Sapakoff: Brent Venables’ Clemson democracy rolls again; Lamar Jackson up next

September 11, 2017

CLEMSON – It doesn’t always work the way Brent Venables draws it up. Clemson’s routinely astute defensive coordinator sent linebacker Kendall Joseph on an up-the-middle blitz on third-and-10 early Saturday night against Auburn. Only to watch quarterback Jarrett Stidham sidestep his way to a 9-yard gain before a fourth-and-1 conversion inside the Clemson 10.

Ah, but those awesome adjustments to adversity.

Clemson held.

Forced a field goal.

Set a tone that lasted all night in a 14-6 victory, another masterful outing against another theoretically good Auburn team.

“Our secondary was terrific against very skilled receivers and a really good quarterback,” Venables said after No. 3 Clemson got 11 sacks, most of them owed to aggressive pass coverage. “We just played with so much passion, physical toughness and mental toughness.”

Between starting his stint at Clemson with a 26-19 victory over Auburn in Atlanta in the 2012 season opener and holding Auburn to 117 yards Saturday night, Venables also presided over a 19-13 win last September on The Plains.

Only the Ohio State opus – a 31-0 gem against Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes in a College Football Playoff semifinal last December in Arizona – tops Venables’ grip on Auburn.

The 46-year-old Salina, Kansas, native has solved Georgia Tech’s triple-option, survived Alabama, smothered South Carolina and generally made life difficult for opposing offensive coordinators, quarterbacks and fans from Chestnut Hill to Coral Gables.

He is the best Clemson assistant coach.


Which is saying a lot, considering the school once employed eventual national championship winners Dabo Swinney and Danny Ford as junior executives. Swinney and Ford turned out to be the most valuable staff hires, but no one has out-produced Venables as an assistant coach. His secret sauce is a rare blend of firm command and faith in democracy: Venables wins hearts and grit by allowing input from veteran players.

Coach V’s attack mode

“He’ll ask us, ‘Do you like this defense?’” defensive end Clelin Ferrell said. “And we’ll be like, ‘No, coach, we like this one better.’ Because we think we can make more plays in a different defense. He’s very open-minded. I love Coach V because he’s always in an attack mode. Whatever works best.”

Analyst Phil Steele rates Auburn’s offensive line as the third-best in the SEC (behind Alabama and LSU). But it looked like a mismatch Saturday night with Clemson using inside force led by tackles Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins to stuff the running game (0.9 yards per carry) while getting sacks from eight different players.

Ten Tigers were in on tackles for loss.

Most of it was the fruition of film study. Some of it was thanks to sideline consultation between Venables and key contributors.

“He trusts us,” defensive end Austin Bryant said after his four sacks and four tackles for loss. “That means a lot to us guys up front.”

Lamar Jackson up next

Clemson has maintained lots of gaudy statistics on defense since Venables arrived from Oklahoma. NFL-caliber talent is the biggest part of that, no doubt.

Grady Jarrett established a Venables-era work ethic that rubbed off on Vic Beasley, Stephone Anthony, B.J. Goodson, Shaq Lawson, Ben Boulware and Carlos Watkins, among other former Tigers.

“People don’t realize how hard we work; all they see is us on TV playing,” Bryant said. “It takes so much to get to the game. I wish people could see how we practice.”

Clemson will need all that Saturday night to defeat the hardest working man in college football show business, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner outdid himself Saturday in the No. 14 Cardinals’ 47-35 victory at North Carolina, becoming the first Power 5 Conference player to pass for 300 (393) yards and rush for 100 (132) in a game.

Wilkins, who chased Jackson around during Clemson’s 42-36 victory over Louisville at Death Valley last year, caught part of the latest feat on TV.

“I saw that North Carolina was ahead,” Wilkins said. “I looked up a few minutes later and Louisville had scored three quick touchdowns. (Jackson) is a heck of a competitor. We’re up for a big challenge. And you know I’m looking forward to it.”

The best player in college football vs. the best defensive coordinator and his bag full of talent and tricks. No wonder the game was moved to ABC’s prime-time slot.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff

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