This one has been brewing for a while. Again, we are very happy that we were able to capture the ACC crown but still think there is a lot of room for improvement. So, here we go:
The past year has been a rollercoaster for the Clemson football program. After being embarrassed in the Tire Bowl, Swinney retooled his staff-most notably with offensive coordinator Chad Morris. Clemson was able to sign a very highly rated class that immediately upgraded team talent-specifically through All-World receiver Sammy Watkins. Morris then challenged his players following Spring drills and really got this group committed to his system. Coming out of camp we were sure of very few items. We were concerned following two ho-hum outings to start the season. Then Auburn comes in and punches Clemson in the mouth to start the September contest. Then something impressive happened. Clemson fought back and fought back with a vengeance, blistering their Tigers for the better part of three quarters. Clemson then upended ACC-Atlantic favorite Florida State before crushing ACC-Coastal favorite Virginia Tech in their crib. The Tigers put together three consecutive weeks of solid football (against ranked squads) for the first time in quite a while.
Clemson then played a steady game against Boston College (and got an injury scare from Tajh) before the Sammy Watkins experience up in College Park. In this victory, many concerns became reality, especially on the defensive side of the football. Clemson then drilled North Carolina but again gave up a lot of points and played poor fundamental defensive football.
Then the bottom fell out. Clemson got drilled in Atlanta. Our Tigers then responded after an off-week with a lackluster performance that (fortunately) sealed up the ACC Atlantic division crown. Clemson got dominated on the road two weeks in a row (NCST then SC) before turning a complete 180 and rolling Virginia Tech for the second time this season-this time in CLT for the ACC Championship.
If that wasn't a season of highs and lows, I don't know what is. So, what does this all mean? First, you always hear bystanders and coaches alike discussing how this is a young team and does well when it has momentum and seems to struggle handling good things. This starts with the head coach. How can you expect your players to run on an even keel when you are encouraging Gatorade baths on a weekly basis or screaming at your quarterback during critical portions of football games? I like Dabo's high energy level and think it is a big key to his success on the recruiting trail, but think some of these pep-rally tactics do cause some emotional swings for his football team. This is, however, NOT the root cause of our struggles NOR the source of our consistent play to end the month of September.
Clemson's offense, like the overall team, had its ebbs and flows. There is no doubt that Chad Morris' influence was a major cause of the transformation from 2010 to 2011. While his high paced offense is relatively simple (X's and O's-wise), core portions of his attack were quickly implemented and successfully executed quickly. It is impressive when you realize that only 70-75% of his offense is truly installed. Long and short, Morris has been successful through a simple philosophy that is steadily repeated by his players. The coach mixes and matches the decisions to match in-game situations so that the players are playing instead of thinking.
Morris also demands more than his predecessor and is a stickler for fundamentals. While most offensive players still have a ways to go in this category, you cannot argue that Boyd's overall physique improved going into the season. His mechanics are improving and we look to Morris to shore up some of the footwork issues we've noticed over the season. Morris also does a good job creating opportunities for his players and keeping them from hurting themselves. You saw this with Boyd through play calling and adjustments made through the season.
THE RECEIVERS ACTUALLY BLOCK!! Well, Nuk blocked last season, but that is about all. Watkins does a good job blocking and Jaron Brown got busy on the perimeter this season as well. Why the turnaround? Well, I think there are a couple of guys who are just football players and love to do the little things (Hopkins, Watkins). There was a serious attitude adjustment when Morris told the players that they would not play and definitely would not get the football if they did not block. THE RECEIVERS ACTUALLY CATCH THE FOOTBALL!! Again, an influx in talent combined with a no-nonsense OC are the likely drivers here. As we have told you over and over, anyone can block and almost anyone can learn to catch a football...it is just a matter of wanting to do these items well.
Clearly Sammy Watkins brought a spark to this group and the team. We did struggle against NCST without Sammy and you can attribute most of this to poor play up front but some of it to NCST's adjustments to CU's offense without Watkins. The others have stepped their game up here as well. WE already knew Nuk was a baller, but Brown made some key grabs as well. Newcomers like Humphries, Peake, and Bryant only added to the weapons here.
Clemson struggled up front running the football, and this has to be addressed. Pass blocking was good for the most part on the season (except, obviously, the late-November meltdowns). We are confident that Coach Caldwell is, again, a better line coach than his predecessor. It will simply take more than one season to put together a good all-around line. We did not give Phillip Price enough props to start the season and it is apparent he will be missed next season as will most of the seniors and potentially Dalton Freeman should he choose to enter the draft. You all know which players just don't give a damn and piss away talent via previous STS articles, so I won't belabor that item although it did kill a lot of plays that had a lot of promise on the year.
Andre Ellington ended the season as the back we all thought he was. He is a single cut back who has great vision and does an excellent job accelerating through the hole. AE was bothered by nagging injuries for most of the season yet was able to pound out 1000 yards on the season. All this was done behind an offensive line that got little push. His counterpart, Mike Bellamy, was erratic in his play. Bellamy appears immature and drew the ire of the coaching staff multiple times throughout the season. There is no doubt that Bellamy has the talent to be a star if he can better secure the football; the only question is his desire to be a team player, follow rules, and allow his coaches to mold him into a fine football player (especially with the speed he has). Howard played hard for us on the season, especially in the Auburn game.
Special teams was up and down. Punter Dawson Zimmerman had another excellent football season for us. This guy is a machine, averaging over 40 yards per punt again this season and doing everything he can to help this team. You often take punters for granted but we try to identify how significant Zimmerman's contributions have been over his career.
Catman finished the pre-bowl season with a 20-25 kicking performance. He missed a couple he probably should have made but did improve. We'll look for even more consistency next season, hopefully eliminating any miss inside 40 yards. Compared to last season, this is a vast improvement and a contribution to wins this season.
Our kick return team gave us decent field position for the most part. I know there was a dropoff when Sammy wasn't back there, but that is to be expected. Clemson had some big returns on the season and a lot of these returns set up quick scores by the offense. Watkins kick return against Maryland, one could argue, won the game for us. Punts are similar, though I would like to see more punts fielded than not.
Defensively, we were inconsistent to say the least. We told you up front that the interior DL would be thin and we saw this lack of depth rear its ugly head throughout the season. It did not help that Morris' offense pays no mind to time of possession which put the defense on the field more than normal, or rather quickly, but there was a dropoff when the first team came off the field. We'll miss both Rennie Moore and Brandon Thompson next season as both are good players and Thompson has the ability to manhandle opposing interior linemen. The defensive front completely dominated Virginia Tech in both matchups yet was stymied against the likes of Georgia Tech, NC State, and Carolina. We believe that practice philosophy hurt Clemson against GT. UGa went full contact for a large portion of the week and were able to handle Tech's cut blocks. Clemson did not and did not fare nearly as well. This item should be expanded to other portions of our defense.
Linebacker play overall left a lot to be desired. I am not sure it is an ability issue so much that the players are having to think too much and make too many presnap adjustments instead of just lining up, making a call, then playing football. Gap attack needs to be addressed as does pursuit angles. We were hoping that two freshman linebackers could step in an contribute but Steward was injured after an early season that was not noteworthy and Lateek Townsend incorrectly avoided a redshirt. Stephone Anthony did come on near the end of the season to contribute to this effort. Long and short, we either need to simplify the scheme (that Steele says is not overcomplicated), do a better job of identifying offensive sets/defensive assignments earlier, and/or better equip our players beforehand so that they do more playing and less thinking. Thinking slows down a defense.
The secondary was disappointing for me this season. There were improvements, and Coty Sensabaugh was a guy who we jumped all over early in the year but progressed with the calendar. Rashard Hall was hurt early, and we understand this adverse effect on the unit as a whole. The staff tried to use Xavier Brewer at more positions and that seemed to have an adverse effect on his overall play. Our tackling was poor for the most part and I wish someone would inform Mr. Meeks that he does indeed have arms and can use them to wrap up. I need to point out that this group did play ok after Steele showed more C1 late in the year. There was the Brewer/Hall incident in the ACCCG, but this experiment turned out better than I thought it would...likely because of the simplicity of the coverage and the lack of need to scream back and forth to try and get everyone in the correct coverage. As an aside, I wondered all season why all the members of the defensive backfield needed to yell at each other to get a coverage call. Typically the Safety calls the coverage and interaction after that includes basic coverage checks and, if necessary, a correction from the safety. We saw 20 second screaming matches and a secondary that looked confused for a large part of the year. Confused players get beat quickly and people would blame the position coach. Negative reaction to Harbison's coaching is warranted this year, but our problems are a symptom of the overcomplex scheme itself rather than technique issues.
Overall, we are happy we got to the 10 win plateau and won the ACC crown. Things are never as good as your best game and definitely not as bad as the worst. As you can see, we have good and bad in all areas of our team and we saw avalanches of good play and pits of poor play at various points during this season. One thing is certain, we have the talent to beat anyone on our schedule and did overcome fairly large Vegas odds at various points of this season. There were, unfortunately, times when we looked like complete crap and you wondered how this team had won four games. Moving forward, we would like to see something we haven't seen at Clemson in years-consistency week in and week out. Hopefully Dabo can make the adjustments on the recruiting trail, within the athletics department, and through practice philosophy that will allow more ten win seasons without the issues we saw in the month of November.