Steele: "You can't flunk this class - it's unacceptable."

by - Senior Writer -
Steele applauds his linebackers during practice
Steele applauds his linebackers during practice

CLEMSON – This is big-time college football, and you don’t have a choice – you either succeed or you fail, and if you fail, you lose your job.

Those were the sentiments of Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele Thursday evening after Clemson’s third practice of the preseason, when he was asked if he thinks the linebacking corps will be ready to step up when the season starts in a month, and his answer was typically candid.

“We don’t have a choice,” Steele said. “You can’t flunk this class. It’s unacceptable. You can’t do it. In the game of football when you flunk the class you will lose your job- either somebody else will start or somebody else will coach you.”

The linebackers have been the lightning rod for criticism since the end of last season, when Steele’s defense struggled against Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia Tech, and he said on Thursday that he has the players to get the job done, but they have to accept the fact that they need to go out and play “Clemson defense.”

“We’ve got the players. They’re not in place yet. Yes it is my job to coach them up,” Steele said. “And outside of that, it’s also our job as a staff and as the players to be prepared to go and play Clemson-style defense which is physical, accountable, and responsible and dominating every day, every play, no matter where you play, what time you play, and who you play. And, that’s our job. “

During spring practice, Steele moved middle [MIKE] linebacker Brandon Maye to the outside to the weakside [WILL], and elevated Corico Hawkins to the starting “mike” job, with Quandon Christian playing the SAM [strongside] spot, and he said the players are now where they belong.

“I think we’ve got them lined up in the right positions now, and their comfort level of where they’re playing is probably as good as it’s been in a year and a half because we only have one new player,” Steele said. “Justin [Parker] is our only new guy. And they understand what we do and why we do it. They understand the application of the call. They understand their responsibility.

“The hard part is now that they get enough reps to understand the variation. That’s the thing people don’t understand. You can go out and say well, university A has run the Smash 7 or the Curl Flat and the Dig Smash route. That’s their routes, that’s what they run. You can practice that all week long and they don’t run it a time. So what you gotta do this time of year…you gotta expose them to all the different variations so that they can recall that when they get thrown a curve ball like that. Rather than that’s the first time they’ve ever seen it. So through that, the expectations are to be focused everyday so that they can fill that library up.”

Steele was asked how Maye was adjusting from the middle to the WILL spot, and he said the transition was easier because it’s still linebacker.

“Well it’s not that different,” Steele said. “There isn’t but five eligibles [eligible receivers] out there, you know 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. So we teach them concepts. He understands the concepts. I don’t think it was an issue of picking up. It’s just that you see it from a different vantage point. And so, he’s adjusting to that. And he has gone through the summer with their stuff. The players run stuff. Obviously you can see that he did that because he came out and looked like he’s been there the whole time.”

However, Steele didn’t rule out a Maye return to the MIKE position, saying, “That’s up to him. That’s why we practice. I don’t control who’s where. The video controls that. What they put on that video of who needs to be where and who’s playing.”

Hawkins filled in for an injured Maye in the Music City Bowl, his first career start, and responded with seven tackles, and Steele said that Hawkins’ intelligence is what has enabled his rise on the depth chart.

“He grasped the concepts real well,” Steele said. “He’s an intelligent guy. He quarterbacked the defense really good, and he didn’t act like it was the first time he had ever been to the rodeo.”

He also said that Hawkins is his own worst critic, which makes him easier to coach.

“He’s the kind of guy that’s very hard on himself,” he said. “He’s committed to excellence. You can coach him a little different because he knows what he did wrong, right when it happens. He understands what’s going on and can correct it. He is a self-corrector.

“When you are around them as much was we are, you can just see the look on his face. He is like ‘Hey coach, I got it, I know what I did.’ Just the way he verbalizes it Just the look on his face. It’s not like he’s bummed out. It’s like he’s not upset but frustrated with himself, but in a controlled manner.”

Whenever talk about the linebackers begins, Steele said he is invariably asked about the depth chart, and he said he wasn’t trying to dodge the issue by saying he doesn’t know, but in reality, it just doesn’t matter.

“If we played tomorrow, obviously somebody would have to play the first play,” he said. “If you ask me who that was, I don’t know. I don’t have to make that decision so I ain’t going to. We’ll make it when the time comes. I’m not trying to avoid that. I’ll tell you this, you could be the starting SAM linebacker and if they come out in four wides in all 12 games that we have scheduled, and four wides at the beginning of the game, he ain’t seeing the field. So is he a starter or is he not a starter? He didn’t play the first play in any of any 12, but he’s the starting SAM on the depth chart.

“So I can’t answer that. We’ll answer that when it comes time. My point is - we hammer in our philosophy. You know guys, don’t worry about who plays the first play. Would you rather be the guy who plays the first play and gets your grade sheet after the game and it says, I’ve got 15 snaps and I graded this or you played the third snap, didn’t play the first snap, you didn’t get put on the video board, you didn’t get printed in the paper as a starter or on the internet as a starter and you played 54 snaps and your grade was good? I’d rather have the 54 snaps with a good grade than the 13. And, that happens sometimes now, that happens now more than people know.”

Steele said that a backup playing more snaps than the starter happens more than people think.

“Yeah, just because of matchups and how somebody plays in the game,” he said. “You’ve seen a guy pinch hit for somebody. He is just pulled off the bench in baseball to pinch hit and he pops two homeruns and he starts the next week. Why? Because he’s in a groove, you know. Same thing happens in football. It doesn’t mean the other guy is a bad player or not playing well. It’s just means there’s another guy in the position that’s in a groove.”

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