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Sapakoff: The sun rises and Brent Venables comes up with Clemson answers

March 4, 2017

CLEMSON - And now for Brent Venables’ next Clemson magic trick.

The wily defensive coordinator will …

Pull an All-Atlantic Coast Conference cornerback out of a hat.

Slice an opponent’s yards-per-carry average in two.

Poof! Turn a decent offense into a frog.

Back at work less than eight weeks removed from Clemson’s 35-31 victory over Alabama in the College Football Playoff national championship game, the 46-year-old father of four was a bit cranky Friday.

Spring practice means Venables has to replace another bunch of NFL prospects on defense – Carlos Watkins, Jadar Johnson, Cordrea Tankersley and Ben Boulware, plus transfer Scott Pagano.

Hey, Brent, how’s it going?

“Ask me in five months,” Venables said.

But is there any doubt Venables will figure things out in time for the season opener against Kent State? He was the most valuable assistant coach in college football over the last three years.

Don’t forget that the ultimate glory in Tampa was preceded by one of the great defensive performances in recent bowl history. Mr. Venables’ opus: Clemson’s 31-0 rout of Ohio State in a College Football Playoff semifinal.

It doesn’t look like he’s been spoiled by a national title celebration.

“The commitment level was really good last year,” Venables said. “We’ll see if it’s the same if not better this year.”

So far, the message is getting across.

“We’ve left what’s in the past in the past and we’ve kind of just focused on this year,” rising sophomore defensive end Clelin Ferrell said Friday after Clemson’s second spring workout. “Every year is in the past. We’re trying to get ourselves a new identity.”

Looking for leaders

Clemson ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense in 2014, and that wasn’t Venables’ best year.

Going into the 2015 season, Clemson had to replace pass rusher Vic Beasley Jr., most recently seen sacking Tom Brady in the Super Bowl, plus three other drafted players on defense (first-round pick Stephone Anthony, fifth-round pick Grady Jarrett and sixth-round pick Tony Steward). But the Tigers finished 10th in total defense and advanced to the College Football Playoff national championship game.

Same thing last year only better: Seven Clemson defensive players were drafted in 2016 – Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd, Mackensie Alexander, T.J. Green, B.J. Goodson, D.J. Reader and Jayron Kearse. And you know who won the national championship nine months later.

Of course, recruiting helps.

Players make the difference.

But Venables is one of those recruiters, part of the oddly collegial Clemson team effort that includes input from as many as four people on play calls before someone chimes in insisting that Deshaun Watson get the ball to Hunter Renfrow on an “Orange Crush” pick play with the national title game on the line.

In that case it was co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott.

In this case it’s Venables as chief engineer of a 2017 defense led by a wall of talent up front: potential first-round draft picks Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, joined by Austin Bryant, Richard Yeargin and redshirt freshman Xavier Kelly. Among others.

Venables likes the leadership abilities of junior linebacker Kendall Joseph, senior cornerbacks Marcus Edmond and Ryan Carter and junior safety Van Smith.

Senior linebacker Dorian O’Daniel, Venables stressed, is coming off his best year.

Versatile Wilkins, Smith

Smith played free safety last year but will get some time at strong safety, too. Everyone likes the pass-rushing ability of freshman linebacker Logan Rudolph, a 6-3, 225-pound early enrollee.

Wilkins will go back to playing defensive end but will still see action inside.

Venables was almost literally rolling up his sleeves Friday.

He was eager for contact drills to start and, he said, “getting them out of the comfort zone and see who can handle it.”

On to a long spring and summer of building a new identity that might not look much different than the old one.

“You have to replace some good players and tough guys and great leaders and you have to earn it, too,” Venables said. “That takes time. To judge a guy and rate a guy and to grade a guy, that takes time.”

Ask Venables in five months.

And again in 10 months.

Odds are he will be happier than he was Friday.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff