SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Because he is at least fractionally benevolent, Ben Boulware could tolerate teammates bouncing around Phoenix following Clemson’s arrival on Monday for Fiesta Bowl preparations. But this was all the enjoyment he was willing to accommodate.
The Tigers’ leading tackler and emotional touchstone sent a text message late the next day unilaterally declaring that one night of fun in the desert was enough. He announced a film session for 8:15 a.m. on Wednesday. He issued injunctions against any further social butterflying—“Don’t stay out until 11:30, don’t be going out drinking and being an idiot,” Boulware recalled—and then he dispatched another text around midnight Wednesday, setting another video review the next morning before the team loaded buses bound for Media Day.
Everyone showed up both days, as instructed, at the small room dedicated to film review at Clemson’s team hotel. Because everyone got the message: business before pleasure. “That’s a mini-coach V,” said Kendall Joseph, Boulware’s fellow starting inside linebacker. “Two years ago, [Boulware] might not have done that. Now he understands you can’t take this for granted.”
Coach V is Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, but after four years together with Boulware, that’s arguably a distinction without a difference. The men in charge of the Tigers’ defense are equally inexhaustible, voluble and intensely thorough, which might explain why a system predicated on constant movement, energy and aggression works. It is basically these two robust personalities turned into a scheme: Venables frantically calling the shots from the sideline while a Clemson staffer often has to literally yank him back from the field of play, and Boulware directing the operation with abandon from there.
If the Tigers manage to limit Ohio State and the nation’s No. 9 scoring offense in a College Football Playoff semifinal Saturday, it will register as another win via two of a kind. “We’re both a little combustible,” Venables said with a smile during Thursday’s Media Day bonanza. “Chip on your shoulder. Over-believer. Work ethic. Toughness. Take pride in what you do, what your name is on, all of those things. There’s a lot of similarities.”
In its final season, the partnership helped elicit co-ACC defensive player of the year honors and the Jack Lambert Trophy as the nation’s best linebacker for Boulware and a Broyles Award trophy for the 46-year-old Venables. Boulware piled up 113 tackles along the way while Venables led a unit that replaced seven starters and nevertheless ranked ninth nationally in total defense. Their success evolved from both sides understanding how to challenge the other for the profit of the group, and especially from Boulware growing ever more unafraid to demand as much of his coach as his coach demanded from him.
It’s fitting, actually, that relationship required a good deal of sandpapering at the start: Venables notes that Boulware was, perhaps, the only recruit in Clemson history to be angry that he received a scholarship offer.
“They were so late,” Boulware said. “It kind of pissed me off.”
A standout top 100 recruit at T.L. Hanna High in Anderson, S.C., located all of 16 miles from Clemson’s campus, Boulware felt the offer in March of his junior year was about two years tardy. Venables had left Oklahoma for Clemson only two months prior to that, so he was not culpable for oversights perceived or otherwise. And Boulware notes that he remains “super appreciative” of being one of the first players the new Tigers defensive coordinator wanted to bring aboard. He was less grateful for the treatment he received once he was finally on campus a year and a half later.
If Venables saw in Boulware a future defensive linchpin—or even a bit of himself—he evidently decided that offering a freshman no reprieve was the best way to bring that out. “I think he probably chewed me out more than any player he's ever coached just because he knew I could take it,” Boulware said. “We honestly butt heads a lot. Two alpha males wanting the best out of each other definitely causes some problems sometimes. But I love him. I appreciate him more than anything. I'm very glad that the freshman year happened. I think it made me who I am today.
I honestly wouldn't want to go back and do it again because it sucked. But I'm very appreciative of all the stuff we went through.”
Time has salved the wounds, and the secret to stoking Boulware is no real secret at all—“It’s like taking candy from a baby, actually: All you have to do is challenge him,” Venables said—but it set the two on a path to mutually beneficial creative tension. Venables lauds Boulware for deftly forcing him to see matters from a player’s perspective when necessary and for being unafraid to ask the right questions about a scheme or a rule. It’s this assertiveness and thirst for information that helps everyone in the room learn, the Tigers’ defensive coordinator says.
And if Venables pushes Boulware’s buttons this deep into the player’s career, it might only be because the Clemson assistant is searching for his defense’s most reliable on-switch. “Coach V always has a sense of urgency, he’s never complacent,” Joseph said. “As humans, it’s easy to get complacent, it’s easy to relax. When you have a coach that literally does not relax, just ever, it kind of keeps you wired. You’re always ready. You’re always prepared. You don’t take a game for granted. Ben’s the same way. Ben’s learned from him. They just feed off each other.”
Or as defensive tackle Carlos Watkins put it: “He stays on Ben, and that really keeps Ben on us, honestly.”
That is also what inspires late-night missives to teammates insisting upon extra film study in an already jam-packed schedule. Boulware’s texts this week were the rare after-hours messages designed to avoid actions you might regret later.
“Experiencing first-hand that [championship game] loss last year, I want to do everything in my power to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Boulware said. “That’s the main reason and motivation for texting those guys. Get up. Wake your butt up. That’s the reason for our success. We’re in that film room every day grinding. I want to make sure guys got back to their roots.”
There is nothing more fundamental to Clemson’s defensive success than demanding, animated voices directing all the action. That has been the construct every day for more than two years running now. The Tigers’ defensive coordinator screams at the Tigers’ starting linebacker, who screams right back, all in the name of getting the thing right. Most of the time they do. The coach who squeezed a young player hard in order to extract the most from him now glows about how invested and real and transparent that player is. And the player who was angry about a late scholarship offer and felt he was tortured as a freshman now says he loves Venables “like a dad.”
Of course he does. Like father, like son, and all that. “I might yell at him more than I yell at my dad,” Boulware noted, “but it’s just because it’s football.”