Steele looking for "dominating" defense

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Kevin Steele pointed out that the linebackers need to step up their game
Kevin Steele pointed out that the linebackers need to step up their game

CLEMSON – Take a look at the national rankings for total defense last season, and one thing stands out for both of the top two teams, TCU and Alabama: their defenses were dominant in all phases of the game.

Some would dismiss TCU’s domination because they play in a weaker conference, but no one doubts that the Crimson Tide, playing in the SEC, had some amazing numbers.

Second in total defense at 244.14 yards per game; second in rushing defense at 78.14 yards per game; second in pass efficiency defense; second in scoring defense at 11.71 points per game; 10th in pass defense at 166 yards per game; the defense also only allowed 844 plays from scrimmage in 14 games, an average of just over 60 plays per game.

Domination. And the result was a National Championship.

Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who coached at Alabama two years ago, wants to see his current unit achieve the same level as his former unit, and he said it all comes down to a few simple facts.

"Dominate your opponent every play as an individual,” Steele said last week. “Eleven guys dominating their opponent. You'll have a bad play. That's a fact of life, but if there are 65 plays in the game and collectively you dominated for 57 plays, then you see domination."

The Tigers finished 20th in the nation in total defense in 2009, giving up just over 314 yards per game and were 25th in scoring defense at just over 20 points per game, but a late season slide had many questioning whether the unit was elite or not, but Steele said he believes he has many of the pieces in place to take a step forward in 2010, especially if they reclaim Death Valley as a tough place to play.

"There are positives there. This is a different team [than 2009]. You can't go back and compare anything that is relative to what some people get excited about externally,” Steele said. “What we're trying to accomplish is we're trying to become a dominating defense week in and week out. Simply put - it means if you come into Death Valley, you've got a hard day's work, a real hard day's work. And it should get to where it's an impossible task. When you go on the road, a lot of things can happen on the road and sometimes people overlook that.

“But the bottom line is that you can't go on the road and flounder - defensively - against a team that you're supposed to be better than. We have to make sure we address that. The process of it is learn your trade, learn what you're supposed to do and how you're supposed to do it and have accountability to do it every play with the mindset to dominate. That's it in a nutshell.”

Steele went on to say that with college football’s ever-changing rosters, each season is like a new beginning, and it comes down to the players to play for each other and the uniform they wear.

"There's no way we can have the same personnel we had last year in college football,” he said. “Someone will graduate and someone else will come in. Conceivably, in the NFL, you can have the same 11 starters if you're willing to contractually make it happen. You could have the same 11. That just doesn't happen in college football. I can't ever remember seeing it happen. So you're going to have a new group. So you never get it all where you just sit back and say, "Ok, take a deep breath." But what you can get is a mindset where they feed each other.

“And because they feed each other, there's an expectation where when they get in the huddle and you have that paw on that helmet, this is the standard we have on defense here and you're expected to live up to that standard. When you get to that mindset, then you're there. Are we there yet? No. We're not there. There are still way too many things to happen. It's been said that the second year is harder than the first. Somewhere in that transition, you have to avoid complacency."

Despite losing two starters at cornerback, the biggest questions marks on the defense heading into the spring, and even into fall practice, are the linebackers, and Steele called the unit a “work in progress” but also said there were a few good surprises during the spring.

“What gets me more energized is that the unexpected happened sooner than what we thought it would,” Steele said. “And that is Quandon Christian - for a young guy who hasn't played at this level – he really grasped the concept of this defense, the application of it and technique of it. He really showed a lot of progress, so much so that we'd be comfortable at this point saying that he's in a position to see a lot of playing time at the SAM position. Because of that, it allowed us to shuffle the deck a little bit. Now we've put more people in the mix. Now we have more options. Because of the reshuffling, it allows us to do some things in our MONEY position.

"Spencer [Shuey] is more suited for MIKE and made some progress. I thought Corico Hawkins picked up where he left off in the fall and progressed nicely. And we experimented with moving Brandon [Maye] around a little bit and he did well with that. And Tig [Willard] progressed and had a good spring. We lost Scotty [Cooper] with an injury. And then Daniel [Andrews] is a guy who has become a multiple piece of the puzzle in that he understands how to do a lot of things.”

Steele was asked if he had a depth chart in place after spring practice, and he shook his head no and said he will wait on fall camp to shake things out, and maybe even beyond that.

"Before I came up here I was thinking, 'if we had to make a depth chart today, what would it be?' I don't know,” he said. “I can tell you whatever gets printed in these summer magazines isn't worth the ink it's printed on. They have to print something and they're gonna print something, but I don't know what it is and I know our situation won't be settled until fall camp.

"Well obviously somebody has to start the game. Somebody has to play the first play but I don't think that's relative to this group. What's relative to this group is who goes out there and does their job. Whomever does that will be the guy that goes out and gets the reps in a game. That's a good thing because competition makes everything better."

Steele was reminded that former linebacker Kavell Conner, who was drafted this past week by the Indianapolis Colts, was perhaps his most instinctive playmaker at linebacker and was asked if anyone out of the current group was getting close to replicating what Conner did.

"Brandon played with his hand on the ground most of his high school career, and then he had a new defense,” Steele said. “There was still a learning curve there. I think probably the person that has just kind of settled in and will be somewhere in the mix - if he keeps doing what he's doing - is Corico. He has played all three of them. He's got an understanding across the board. Because of that I think he has a little bit better feel. But again, it's still a work-in-progress."

Beaufort linebacker Justin Parker was one of the headliners of February’s recruiting class, and Steele was asked where he sees the freshman fitting in once fall camp starts.

"When you look at us at linebacker, we're still short numbers-wise,” he said. “I think he needs to come in with the mindset that he's got to be ready to step in quick and learn it quick and compete for playing time."

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