Venables saw progress out of his defense during spring
Venables saw progress out his defense during the spring.

Venables saw progress out of his defense during spring

by - Senior Writer -

Clemson’s defense will look different in 2020 but has a chance to be better with increased depth along the defensive line and athletic playmakers across the back seven.

As we inch closer to the season, it’s time to take a look at some of the players that defensive coordinator Brent Venables looks at to take a step forward this season.

One of those players is linebacker Mike Jones, who will take over the SAM/Nickel spot vacated by Isaiah Simmons, the Arizona Cardinals' first-round draft pick. Simmons had to play a major role last season as Venables gave his young line time to grow. This season, the Tigers should go back to more of what we’re used to seeing from a Venables defense.

Jones enters 2020 credited with 22 career tackles (4.0 for loss), a forced fumble and a pass breakup in 196 snaps over 18 career games. Now it’s time for Jones to come out of the weeds and play in the yard.

"We're counting on him," Venables said. "Putting in a lot of extra time on his own. Pleased with him and the progress he's made. Laying in the weeds, if you will. He has a sense of urgency about him and a good skill set. Really can do multiple things. Not just one position for him.”

Venables said Jones has all the tools to be successful.

"He's got twitch, he's physical, good linear speed and top-end speed. But he's got good quickness too. He's got a savviness about him,” Venables said. “He understands football. His dad played in the NFL for a good long while, so he's got good bloodlines and sometimes that translates and it sometimes it doesn't, you know? He's got a good football IQ, tremendous pride, super coachable, he pays attention so he's got a humility about him. You know, he didn't have his lip out when Isaiah Simmons was playing ahead of him, but he tried to learn and be a sponge. He admired and respected Isaiah. A great teammate and a really good student. Very committed guy. Fabulous work ethic."

The safety spot is another position in which outstanding older players have to be replaced, and while head coach Dabo Swinney has lavished praise on the young group, Venables said there is still work to be done.

"We got a lot of work to do (at safety)," Venables said. "You don't just snap your fingers and everybody is good. We got a lot of work to do and a lot of experience to gain. Got a long way to go. But a good group of guys as far as talent, instincts, length, athletic ability, but just got to get experience.

"As coaches, we got a sense of desperation. We got to find a way to get them ready mentally and know what to do consistently. Trying guys at different spots and really trying to really, really learn more about their strengths and weaknesses and what they can and cannot do. And this is the time of year to do that."

Lannden Zanders didn’t redshirt last season and was credited with 21 tackles (2.5 for loss), 2.0 sacks and a pass breakup in 112 defensive snaps over 14 games.

Venables said Zanders has to take the next step in his development, but he also feels good about the entire group.

"Yeah, has to. You can't just find guys off the street-- I say that, he's gotta be a guy that's gotta come through," Venables said. "That whole group. And I feel great about 'em. Coach (Mickey) Conn has done a great job getting them to a point where they can go compete, know what to do.

"Length, instincts, speed, we feel like we've got good range, so we're not limited in what we can do in the back end. Very coachable guys. You've got to work on your craft on your own too. We only get so much time. We can't want success for them more than they want it for themselves. If you're about the right stuff, they'll do whatever it takes. So far it's been a group of guys very willing to put the time in. You can't just show up and by osmosis be a good player. You've got to really grind and it's got to go well beyond the practice field, weight room, film room, all the extras. We have been blessed for the most part to have guys that haven't been distracted and are willing to put the work in and stick to it when success doesn't happen right away."

Following a late spring scrimmage, Venables said he saw a mixed effort from the younger players.

“We have a lot of guys going out in the back-seven, and upfront,” Venables said. “We got into a lot of first and second down situations, and then third-and-long and then fourth down. There is a lot to be excited about but we have a long way to go before we are a good football team or a good defense.”

Another player that stood out during the spring was Xavier Thomas this spring. Venables said Thomas had a hard year last year with the concussion and missing practices but said he was a starter on a good defense last season and he didn’t have to be Superman and did his part. He said if Thomas hadn’t done his job, then someone would have found him and exploited that weakness.

"He's got a good attitude and he's got a good awareness about where he is and what he needs to do to make improvement,” Venables said. “He's done a good job coming back with the right mindset."

Venables said the three freshmen defensive linemen – Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy and Demonte Capehart – have had their good moments and bad moments but are three big, physical guys.

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