CLEMSON — It did not take Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott long to figure out that the Tiger defense would be just fine this season.
Tiger defensive coordinator Brent Venables wasted little time making life difficult on the Tiger offense because that is his job.
"Which one of the 15 practices (did it take to realize the defense was going to be good)? Whichever one," Elliott said. "I mean, just that's what Brent does, I believe, better than anyone in the country is he understands his personnel and puts them in a position to be successful.
"Week in and week out, he can dissect an offense and find their weakness and he can go attack you. Then he has the ability to have his guys have full confidence and full belief even though the plan may change up a little bit week to week."
It was on the practice fields during the spring that Elliott got a firsthand look at what Venables had in store for his defense — a three-four look. But it is those kinds of challenges that make the Tigers so confident on offense because they understand that they are going to be challenged every day in practice.
"That's what you see on our practice field, but man when he was doing some of that three-down stuff with Isaiah (Simmons) coming from the rafters, I was like, 'Oh Lord, this is going to be hard,'" Elliott said. "But it made us get better because what I've seen and what I've noticed is he's a pioneer. He's kind of out in front of everything. Then teams watch what he's doing and then they start to emulate and mimic. So I said, 'Man, this is good for us because what you are noticing is now a lot more teams are going to a three-man front.'
"I think NC State completely revamped their defense and they are now in a three-man front. So that was something I said, 'This is tough.' Every day when you set rules based off what you saw, he's got three more blitzes that run you hot and you are like, 'Oh my gosh.' But now, we can tell our guys there ain't nothing you have haven't seen. So anything that we're seeing is just rely on what we did because we got a plan. Then it still stresses us too because each week we set our protection plans for who we're playing, but we still go good-on-good and so we have to go back to picking up his blitzes which keeps us sharp."
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While it may seem to many looking from the outside that Venables is a sadistic coach that enjoys torchuring opposing offenses — even those on his own team — that could not be further from the truth.
In fact, he is simply wanting to prepare his defense in the best way possible and sometimes that means giving your own team 'headaches'.
"I don't think it's a situation where he's like, let's go attack our offense. It is this is what we're going to do this week, this is our plan and then let's go run it full speed versus us," Elliott said. "It gives us headaches. Especially in the competitive situations where coaches are off the field and we're just letting our guys play because it doesn't marry up necessarily. If we're playing a four-down team, our rules are going to be different than picking his or picking up his pressure. He's so competitive and detail oriented, and that's one thing that helped me as a coach too.
"With all the success that he's had, he's a Broyle's Award winner, he could be a head coach anywhere he wanted to be in the country, but he's just focusing on being the best defensive coordinator in the country and getting his guys ready to play week to week and does it better than anybody in the business. You just look at how the defense is performing and because of that, it's helped us get better. We have no excuses with the young guys that we have because they are out there performing so we have to carry our load."
Venables' ability to prepare his defense is much a part of what he knows as it is what he can teach.
But at the end of the day, it comes down to not how much the coach knows, but how much his players know that determines whether or not you are successful.
"I would like to think that I'm a pretty smart guy and I can recall somethings, but he can tell you a call from 15 years ago at Oklahoma," Elliott said. "It's just unbelievable, just the football intelligence that he has and it's something that is very admirable. And again, I don't think he does it because he wants a pat on the back, I think he does it because he knows that's what he needs to do to help his young guys be successful. That's the same thing that I strive for, is that when I walk into a game plan I can tell you defensively, for the most part, what's getting ready to happen.
"That's your job as a coach on game day, is to be able to help your young me because they're not going to know everything you know as a coach and, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what you know as a coach, it's what your players know."