Steele says all jobs are open, wants defense to play more instinctive

by - Senior Writer -
Steele hopes his defense can play more on instinct now that they have a year in his system

CLEMSON – According to Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, his defense has no returning starters heading into spring practice.

Steele met with the media on Tuesday at the West Zone to talk about his side of the ball heading into spring practice, and he declared almost immediately that all jobs were open.

"It's wide open," he said. "We're going to move things around, reshuffle the deck, try some different things here and there. There are no returning starters on this defense. Everything is wide open. The biggest thing about this business is competition. If you can create competition, it makes everybody better. You’re responsible for your own playing time, nobody else is.”

Steele’s defense had impressive moments early in the season, but an end-of-season slide saw FSU. N.C. State, Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia Tech pile up yards in bunches, and Steele said that all of the defensive players understand that things will have to be different this season.

"We've told them that things have been ratcheted up because this is a journey," Steele said. "It's not a destination. And if they think they've arrived, then guess what? We've changed the destination. Nobody's arrived anywhere. We've got a long way to go. But we've made a lot of progress."

Steele said that the Tigers are now beginning the second year of “the process.”

"You have to have a system to build to put guys in place to be ready to plug them in," he said. "That's a little bit hard after the first year, because the recruiting hasn't built up. The base hasn't built up in terms of having guys in the same system two, three, four years, recruiting to that. This is the second year of the process."

Florida State and N.C. State each gained almost 400 yards of total offense and South Carolina mounted a 223-yard rushing effort in the last game of the regular season. One week later, in the ACC Championship Game, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets piled up 469 yards of total offense, including 333 on the ground, in their 39-34 victory over the Tigers.

A lightning rod for criticism following the late-season malaise was the linebacker position, including middle linebacker Brandon Maye, and Steele said that it will be imperative for the coaching staff to get the right pieces in place during the spring, even giving an example.

Steele said that even though the quarterback, running back and fullback are all considered “backs” on the offensive side, you wouldn’t put a quarterback at fullback or vice versa, and said that they will have to find the right fit for each of the three linebacking spots, the Mike [middle], Sam [strongside] and Will [weakside].

"It's going to be very important that we get the right pieces in the right place as quick as possible, because they're distinctly different," Steele said.

Steele said that the Clemson coaches did a statistical analysis of the defense following the season, and Maye was in the top four in three of the four major stat categories [tackles, sacks, tackles for loss], although he still has room to improve at the middle linebacking spot.

"He did a lot of good things there,” Steele said. “Obviously there is some productivity there. But when you're striving for that top, top gear, there's a lot of pressure on that. And he's managed it and is still on track. He is on progress for it.”

Sophomore Corico Hawkins, who took over for Maye in the Music City Bowl and played well after Maye injured his knee in bowl practice, could push Maye for playing time at the middle spot. Redshirt freshman Spencer Shuey is also in the mix at middle linebacker, as are Scotty Cooper and Tig Willard.

Steele lost two key components of the linebacking corps in Kavell Conner and Kevin Alexander, and will have to find help from among the group of Daniel Andrews, Quandon Christian, and possibly incoming freshman Justin Parker.

“It may be that over the next couple of years, because of the numbers and the stack of the linebackers, that young guys could have to play," Steele said. "Freshmen could have to play. But that's OK. It's been done before."

However, Steele noted that if you look at the number of times that three linebackers were on the field at the same time last season, two linebackers could share most of the duties. Steele said he estimated that he used five defensive backs for more than 600 snaps in 2009 and only about 180 snaps with the regular defense, and because of the nature of the college game, says that number is unlikely to change much in 2010.

"They help us when they go three and four wide,” Steele said of opposing offenses. "Because you take one linebacker out of the equation and then you're playing with two. That's how much the game has changed. But you better be able to line up in regular and stop the run, or they'll never get to the other."

The Tigers lose two key components at cornerback in Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor. The duo combined to start 84 games for the Tigers, and Steele will spend much of the spring trying to find starters at those two spots.

Senior Marcus Gilchrist, Byron Maxwell, Xavier Brewer and Coty Sensabaugh will all vie for time at the outside spots. Steele said that each of the aforementioned players were in at key spots during the 2009 season. Steele said Brewer made a great play against Florida St. early in the game, a tackle that saved a long play, and shows the depth he has to work with.

“We have a lot of quality people back there,” Steele said. “When you are talking about our secondary, you have to talk about our inside guys. Gilly [Gilchrist] is a guy that can play multiple places. He can play our nickel back, our dime back, he can play corner and can play safety. You’ve got Rashard [Hall] and Mac [DeAndre McDaniel], two guys that had very productive seasons and understand what we’re doing. They have the ability to quarterback the defense.”

Up front, the Tigers bring back Da’Quan Bowers and Malliciah Goodman at one side of the defensive front, with Andre Branch and Kourtnei Brown comprising the other side. Brown redshirted last season, and ends coach Chris Rumph said he has put on weight and size and should be a major contributor. Rumph also said that Brown is probably the most athletic of the group, even more than Bowers.

Brandon Thompson and Jarvis Jenkins return to man the middle of the line, with Miguel Chavis and Jamie Cumbie providing depth and even pushing for spots.

Steele was asked about the troubles his defense had against certain offenses last season, including Georgia Tech’s, and he said it came down to gap discipline, especially in man coverage.

“We didn't play man coverage particularly well last year, only because of our eyes,” he said. “We'd have our man in our vision, and then all of a sudden look back at the quarterback and boom, it’s a five yard gain on third-and-four. We didn't play with disciplined eyes in man coverage."

Penalties, especially on third down, were also a cause for concern, especially on both of Kentucky’s scoring drives during the Music City Bowl, and the defense will work to correct that in 2010.

Now, Steele said, the task begins of getting the players to play with more instinct in his system, rather than having to think it out during the play. He said the best drivers in NASCAR can drive a car through a keyhole because they simply do it, and don’t think about it, and that’s what he wants his defensive to players to do.

"I've been in a situation where this practice structure, year two, was a lot more productive,” he said. “When you've got guys out there thinking a whole lot, then you've got problems. It's hard to think and be analytical and still be nasty. That's a hard combination. Some people can, but it's hard. But when you're just free flowing, that allows you to be a little bit more aggressive."

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