Overall, Clemson has a very favorable schedule down the stretch with South Carolina likely the only ranked team our Tigers will play the rest of this regular football season. What we will be watching is whether this team can stay consistent and come out fired up each and every week-regardless of the opponent. Clemson is notorious for lackluster play against inferior opponents. You cannot forget the meltdown that was Georgia Tech and NC State last year along with a close Wake Forest game win with the division on the line. If Clemson wants to be considered an upper echelon football team, the Tigers have to prove they can take care of business all the time and particularly when expected to win.
Offensively, Clemson has performed well overall to date. There are issues here but without the guidance of Chad Morris and the execution by the offense, this team would not be sitting there with five wins today. The numbers they've put up this season are almost unbelievable. This team averages almost 325 yards through the air, over 200 yards on the ground, and 41.3 points scored. Clearly there have been a lot of positives here to date.
Tajh Boyd has improved over the past season. With some weight loss and emphasis on gaining yardage on the ground, he is now a much more dangerous threat to pull the ball down and pick up critical first downs running the football. He is also more nimble and seemingly able to evade pass rushes and escape from tough situations to keep plays alive and, as he did on the long TD pass to Nuk against Georgia Tech, cash in for the big play. You also don't see Boyd pressing as much as before. He looks much more comfortable and confident-especially spreading the ball around and not locking into one specific receiver. Under the direction of The Chad, there is no doubt quarterback play has improved dramatically and Tajh is approaching the extremely high level of hype he garnered during his recruiting process.
DeAndre Hopkins had all kinds of praise heaped on him this offseason and he earned every bit of it. Nuk has gotten going with an incredible first half to this season-already sporting 777 receiving yards on 49 catches. He's reached the endzone eight times. All this is pretty impressive when you consider Swinney pulled many of the starters very early in one third of the games played to date. He is a confident receiver who is currently in the midst of one of the greatest season performances in school history...this after setting a couple single game records already this year. He has more than picked up the falloff we've seen from Sammy Watkins this year and, at this pace, is looking more and more like a three year collegiate player.
As for Sammy, we were all disappointed in him missing the first couple ballgames due to off the field issues. Some of the statistical drop off is clearly attributable to the missed football games (hasn't played in half of Clemson's games to this point in the season). Others may point to the fact that Tajh has created a great relationship with other receivers (most notably Nuk Hopkins) and maybe Watkins isn't his first choice at this point. Teams across the country obviously have a target on Watkins following his sensational year last season, so I am sure that has something to do with it. His injury prior to the Boston College game contribute to lesser stats against Georgia Tech as well. Regardless of the root cause or the items contributing to this season's statistical falloff, we can agree on a couple things. (A) this open date is a very good thing for Watkins at this point, particularly if his abdominal problem is worse than any of us realize (B) Sammy Watkins is still one of the most naturally talented players in college football. Get him rolling and the opposition will be in trouble having to defend both he and Hopkins along with the other weapons in the Clemson arsenal.
The rest of the pass catchers have put together quality performances. Brandon Ford has stepped it up this season and filled a big concern I had in the passing game with the loss of Dwayne Allen. Don't necessarily confuse the two but don't discount Ford's abilities either. Adam Humphries keeps on surprising me. I was one of those who questioned signing him a couple cycles ago. His effort is incredible and he has enough speed and moxy that you know he will get you the critical yards when you absolutely need them (as in the Wake game last season). Jaron Brown has improved since Morris' arrival and played solid to date. We really need to see more out of Charone Peake. His production does not yet match his talent. He must use the second half of this season to assert himself as more of a "go-to" guy. We expect him to improve dramatically for his Junior campaign-especially with all the talent he possesses. Same with Martavis Bryant. I realize he has been battling a groin injury but we need his size/speed. Anytime you are 6'5" and as fast as he is, you should be ripping opposing defenses on a weekly basis. We particularly need him to get more physical with his perimeter blocking and getting off the line of scrimmage-especially against physical DBs. He is another guy who has a boatload of talent and must get something going later this season and into Spring drills.
Ellington looks much better and healthier overall than last season, though his play has been up and down to this point. He hasn't seemed quite himself the last two weeks. We wondered if he didn't come down with the stomach bug that plagued a good bit of the team before Boston College (even so, he had well over 100 yards that afternoon). We believe Ellington is an excellent running back and very good at finding even the smallest crease and exploding for good yardage. He is still that kind of back but just has not gotten the support needed up front lately. Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with his season stat line to date and he is on pace for 1000 yards in the regular season. We want him to touch the football 20-25 times a game in the running game and feel that that sort of commitment to the run is needed with as good of a back as Ellington.
It is pretty difficult to find too much to complain about on offense, but (as difficult as it is to believe by just looking at the numbers) there is room for improvement. We'd like to see Clemson more dominant running the football-especially between the tackles. The Chad seems to get a little pass-happy at times and maybe he is just more comfortable throwing the ball considering the play we've gotten out of our QB/Pass Catchers compared to the inexperience and relatively little push gotten out of the OL when Clemson attempted to run up the middle. We have to get better up front, but we knew that going into the season.
Several items of note from me: (A) we pointed to the fact that we needed to get more running backs more experience to help Ellington. I still would like to see more substitutions here just to assure AE is not worn late in games or as the season progresses, (B) we asked a lot of questions about the offensive line coming into this season. After an encouraging game against Auburn, this group has not consistently shown that it can line up, fire off the football, and allow Clemson to be a dominant running team. We have to improve there. Yes, I do realize that this group is young and most outside the starting five have logged relatively few quality snaps against quality opponents. That is simply a product of decisions made in the past and there is really nothing you can do about it. However, we need to see week over week improvement here, specifically getting some push up front. The areas we lack here, I believe, are some of the reasons The Chad seems to get cute with the trick plays more than I would like. If you can't line up and run someone over, wisdom says using smoke and mirrors is sometimes required. I really don't like the all the trick plays,especially against inferior opponents that Clemson should be able to roll without such tactics, but definitely think that OL play contributes to a lot of these decisions.
Defensively, it is really tough to say a lot of good things to this point in the season there. We cannot tackle to save our lives. That statement is applicable at all the functional positions. It absolutely has to improve moving forward. This is such a fundamental item that it is difficult to wrap your head around how bad Clemson's defense has been this year (and in previous years) of taking proper angles, breaking down, and wrapping up. The only way to get better at tackling is to practice consistently.
Clemson is clearly in need of improvement up front. Outside of Malliciah Goodman, our Tigers are really, really young. We first need improvement out of Goodman-who has shown little improvement since his freshman campaign. He is a senior and should be better than he is at this point. Equally important is to assure we get the young bucks in there for some quality snaps-which Clemson has due to necessity. I can almost accept one completely lost year here if Clemson assures there will be improvement week over week and into next season. I've beaten this one to death over the past couple months, so I'll let it rest as said.
Linebacker play is another area that needs to see improvement. I understand that everything starts up front and better play on the defensive line would make these guys jobs a lot easier, but reality is that downhill play combined with some questionable technique equates to a group that also underperforms compared to Clemson's recruited talent. Along those same lines, I am almost infuriated with the decision not to redshirt Tony Steward for special teams reasons. A guy with that much talent should not be run out so hastily-especially because you need another body on the punt team. With Willard and Wright gone after this season, Anthony and Shuey are the guys with the most experience here. I think we'll all agree that a deeper rotation here, especially with all the highly rated talent brought in here the past couple years, is something that all Clemson fans should really want to see.
The Clemson secondary is, well, the Clemson secondary. We saw a lot of confusion here this season and quite a few blown coverages because of this. I believe we are all in agreement that Xavier Brewer needs to be permanently moved to the corner position with Meeks and Hall getting the majority of the snaps at Safety until Blanks can take Meeks' spot. We'll also say that Garry Peters is the guy who wasn't really on the radar coming into the season or through the first couple games who has been a pleasant surprise for this football team. Even though Travis Blanks has made some mistakes this season, I am glad he is getting reps early on because I believe he'll be a defensive bright spot for this team over the next few years (that and he simply has way too much talent to sit on the sidelines).
In terms of special teams, it is hard to be pissed at Catman or the field goal unit. We did miss a PAT against Ball State, but otherwise Chandler Catanzaro is 11/11 on the season in the field goal department with a 50+ yarder made against FSU. Add in Spencer Benton's 61 yard kick against Ball State and I would say this portion of the game has gone pretty well for the Tigers.
I haven't really been impressed with the other aspects of our kicking game. The punts have largely been inconsistent as have the kickoffs. These inconsistencies mean that Clemson must do a good job running lanes and getting where they have to get. Covering kicks is a true team effort as one player out of position could easily mean a big play for the opponent. Inconsistency can also be seen with the return game. Clemson has not been as explosive as previous years. Thus, where we almost expected something big before when the opponent kicked, we really don't have that luxury this season.