Merry Christmas everyone. Hope everybody had a great Christmas time, and everybody is ready to get back to work. Some of you got probably got here yesterday, I’m sure. I’m really…it’s a blessing to be here, it’s an honor to be here for the Allstate Sugar Bowl, that’s for sure. It’s something we set out to do. We actually talked about it this spring, this being something we could kind of dream about. 59 years since Clemson has been to the Sugar Bowl…and to have an opportunity to be here and represent Clemson and Dan [Radakovich], and President Clements, our administration, all our fans…it’s just a great pleasure and just a huge privilege… so I’m proud of our team and the season we had…tremendous effort on their part all year long just to do what we need to do to get to this point. So, really excited about being here. Really appreciate all the Allstate Sugar Bowl folks for hosting this. I know there’s a ton of work that goes into make an event like this special for everyone involved, so I really appreciate all the people behind the scenes that nobody will ever know or see…they do such a great job. And, we look forward to a great week. I will say probably 95% of my team has never been to New Orleans. Been 25 years since I’ve been here outside a couple of hours in March or April for the Manning Award ceremony but we’re excited to be here, look forward to participating. Thank you again for being here and with that I’ll take your questions.
On how many times do you think your mind is going to drift back 25 years on this journey:
Oh man, I already had a ton. When you’re staying at the same hotel, we’re practicing at the same site. It’s just funny how my mom gave me a picture, when I was home over Christmas, she gave me a picture…I was in the street tap dancing with a tap dancer and a bunch of people gathered around when I was 10. She pulled out one of those little….you don’t have those type of pictures anymore. It was something out of a box. I actually came over with a friend from an Oklahoma baseball team when I was 10 for the Alabama/Arkansas Sugar Bowl. I guess it was the ’80 Sugar Bowl, ’79 season, I think. So that was my first time to ever experience anything like that and came back here 10 years later as a player at Alabama and then as a freshman against Miami in ’89 and again in ’92 when we won it all. But, I’m looking forward to it…looking forward to beignets! That’s what I’m looking forward to.
On how he made a point about enjoying the ride and with so much of the team not having been in New Orleans, is there more significance to that? And is there a contrast to the way you approach this compared to Alabama?
I don’t know how they approach it. So I don’t know how to make a contrast. I just know what we do. And we work really hard. We prepare…we’ve been preparing. We’ve practiced very well, great meetings. We practiced today, earlier…meetings today. And kind of had our Monday practice today…everyone traveled back yesterday, enjoyed a good break, like I said, kind of a mental Monday for us…get your mind right, good meetings, good practice, and I kind of like to do it that way. Then we get here and just kind of get settled in and get ready for Tuesday-type practice tomorrow. You know, I want our guys to enjoy it, everywhere we go, all this…Bowl trips…you know, we try to enjoy the journey. That’s what it’s all about to me. I mean, it’ll be a great moment Monday night, or whatever night it is. What night do we play? Does anybody know? Whatever the first is, it’ll be a great moment. It’s really the journey that I always try to enjoy…just enjoy the day. Enjoy practices. Just enjoy being with these guys. This could be the last week to be with this team. Hopefully we can earn one more bus ride and pregame meal and all that stuff but you have to earn that. That’s what it comes down to. But I want them to enjoy it, have some fun, and look back on their time. We always say fun is in the winning, ultimately it comes down to that. You have to win the game. But I don’t’ think you have to be miserable to do that in the process. It’ll be a great week, looking forward it.
Dabo, as a Coach and a competitor, how much have you enjoyed these past two games with Alabama?
Well, I enjoyed it a lot last year. Last year was great…it was wonderful. One of the best moments of my life, and it stunk the year before. Like I said, the fun is in the winning and I don’t enjoy losing…ever. It’s been great to compete against Alabama. I think for us, as we tried to grow our program the last 8 years…9 years I think, one of the things that was a goal of mine 9 years ago was build a program that can be consistent and to build a program that can beat the best and Alabama has been the best.
Q. Is it easier to prepare for a team whose identity ?? as you know, Derrick Henry is 80% of it or 70% of it, or if you know it's Baker Mayfield who everything's built around, kind of what one guy does. Is it more difficult that Alabama doesn't seem to feature one guy?
VENABLES: Oh, sure. Obviously, I think some things are going to be this is what we do and, at the other end, you're required to do it. And I think each one probably brings a little bit something different to the table. But, I mean, they are able to stay fresh. As much as anything, it's their ability to physically impose their will on people. And they've got terrific players, very highly recruited players in every single position in that huddle.
So, even when everything is right, the margin for error is very little. Fundamentally, athletically, physically. And when they're able to keep guys fresh at the skill position when they're featuring the running backs, it can be ?? it's a great, great challenge, as we know.
I think they established a running game early last year. We got settled down and got a little bit better. Losing Henry was a big deal for them. But, as we thought a year ago, 34 is a great player as well. And I think this year has proven that. So they've got home?run hitters, man, outside and in that backfield and then the quarterback.
The first few plays of the game against one of their early opponents ?? I mean, second play of the game, he's flipping the field and 60 yards later, it's a touchdown. And that's what they do, some option principles in some ways. They do a great job of getting their best players in football on the perimeter, in his face, against maybe smaller cover?type guys as well. They force everybody to get involved. You're not going to hide against these boys. They're not, "Well, I'm going to cover my guy over here." They're smarter than that. And so, if you have some deficiencies, they'll expose you in a minute.
Q. How has Brian [Daboll]'s stamp print on this offense been different than Lane's [Kiffin]?
VENABLES: I always look at each game as kind of a season or life of its own. I don't really look at trying to compare or contrast what they do different. I just look at players and what they do best, how they feature them and, you know, don't really try to even compare. But they've got great backs. Again, they've got really good receivers. They're doing a very good job of establishing the line of scrimmage, utilize the screen game, the boot game, play action, and, again, get some one?on?one opportunities outside and over the top.
So those are all similarities. And some of the play designs are the same, and some of it's a little bit different. And, obviously, they got back here. I think, for the most part, all year they were the number one team in the country and destroying everybody. So what they've done is very effective. The coaches change but the players keep doing the same stuff and scoring a lot of points and moving the ball both on the run and the pass game.
Q. Do you feel the defense has kind of taken on the personality of the defensive line and the team really has taken on that personality?
VENABLES: I think that's where our most experience is coming back. And it's a group that's probably got our best collection as a position, our best collection of leaders. They kind of set the tempo in regards to our work ethic, our attitude. They bring a lot of energy. They like to practice. They like the weight room. They like it all.
And it's not a group of guys that you've got to pull any teeth to get ready to prepare and work, whether we're playing Citadel, Auburn, or Alabama, it doesn't matter. Our guys like to play the game. So I do think that, as a group, you want them to get off the bus first.
And they've been very productive, too. And it's a disruptive group that, you know, has had another strong year. And it's not a group that's really concerned with reading their press clippings and things of that nature. It's a very humble, hard?working, tough?minded, group of guys that are selfless in everything that they do and their leadership.
Q. Were you surprised at all, when coming into this year, how humble and selfless that front line remained, knowing they were all kind of battling for publicity, draft status, that type of thing?
VENABLES: Not surprised. We addressed it all the way back in the summer, when everybody wanted to anoint the defense or them as the best ever. And who's to say who's who and what's what. I'm one to say we haven't done anything yet. This book is far from being finished. And I just despise putting the cart before the horse.
And this has been a group that has been easy to coach because of their humility. And they're just a very grounded group of young men that all come from good mamas. And I say that sincerely. That's why they are who they are.
But I'm not surprised, though, that they've remained humble, no, not at all. And I think that also, that's what our program is. And that's something that Coach [Dabo] Swinney nourishes and demands. And there will be no entitlement in this program. They kind of lead the way.
Q. Talking about the best effort, the guys were really up and they wanted to be better than 2014. Do you feel like they are?
VENABLES: I'm not really concerned with comparing them. It's been a fun group to coach. And that was a terrific group. Because, as much as anything, they competed and finished everything. And we still have more in front of us. But this has been a group that it's been fun to watch. Because despite injuries, despite lack of depth, despite some lack of experience at some spots, you've really kind of seen them for the most part get better as the year has gone on. And those are the most fun groups to coach.
And it doesn't happen every year. But the best units, the best players that you've been around, that's something that's a quality that they all have. They just keep getting better, keep their nose down, know how to work. And this group is actually doing that.
Q. How much is Dabo [Swinney] a guy that says, "You coach the defense and do what you want," and how much is he a guy that says, "You coach the defense within these parameters and do it the way I want"?
VENABLES: Well, I mean, there's certain standards that are uncompromising. But he gives you a great deal of autonomy. He's great to work for.
First, he believes in you. And we all need structure. We all need a little bit of help staying in our lane here and there. And he does a great job from just a balance standpoint of knowing what we're doing, doesn't ask a whole lot of other questions.
If something's wrong, whether it's personnel or scheme, he's going to make sure that you're checking your oil, which any great CEO or head coach is going to do and should do. But he gives us a lot of autonomy and a great deal of trust. But you earn that over time. And, like I said, we all need structure. You don't want too much autonomy. And so he does a great job, easy to work for.
Q. You anticipated Alabama adding offensively at the end of the last season.
VENABLES: You know, there will always be wrinkles. There's differences. A year ago, you prepare, whatever it was, six days thinking that you're getting ready for Lane Kiffin's offense; and then [Steve] Sarkisian comes in and he's got his his own DNA. We don't know what that DNA is. So there were a few wrinkles.
And, again, how he's going to call a game, you don't have any feel for that. When you have three weeks of preparation, just like from one season to the next, you will always look at, okay, what are we good at, what do we need to improve at, and what can be good for us? And then they're looking at us with a microscope. What has Clemson struggled with? And scheme, formation, motion, things of that nature. And they're going to incorporate it in their own way. So just like any other game, there's going to be some wrinkles.
Q. Are there any advantages to ?? any at all like the conference games because you're playing them three years in a row?
VENABLES: Just familiarity with their personnel. I think that's the biggest thing. Because we always start completely over, start completely over as though we don't know from Adam. You have a feel for, okay, this quarterback is a monster. You know, he's like a running back back there. Or, again, [Calvin] Ridley is ultra, ultra-talented, runs every route, whether he's getting it or not, full speed, very precise in what he does. Things of that nature.
From a scouting report standpoint, if it's an advantage for us, it's an advantage for them, too. But you got to start over. And just how you normally prepare for any other opponent just in regards to a complete breakdown and ?? because they've changed, evolved, you know, in different ways, too. Because they have a new coordinator and some players have changed.
Q. How would you describe Damien Harris as a running back?
VENABLES: Yeah, I just think it's a huge physical challenge. And they're really good players blocking you and running the ball. And so you're not going to get them down with arm tackles and being out of your gap, stepping the wrong way, putting your hands in the wrong spots. They'll expose you.
And where some teams there's a margin for error. You can step wrong, and you can okey?doke a block. You can be falling to the ground and get a guy down. These are the best of the best in college football, blocking and carrying the ball.
It starts with the physical challenge and the fundamentals that go along with it. And, hopefully, that's what you've been able to work on and get back to some basics, just the fundamentals of the game. And like anybody, they'll have some deception?type plays, but they're not really into tricking you a whole lot.
Q. They've had similar kinds of running backs going all way back ??
VENABLES: Yeah, it's sickening. It's sickening. It's not right. It's not fair. All of it. And Damien Harris ??
Q. People say the same thing about your D?line, though.
VENABLES: Yeah, I'm not buying that.
Q. You were talking about [Damien] Harris.
VENABLES: Yeah, he's a home run threat. He's scary. He's got a great vision, balance, strength, power, explosiveness. Man, he can take the smallest crease and just divide the defense. And he's a real home?run threat, excellent player.
Q. After the championship game against Alabama, were you surprised that that was such an effective defense throughout the game against Jalen [Hurts]? And did you see whether he adjusted during the course of the game?
VENABLES: It wasn't as simple as that. You always want to make some things simple, you know, get your guys to be able to play hard and fast. But we played more than that, trust me. And between our zone pressure and ?? we played a lot more than that, but glad that Ben [Boulware] broke it down for everybody in such a simple form. But that was ?? I mean, they had their chance. We lost the lead. So whatever they did, they adjusted very well. What did they have? 31 points? Scored 31?
VENABLES: Doesn't sound like it was a great plan to me. But I thought the Alabama offense played really well. We were fortunate to play well in critical situations and were able to get off the field and not let them have long extended drives. But they had us on their heels. And it was 14?0, as I recall. So expect another same type of game.
Q. The third?down defense, you guys held them to 2 of 15 in that game. I mean, what were you able to do?
VENABLES: Well, they missed some plays, too. I'm always quick to, you know ?? I'm not sitting here and beating our chest. The end result was excellent. But there's some opportunities there as well. But our guys played well there, too. I'm not going to take anything away from them. We did play well there.