By Cameron Soran
If you were to poll members of the college football cognesceti who the best non-head coach defensive coordinators are in the game right now, you’d see a fairly short list. They would include guys like Bud Foster, Don Brown, and Dave Aranda. But probably the name that would come up most often is Brent Venables, Clemson’s defensive coordinator since 2012.
Since taking up his post at Clemson, Venables’ defenses have ranked 34th, 12th, 1st, 6th, 6th, and 2nd in Bill Connelly’s Defensive S&P+ rankings. And he’s done that while losing about half of his starters every year – many to the NFL. This upcoming 2018 season will be the first several seasons where Venables returns nearly all of his key pieces on defense. So we’re going to be breaking down what I think will probably be the college football’s best defense in 2018.
An intriguing part of Venables base defense is that it is simultaneously complex yet straightforward. (I use the term base defense here to mean non- blitz calls.) He runs essentially five main split safety and nine main single-high play calls (and four of the single-high calls are essentially the same). So at first glance, Venables defense is relatively simple. But each individual play call is intricate and complex, particularly his split safety run fits. Venables schematic philosophy might be best summarized as, “depth over width.”
Perhaps equally interesting was that even though Venables has a reputation as a quarters coverage advocate, split safety coverages comprise only about half of his non-pressure calls. The other half: he’s in single high. Even in the spread-heavy ACC, Venables is dropping a defensive back into the box 50% of the time – and that’s only counting the plays where he isn’t bringing a blitz. Venables is a man firmly committed to stopping the run, and isn’t afraid put his guys in one-on-one coverage to do it.