In a recent spot for Raycom, I listed a few items that I felt both myself and Dr. B would be watching for over the course of this season. I will share them here and throw in commentary as we go along. These core issues are problems that we think may plague the Tigers over the course of the year along with some items that looked pretty good. The initial concept was based on the MTSU and (mainly) CU's performance against GT. I suspect the problems on this list will be dynamic and initial concerns/praises of critically will need to be adjusted...this is just a starting point. I will point out ongoing comments with different color texts.
First and foremost, this team appears to be quite a bit tougher, both physically and mentally. Physical toughness was evident last Thursday in the second half. Georgia Tech’s defensive front looked fatigued at the end of the game. Clemson was able to successfully run the football, and run the ball between the tackles. This fact in and of itself is a monumental accomplishment from the year prior. Along the same lines, I am really excited about the development of R. Taylor and his ability to contribute to this offense thus far (if you need further proof of Taylor’s physical play, watch the long wheel route Spiller scored on last week…RT laid the blitzing linebacker out). The same toughness is seen on defense. The Clemson defensive front has played outstanding the first few weeks, neutralizing the Yellow Jackets potent flex offense for most of the football game. McDaniel has been a crucial force in the secondary. His play has been phenomenal. This defense could be one of the better Clemson defenses that we have seen in years.
There is no doubt that this team is tougher than last season. The team seems to hit a little harder and believe that things are going to go their way. The defense in particular has played tremendous so far and really took it to BC all day. I particularly am impressed with the Sapp/Bowers/Alexander (with Bowers at DT) in obvious passing formations. Each of these guys can get after some one's tail. Sapp played particularly well last Saturday and looked really quick on the BC film.
While physical toughness is more easily assessed, this team has shown signs of increased mental toughness. Once again, with really only the GT game to assess, Clemson fought back from some difficult circumstances. After digging a huge hole early on, the Tigers clawed their way back, overcame more adversities out of their control (officiating) and had a very good chance to win the football game. This shows a lot of heart and character. This will to win and never give up attitude is something we haven’t seen in quite a while. The overall positive attitude throughout the game and into the post game presser showed a team and group of coaches that seemed to believe it had what it took to win.
This team believes in itself. Having the right "can-do" attitude and accepting responsibility seems to be something that continues to resonate from the top down. Again, it is easy to be positive when things go your way, especially when you are playing a severely inferior opponent like CU did with BC. I think that we will see the Tigers face more adversity (specifically when Clemson has the football) against TCU. This game should give a pretty good measurement of how this offense will play against a good defense and how Kyle Parker will adjust to leading this team for four quarters. This is the week that we will see how good or bad this offense really is.
Second, this is a very exciting football team. Clemson has two players (Spiller and Ford) who have the ability to make a huge play anytime either touches the football. The Tigers have made quite a few big plays so far this year. Such explosiveness keeps this team within striking distance under any circumstances.
Spiller opened the scoring for the Tigers with a 77 yard punt return, and also contributed 77 yards on 17 carries until being held out of the game--the announcers continuously reminded us it was a "coach's decision,"--let's hope he can stay healthy. You have to wonder how much longer this season the opposition will kick the ball to Spiller.
Third is Kyle Parker’s maturity as a Freshman. We all knew he had an arm, but I really did not expect to see the poise I have seen thus far out of this young man. His decision making has been pretty good and throws positive (for the most part). It appeared that after he settled down last week (basically after the first period), Parker was ready to be this team’s leader.
Kyle Parker seems to have taken a step back this week. Parker had quite a few throws and quite a few poor decisions (as seen with the 2 INT's and a mere 100 yards passing the ball). Parker will have to make better decisions from here on out. He will also need to move the defense with his head (look off safeties) and not rely on J. Ford all night (which I guess involves someone else on the team stepping up--could be Clear or Jones). Regardless, while this offense needs to feed the ball to Spiller then Ford, CU has to to be able to count on other team members to step up and make big plays.
This team still has not won a good one yet, and there are many reasons for this. To open, the coaching staff takes full responsibility for the botched quick kick last week. This play has its place, but after a timeout while the defense is in a "safe return" is no time to try something like this. Instead of getting all cute and trying to get your place kicker to nail the coffin-corner, why not simply take a delay of game and run your regular punt unit out? This team is prepared to punt the ball and make necessary tackles. Arguably, this coaching decision and poor on-field execution cost Clemson the football game.
Clemson still has not won a big one yet. However, the Tigers did come out and do what was necessary to dispose of a BC team that historically has given Clemson fits. A win over TCU this week would be a step in the right direction, and bring the attitude and ability portions together.
The improved offensive line is still not at a championship level. This is evident by the RT position becoming revolving door for the big guys. This unit is also not very deep. I am not sure how far this team could go if the injury bug rears its head at some point this year.
After the BC game, I still think we are in poor position as a group up front. I will not elaborate too much on this topic because Dr. B has taken an in-depth look at this group repeatedly. The only item I will add is that Hairston was injured last week and his status for this week is questionable. With Jerry Hughes coming to town, Clemson will absolutely have to utilize extra help to slow the All-American DE down. This help can come through formations (TE or wing to Hughes' side) or keeping a back in on passing situations. If not, Walker and/or Lambert will get beat handily up and down the field.
Sloppy technique has really caused the most complaints from me this year. Missed tackles and dropped passes have littered the early year. There were a few drives GT had that were particularly troubling. In such instances, the Tigers did not wrap up the ball carrier, resulting in extra (unnecessary) yards for the opposition. I am all for creating turnovers, but the first man in must wrap up…the cavalry can follow the initial tackler and try to strip the football. The Ashe drop for an interception against GT and the numerous drops in the season opener (J Ford included) cause worry amongst the receivers. This is a group still has a long way to go, and I will be eager to see if Brandon Clear, Jaron Brown, or Terrance Ashe will be able to step in and be a credible target for Kyle Parker.
Clemson dropped a few balls against BC, but the root problem appeared to be Parker's inexperience. Let's hope this gets better. That being said, Clemson must develop a dependable receiver other than Ford. Clemson also needs a receiver that can go up and grab a jump ball (similar to Rod G.). M. Jones appears to be the closest thing that the Tigers have at this point. I will say nothing negative about the defensive effort last week. The film on this entire group looked excellent.
The inexperience at the head coaching position is always a concern. Until Swinney wins a few big games, you have to wonder how he will respond to big games and high pressure decisions. While I think this staff is composed of many veterans who can help Swinney through tough situations, you just never know until it is time to perform (the reverse pass against GT last year and the quick kick against GT this year were not necessary). Swinney and Napier are a fairly young duo, with neither having too much experience at his current job.
Swinney was able to manage the game this past week against a poor BC team. Despite kicking six (6) field goals, Clemson did not do anything that jeopardized giving the game away (probably because BC would have to score on ST or Defense to even get close). This week should give the young coach and offensive staff more of a challenge. Oh yeah, we HAVE to score TD's at some point to win tough football games.
Based on the first two games, there are a few things that I will be watching over the duration of the year. How will the Tigers get over a tough loss? When adversity strikes again this season (whether in the form of injury, poor officiating, etc…), how will this team come back? Football, like life, deals a tough hand some times. I will be interested to see how hard the Tigers fight back when things get tough. If this team is as resilient as it was against GT, there should be nothing to worry about.
How physical will this football team be up front at the end of the season, and will the Tigers have 5 offensive linemen that come out each week and bring the war to the opponent? One of Swinney’s major goals over the off-season was to bring a more physical brand of football to Pickens County. So far, this team hits a lot harder and is much more intense than previous years. It will be interesting to see if they can maintain this attitude and style of play for four quarters every week for the next two months. It will also be interesting to see how well Lambert and Landon Walker respond to what looks like a season-long competition for the RT spot.
It looks like we will get to see Lambert and Walker on the field together a lot more that anyone wanted. It is crucial that neither of these guys get embarrassed at any point this year. It is imperative that these guy improve week to week. C Lambert, in particular, has all the physical tools to be a really good lineman...let's hope we are singing a different tune about his play by year's end. Overall, the line continues to need more push. I want to see a member of the opposing team's d-line on his ass every offensive play of every game.
Is Kyle Parker really this far ahead of the curve? One thing that is evident about Kyle Parker since his arrival on campus is his maturity and ability to perform immediately. KP has been a force on the CU baseball team for two seasons, including a Freshman campaign during what should have been his senior year of high school. Parker has made excellent decisions so far. After the first quarter against GT, he settled down and really played fantastic. I will be looking to see how the season wears on him and how he comes back from adversity over the next ten games. Freshman QB’s that contribute this much this early are rare, and I think everyone is excited to see how KP evolves with some experience under his belt.
KP was clearly not as sharp against BC as in earlier contests. He is, though, a freshman and experience is critical in college football. His completion percentage is low and he has thrown some poor INT's this year. It will be interesting to see him against this TCU defense this week. Hopefully the confidence has not been shaken and we will see a poised QB deliver the ball to the appropriate spots. I will be curious to see KP's selection of receiving targets as the season rolls on as well as his advancement in looking off safeties.
Coaching decisions are things that will be constantly analyzed and criticized over the course of a season. Swinney and company’s ability to adequately prepare for and manage a game will become evident as the year progresses. In game adjustments will show the staff’s comfort with personnel and schemes. I think these guys did a good job throughout the GT game of making constant adjustments, with Clemson improving in all areas as the contest progressed. Further proof was the neutralization of #91 in the second half (move Hairston to RT and provide support with a TE/back constantly chipping). Mid-game adjustments are new to Clemson football, and so far they have gained most everyone’s praise.
Swinney and the Tigers won a sloppy offensive game last Saturday. All year we have heard of this killer mentality and a commitment to becoming more physical. Swinney had better get the offense in gear, as squandered opportunities in the Red Zone will come to haunt this team at some point this year if we can't score from short-range. After the game was in CU's control against BC, Swinney was content to run the ball and the clock out and move forward. As noted earlier, I have no tolerance for dumbass risks and "cute" plays that end up screwing your team over. In fact, I would prefer that we not even need to throw the ball and simply run the iso all day long.
The final aspect is the kicking game. Richard Jackson has one heck of a leg and has been pretty accurate so far. The ability to get three any time you are inside your opponent’s 35 yard line really helps win games and gives everyone more confidence. Other aspects of CU’s special teams play (other than the botched quick kick) have looked really good. Kick and punt coverage has been good and everyone knows that either CJ or Jacoby can go the distance as a return man. With Clemson’s defense poised to have a great year (note, there is not much on defense that I am wondering about), can Clemson eliminate poor special teams decisions and avoid giving up the big plays that have haunted the Tigers in previous years? Last week, special teams was the deciding factor against the Tigers. Let’s see how the rest of the ‘09 campaign plays out.
Other than poor decisions by the coaches, the special teams for Clemson this season have been pretty special. Richard Jackson has shown accuracy to go with his cannon leg. CJ did it again last week against BC. Let's keep up the good work with this portion of the game!