Clemson defenders made it clear before the start of the 2017 season that they wanted to surpass the 2014 defense as the best under Brent Venables.
Clemson has at least one game remaining, depending on the outcome of Monday’s Sugar Bowl against Alabama, but the Tigers are right there with the 2014 defense entering the College Football Playoff.
Clemson played 13 games in 2014 and has already played 13 game this season.
The Tigers led the nation in total defense three years ago, allowing 261 yards per game, and are currently just behind that mark, allowing 278.
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But Clemson is allowing four fewer points per game than it did in 2014 as the Tigers are second in the nation in scoring defense, holding teams to 12.8 points.
Venables, who has helped produce elite defense after elite defense at Clemson, isn’t ready to say which group is better but did discuss the two.
“I’m not really concerned with comparing them. It’s been a fun group to coach,” he said. “That was a terrific group (in 2014) because, as much as anything, they competed and finished everything. We still have more in front of us, but this has been a group that it’s been fun to watch.”
What might give this year’s defense the edge is the fact that the Tigers have had so much success, despite being plagued by injuries.
Clemson defensive backs Marcus Edmond, Mark Fields and Tanner Muse missed games with injuries, as did linebackers Tre Lamar and Kendall Joseph and defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence.
The Tigers also lost defensive end Richard Yeargin to a season-ending neck injury over the summer, and Logan Rudolph suffered a season-ending shoulder injury during a practice in September.
“Despite injuries, despite lack of depth, despite some lack of experience at some spots, you’ve really kind of seen them, for the most part, get better as the year’s gone on,” Venables said. “And those are the (most fun) groups to coach. And it doesn’t happen every year. But the best units, the best players that you’ve been around, that’s something that’s a quality that they all have. They just keep getting better, keep their nose down, know how to work. And this group possesses that.”
Just as the 2014 defense was led by studs up front, this year’s defense is as well. Instead of Grady Jarrett, Shaq Lawson and Vic Beasley, it’s Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant and Lawrence creating havoc in the backfield.
Clemson recorded 45 sacks in 2014 and currently has 44.
The Tigers have veterans at linebacker with Dorian O’Daniel and Kendall Joseph, as they did with seniors Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward in 2014.
And Clemson’s secondary is holding opponents to 165 passing yards per game compared with 157 three years ago.
“We’re all relentless, we’re all prideful, and we all have the same thing in common. We all want to be the best defense that has been here in the past five or 10 years,” said O’Daniel, who was a member of both teams.
Ryan Carter, who was a redshirt freshman in 2014 but did not receive much playing time, believes this group has a chance to separate itself from the other defenses under Venables and perhaps go down as the best in school history over the next few weeks.
“I think we’re cutting it close. We’ve been very successful this year. That’s definitely the type of defense that we try to emulate and model ourselves after because of how much success they had,” Carter said. “We’ve just got to play relentlessly and have that dog mentality going forward. That’s what they had in 2014, a bunch of dogs, a bunch of vets just playing well together … I think winning the national championship, then it’ll be over.”
Who: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Alabama
When: 8:45 p.m. Monday
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans
Line: Alabama by 3