CLEMSON — Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has had the benefit of having some of the best leaders on the team with him on the defensive side of the ball.
Guys like Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Dexter Lawrence have roamed the practice fields like pseudo-coaches the past three seasons.
But those leaders of the defense are now roaming the sidelines of the NFL, leaving behind a very talented, young and hungry group of Tigers in their wake.
For Venables, even with a younger group, the message will not change this year.
"(The message is) Always the same. You gotta work, gotta grind. You gotta handle the good days and the bad days, the good moments and the bad moments," Venables said. "You gotta know what to do, gotta play with effort, gotta play with toughness whether you have been here or not.
"I think every year you gotta start over, but they have got a little more work to do when you got new faces with regards to cohesion and chemistry. So you gotta be intentional about trying to develop that, foster that."
It should come as no surprise for those having been around the Tigers' program for any length of time that Venables continued his fall camp tradition of downplaying the play of his defense.
Even last year, when the Tigers returned arguably the greatest defensive line in college football history, Venables remained border-line pessimistic about their chances of living up to the hype that surrounded the group.
This season, with those players now gone, Venables continued the tradition of being stingy with his praise for the defense.
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"I'm not really impressed with anybody yet," Venables said. "Again, nobody's jumped out, nobody's disappointed. I like where, as a group, we have good knowledge and good retention. Some guys have made some improvement in their bodies and their confidence in knowing what to do. So, through four days there's been some things that you feel good about that you can build on, but you have a long way to go in camp and a lot of work to do.
"But nobody's just been outstanding. Nobody has been disappointing either, but it's been solid."
One group that did earn a bit of praise from Venables was his linebacking corps.
Clemson graduated an experienced corps of linebackers in 2018, but coaches are intrigued by the athletic group taking the reins in 2019. The lone returning starter in the group is junior Isaiah Simmons, a converted safety who led the team with 97 tackles in 15 games (14 starts) in his first year as the team’s nickel/Sam linebacker in 2018.
The NFL Draft declaration of Tre Lamar opened larger roles for middle linebacker Chad Smith, and the departure of 40-game starter Kendall Joseph at Will linebacker resulted in James Skalski earning the starting role after taking advantage of new NCAA rules that enabled him to take a midcareer redshirt in 2018.
"We're not real deep and experienced, but a few guys in that small group there, five or six guys, that I feel really good about those guys," Venables said. "(Smith and Skalski) are two of the starters. They have a fantastic couple of days here.
Kendrick improving at CB
The unit added an unknown X-factor in the spring when the coaching staff began cross-training wide receiver Derion Kendrick at cornerback. He impressed immediately, recording an interception against the first-team offense in an early spring scrimmage.
"He knows what to do now, he knows the verbage, the language. A.J. (Terrell) and some of those guys have done a good job with him, helping him learn," Venables said. "He's practiced well and gaining confidence and asking more questions now.
"So his maturation in the scheme has come a long well."