CLEMSON, South Carolina — Defensive coordinator Brent Venables said the Clemson defense worked too hard to get to No. 1 to give up simply because it lost eight starters.
The defense had been a college football joke — remember West Virginia's 70-33 Orange Bowl win after the 2011 season? — when Venables was hired to toughen it up. No one's laughing these days as Clemson led the country with just 260 yards a game allowed last fall.
A year ago, it was ex-offensive coordinator Chad Morris challenged with replacing the stars of Clemson's record-setting offense such as receiver Sammy Watkins and quarterback Tajh Boyd. Now, it's Venables rebuilding the nation's best group.
Clemson is without six of its front seven, including All-American defensive end Vic Beasley. Also gone are defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and standout linebackers Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward.
When Venables took the field for the first spring workouts, he said it wasn't just odd not to see his stellar seniors, "It was depressing."
That's understandable. Beasley, a projected NFL first-rounder, set Clemson's all-time sacks record surpassing Tiger greats Michael Dean Perry and the late Gaines Adams. Jarrett was the fireplug who created havoc in the middle while Anthony led the unit with 75 tackles.
One of those senior starters, safety Robert Smith, was at practice Wednesday — Clemson holds its NFL pro timing day on Thursday — and told his former teammates to continue working hard to maintain their top-tier status.
"You're still going to be No. 1 regardless of what anyone says," Smith told them.
Venables said there was talent ready to fill in for those lost. The true task, he said, is replacing the depth the Tigers had last fall when the reserves move up.
The defensive line will have many candidates to fill in, most notably tackles Carlos Watkins and D.J. Reader and ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd.
Returning starter B.J. Goodson and backup linebacker Ben Boulware will head that group.
The secondary might have the most potential of all with the return of cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safety Jayron Kearse, both key parts of last year's group.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said the defense is ready to continue the legacy set a season ago, particularly after punctuating the 10-3 season with a 40-6 demolition of Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl last December.
"We take momentum on defense because we set the standard," Swinney said.
Venables takes a more cautious approach. The players he's lost belonged to one of Clemson's best-ever defenses and he's looking to see who'll become the leaders like Jarrett and fellow starting defensive tackle DeShawn Williams who'll set the tone each workout.
"That's the past, we can't worry about it," said Boulware, a sophomore linebacker who made 40 tackles as a reserve. "We're looking forward to better things this year and we're going to work like we did last year and strive to be the No. 1 defense again."
Venables knows, even more so than last fall, that the target is clearly on his back. He was rewarded after the season with a new four-year contract that pays him $1.35 million a year — a nearly half-million dollar raise from his previous deal.
Venables inherits the mega-money spotlight Morris, now SMU's head coach, had the past few seasons as Clemson's highest paid assistant ($1.3 million per year). Venables was grateful for the commitment Clemson showed.
"I would've done this for a lot less money," he said with a smile.
He said the new deal won't change his style or the effort he'll put into keeping Clemson's defense the best.
"They expect us to stop them, whether you're making $100,000 or $2 million," Venables said. "If we have success, it's not just because of me, trust me. It's those players and our coaches."
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