.
Murphy and Bryan Bresee are freshman five-stars who’ve started and excelled on the line this season when expected starters along the line in Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas dealt with complications from COVID-19 before and during the season.
The secondary, which lost leaders and big hitters in safeties K’von Wallace and Tanner Muse from a year ago has blossomed into what Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said is the best he’s had in 12 seasons.
Andrew Booth Jr., who’d been known for riding home with the team managers from Louisville last year for punching an opponent, has played lockdown corner and had an amazing one-handed interception against Virginia to blunt a Cavs’ comeback.
Another young corner, Sheridan Jones, had the game-changing pick a to end Miami’s momentum in Clemson’s 41-17 win in a top-10 matchup.
“We’re a developmental program,” Swinney said. “We develop guys who want to play.”
Spector is the latest example of that. He played 384 snaps combined his freshmen and sophomore seasons, largely when games were out of hand and the starters were on the bench. But with several holes to fill at linebacker this season, Spector was there ready to take advantage.
Spector, at 6-2, 230 pounds, has a team-best 31 tackles and his 2.5 sacks are second. He and teammate, returning starter James Skalski, have been dubbed the “Bruise Brothers.“
“That’s what it’s about,” Spector said.
Venables said Clemson’s building blocks on defense come from being right in recruiting more often than not in both talent and desire. The true work comes when they reach campus.
“There’s a lot of teams that have talented players,” he said. “You’ve got to coach them and develop them and put them, systematically, in scheme to be successful.”
Few are doing it on defense as well as Venables and the Tigers.