Dabo Swinney was not sure what to expect from Clemson’s defense in the first spring scrimmage Monday.
The last time the Clemson coach observed the group in game conditions, it allowed nine touchdowns in the Orange Bowl.
The defense he witnessed Monday had only eight spring practices to work under new defensive coordinator Brent Venables, the group replaces five starters from last season, and its only veteran defensive lineman, Malliciah Goodman, missed the scrimmage to take a test.
While Swinney’s expectations for a defense facing Sammy Watkins, Andre Ellington and Tajh Boyd were tempered, the unit exceeded early expectations showing a grasp of Venables’ base schemes.
“It was one of the better first scrimmages we’ve had,” Swinney said. “I was very encouraged by our defense. My expectation was they might be a little behind. They really held their own. They were very competitive.”
Swinney was especially pleased with the play of the linebacker group.
Sophomores Stephone Anthony and Lateek Townsend have shown signs of becoming impact players for a unit that has struggled in recent seasons. The linebackers accounting for only 12 ½ tackles for loss last season. Anthony led the linebackers with six tackles for loss playing a limited role as a true freshman.
“I thought they did a good job with drops, with their eyes; we got our hands on some balls,” Swinney said. “Stephone was excellent, Tig Willard was good Lateek continues to make strikes. He’s going to help us big time. He’s a guy who has shot his stock up the last two or three practices.”
The one true freshman who has impressed is defensive back Travis Blanks.
Blanks, regarded as the top athlete in the 2012 recruiting class, is already working with the first team as a nickel cornerback.
“It’s hard to think a true freshman is just going to step and be repping with the ones,” Swinney said, “but he’s done a great job of that.”
The defense bettered the offensive line in short yardage drills which could also be a testament to the inexperience on the offensive line.
“We had a snap problem, missed assignments,” Swinney said. “Critical mistakes in critical situations.”
Venables was pleased with the play of defensive tackles Tavaris Barnes, DeShawn Williams, Josh Watson and Grady Jarrett who are vying to replace departed starters Brandon Thompson and Rennie Moore.
“Those guys have showed up a lot since we’ve started practice,” Venables said. “There’s four of them there that have consistently showed up.”
While the defense exceeded Swinney’s expectations offensive stars still produced.
Sammy Watkins caught a 50-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Morgan Roberts – who Swinney said has improved as much as any player in camp – and running back Mike Bellamy showed improved strength and toughness in short yardage drills.
“The guys I expect to be winners and players for us were,” Swinney said. “But I was very encouraged with first group of defense.”
Assistants get raises
Copies of the new contracts for eight members of the Clemson football staff were released Monday with the details of defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ agreement and the salary increases for seven holdovers.
Salary increases totaling $450,000 were distributed to the seven, of which $265,000 was provided by coach Dabo Swinney through a clause in his contract that permits him to assign money bonuses and compensation earned by winning an ACC Championship. The remaining $185,000 will be provided by the athletic department.
The coaches receiving raises were defensive ends coach Marion Hobby $375,000, up from $300,000; defensive secondary coach Charlie Harbison $375,000 ($350,000), defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks $310,000 ($275,000), offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell $310,000 ($275,000), tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Danny Pearman $310,000 ($225,000), receivers coach Jeff Scott $215,000 ($150,000) and running backs coach Tony Elliott $205,000 ($140,000).
Venables received a four-year agreement that pays him $800,00 annually.