Can I poke my head out of my bunker? Is it over?
I had this article ready to go and then the bad news hit the fan and I decided I'd better hold off for a while. Alas, the summer storm seems to have passed and fall camp is approaching on the horizon. Here's to no more personnel losses or injuries for Tiger football this fall!
This was supposed to be the last post but I decided to split this baby into two parts, Offense and Defense/ Special Teams. So this will actually be the 3rd post of 4 previewing Clemson's Football Season from different perspectives. This post and the next one are the ones that best represent my honest take.
For what it's worth, I released the first two articles at about the same time and the Dumper post got 50% more hits than the Pumper post. I have no explanation for that other than I guess Darth Vader is more interesting than Luke Skywalker.
If you didn't get a chance to read them, here are the two previous articles related to this one:
I have previewed the season from the "Pumper" point of view here.
And I have previewed the season from the "Dumper" point of view here.
I'm calling this the "Realist" post which just means that the gate to the "Devil's Playground" has opened.
Feel free to express your opinion about the upcoming season in the comment section. Don't worry, I'll be taking down all my predictions in this post to revisit in the "Horowitz Award" Standings for maximum crow eating. #Iaintscaredofnocrow
I'll also be documenting your thoughts in the comment section in this post and in all the great preview posts STS has planned for you in the next two months.
FYI, I plan to do three updates on all of our predictions per year. The first will be in August and encompass baseball and offseason predictions for football/basketball. The second will be done in January and will encompass our football season predictions. The third and final update will be done post-basketball in April where the "Horowitz" will be awarded for the year.
This should keep you busy for a while so feel free to read it in increments.
Deshaun Watson's Potential
Exactly how talented is DeShaun Watson? Well, I think most would say that it's not conclusive because he only had 137 pass attempts last year which is around 37% of our total pass attempts. But, here's what we know.
DeShaun Watson's passer rating was 188.6.
Among true freshmen QBs with at least 137 passing attempts, Watson might have the best passer rating ever. Kevin Kolb of Houston (2003) is the next best I found at 153.8, which is 34 points (20%) lower than Watson. This includes those true freshmen that were good from the get go like Terrelle Pryor, RG III, Braxton Miller, Matt Barkley, Teddy Bridgewater, Danny Wuerffel, Chad Henne, and (ACC ROY last year) Brad Kaaya who are all in the 131.1 - 145.5 range.
Out of ALL QBs in the past 10 years with 137 passing attempts, I found Watson's 188.6 to be the 3rd highest passer rating. Only future NFL starters, Russell Wilson and RGIII, had a better rating when they were seniors. Feel free to do your own research and see if I missed something.
What exactly does that mean, Kraken? Passer Rating is about getting "bang for your buck" with each throw. In other words, when compared with the other QBs, you want more long passes, more TDs, and fewer interceptions. Yep, that's DeShaun Watson.
To support that, among QBs with at least 137 passing attempts last year, DeShaun Watson was #1 in the nation in "yards per attempt" at 10.7 YPA. Had Watson maintained 10.7 YPA for a full season, he would've tied RG III for the best YPA by a QB in the past 11 years of FBS football.
I have already posted his elite level TQBR rating (90.8) in the "pumper" post. This is the best and most comprehensive QB rating out there. All Watson did was earn the 2nd highest rating for ANY QB with 100 pass attempts in the past ten years (#1 is 2014 Marcus Mariota, 90.9).
The point here is that my eyes tell me that DeShaun Watson has the most upside of any QB in the nation coming into the season (Cardale Jones is a close 2nd). The numbers add credibility to my seemingly orange tinted view. At the very least, there is just no way around the fact that this kid is special and we're fortunate to have him.
Like Sammy Watkins and C.J. Spiller before him, Watson displayed an "open up the box and let him go" ability as a freshman. His vision, accuracy, defensive recognition, and anticipation were all good from play one.
He never seemed like he was in too much of a hurry and he always seemed to be a step ahead of the defense. There was this calm, "moment-when-Neo-figured-out-the-Matrix" quality to his play.
As you've heard before, "there is no defense for the perfect pass. " We saw one on Watson's very first series against Georgia. When he dropped that NFL-level dime for a TD, I was caught completely off guard. I was not expecting that. My first reaction was that he clearly had a big arm but had probably gotten lucky and was going to be this reckless interception machine. Instead, he repeatedly showed off his accuracy and ability to read defenses by hurting them in the most damaging way possible, over the top.
The ability to drop a deep ball on target consistently and even in bracket coverage makes him dangerous to opposing defenses. For opposing DBs it's almost like being "permanently in the redzone." If somebody gets by you, it's 6 and it's on you.
What About the Louisville Game Though?
It was clear last year that when Watson was out of the game, the offense was a liability. When he was in the game, the offense was electric.
To be fair though, there was a quarter of a specific game where the Watson-led Tiger offense looked less than special. That game also happens to be our first test of the season this year, Louisville.
Louisville runs a NFL-style 3-4 package where they play with 7 in the box and disguise what they do very well in order to create confusion. UL would blitz late off the corner, drop an 8th guy in the box, or run a coverage that was much different from their pre-snap alignment.
On the 3rd play of the game, Germone Hopper had badly beaten his man on a deep route. It wasn't Watson's best deep throw, but it hit Hopper in the hands and should have been caught. Hopper dropped it. You can find this play at the 20:00 mark.
On the interception (27:26), you can see that the play call was for 2 shallow crossers by the WRs on either side with the TE running off the LB/S on a deep seam. This was a great call for what they had been doing to us because if they blitz off the corner on either side, a WR is going to run right in to the area the blitz had just vacated.
Unfortunately, UL didn't blitz this time and the defense squatted on the crossers. You can see his checkdown, Gallman, is covered as well. Watson buys time with his feet and then throws off his backfoot under duress to an open Hopper wheeling up the sideline. The ball was underthrown and intercepted by the Safety. The Safety had Hopper in man and ran from the other side of the field to make the play. Had Watson stepped into the throw, there was room to lead Hopper down the sideline and IF Hopper catches it, it's a footrace down the sideline.
The opportunities were there and Watson found them. He just made two subpar throws. It happens. Over 4 quarters of football, I think he makes a few of those count. Unfortunately, we never found out. On the first play of the next series (33:45), Watson gets injured on a QB lead play and is lost until the Georgia Tech game.
Nevertheless, Louisville will be emboldened by this and will be confident heading into out matchup with them in week 3.
To reach his potential, he will have to overcome his greatest liability, injuries. He and the coaching staff have to find a way to keep him healthy and on the field. Both parties need to recognize that, like Neo, DeShaun is the one. The season is dependent on DeShaun Watson being able to play.
For that reason, Watson should not run the football any more than is necessary to keep the defense honest (which is 1 to 2 times per quarter). I understand that Watson is a fast and athletic runner and that an overmatched defense will line up in ways that dare Watson to run. This is simply a "please don't throw me in the briar patch" situation, and those extra yards Watson gets running the ball are fool's gold. Please don't take the bait, ScElliot.
I don't mind a first down Zone Read run where you can have him run it and slide. We saw that Cole Stoudt could do this successfully. Take the free 5 yards and live to play another day. If Watson can get to the first down marker on a scramble without taking contact, he should scramble and avoid that contact (this includes stiff-arming and hurdling).
If he's got a defender there, he should throw it away and we should punt. He is athletic enough to make sick cuts in the open field, hurdle over guys, and barrel through defenders, but we don't NEED that. What we NEED is DeShaun Watson healthy for every game. There is just too much downside involved with him juking in the open field and diving into traffic for extra yardage.
Thankfully, I cannot imagine a scenario like the Georgia Tech game happening this season. Yes, from an offensive coordinator's schematic perspective, GT didn't think we had the testicular fortitude to run Watson and dared us to run him. However, they did that because their defense had other holes, most notably in the secondary where they were ranked 108th in preventing 20+ yard pass plays.
Morris fell in to the trap and allowed Watson to run it 7 times in the first two series. Gambling Watson's already questionable health should be the last resort, not the first resort.
My best guess is that Watson is going to be near full-strength for fall camp and the new offensive coaching staff is going to gameplan with keeping Watson healthy in mind. I believe that he will be coached to avoid juking in traffic and taught to slide. Furthermore, in games where the outcome is already decided, Watson needs to be on the bench whether we're winning or losing.
Mentally, Watson needs to mature as well. I'm not suggesting he go "full Kyle Parker" here by any means. However, Watson needs to control his competitive nature that tells him to make plays with his feet. He should listen to his coaches and understand that a punt is a much better outcome than a first down with a broken bone or torn ligament. His teammates also need to understand this truth and not goof on him about sliding too early or looking silly doing it.
I believe that this is the single most important issue affecting the 2015 prognosis for Clemson football. It's not the loss of Ebo or Battle or Lakip or replacing any of the depth on defense. In fact, the combined sum of all of those things are not as important.
I think Watson will play a lot more this year because of that recognition. However, this is football and contact is going to happen. Watson is clearly injury prone and I think he will miss some time due to injury. Hopefully, it will be with injuries of low consequence and minimal severity. Those types of injuries can be manageable and allow Watson to suit up healthy and ready to go for our better opponents.
Oh yea, and if you came here looking for a bold prediction, now is the time to get your pen and paper out. If Watson starts all 13 games, he'll visit New York in December (I like whoever starts at QB for Ohio State as the favorite). If Watson starts in 24 games in the next two years, he'll also be the top QB selected in the NFL Draft in 2017.
I Can't Just Skip The Offensive Line? No? Ok.
The Isaiah Battle loss hurts. The Jay Guillermo return helps.
Battle was a proven commodity and had all the length and athleticism to block any DE we may face this year. His departure forces our hand to play a true freshman at LT. The much raved about Mitch Hyatt will most likely be thrust into the starting lineup from day one.
This isn't exactly the ideal situation, but that's what happens when you have a small recruiting board for OL and an even smaller reputation for developing OL. Emphasis on OL recruiting in both numbers and talent level is needed and not just in years we are facing a bare cupboard.
Running out of experienced OL is not new at Clemson and neither is a shortage of depth on the OL. It is possible that this will be the last season we experience this under Dabo's guidance though. The OL board, as well as the talent level of OL recruits, has grown. Since I've only written 262 articles on the subject, I'd better reiterate that having a dominant run-blocking OL is the only thing holding us back from being a National Championship caliber program.
Yea, yea, yea, Kraken, so how bad off are we since we're starting a true freshman at Left Tackle?
Well, here's my longwinded answer. Something that speaks really well about Hyatt is that his HS coach (Duvall Braxton at North Gwinnett in GA) also had recent NFL OTs, JuWan James (1st round pick) and Austin Shepard (starter at Alabama), to compare with Hyatt. Braxton is quoted as saying, "As far as muscle, he's still kind of light for a college tackle. Technique-wise and fight, he's the meanest kid I've ever coached hands down."
Coach Braxton is quoted by The Post and Courier's Aaron Brenner as saying, "I don't think he'll (Hyatt) be in over his head from Day 1 at all" and "There's not a lot to critique in a bad way about him as an offensive lineman as far as his technique."
Coaches can say anything to hype up their kid, what about something more substantial? Coach Braxton also benched a nationally ranked Senior LT, DeVondre Seymour (Georgia Commit) to start Hyatt as a Sophomore. "Mitch was going to start. There was never any doubt," he said.
Ok, now we're getting into Al Bundy territory. Ah, but later in the season his legend would grow further. His performance as a sophomore against a senior Robert Nkemdiche (#1 DE in the nation at the time) put him on the map.
In spring practice the Clemson coaches saw similar returns. He performed well against Shaq Lawson and Lawson is an NFL-type talent that was more productive as a player than, say, his FSU counterpart DeMarcus Walker. You don't want to have to count on any true freshman, but it's clear, this one is talented.
I think that he would still be penciled in as the starter if he weighed 270. Hyatt's inability to add weight (allegedly due his love for basketball in the offseason) caused him to drop from #1 to #3 in Rivals OT ratings and also cost him his 5th star late in the cycle. The good news is that the rumor mill (Uncle Dan Benish) has him weighing close to 290 right now.
My hope is that Mitch Hyatt, while not yet in possession of his "grown-man" strength, doesn't think he has to come in and live up to the hype from the get go. His pedigree certainly suggests that he is special but, Rome was not built in a day. Offensive linemen are developed, not simply recruited. He's got to work on his craft and develop good habits.
Bottom line this for me, Kraken. I think there is a 40% chance of him being as good as or better than Battle by the Louisville game and a 60% chance he'll be better than Battle by the time FSU rolls around. This is going to be an issue of "technique" vs. "Man-Strength." Technique can only get Hyatt so far. He won't have his man-strength this year, but then again, Battle wasn't exactly Chester McGlockton either.
The rest of the line should be serviceable in pass blocking although they will need continuity to fully gel. While we had issues with A gap stunts last year, we were good at limiting a 4 man pass rush. Our issues were usually when Stoudt was in the game facing press coverage where teams could blitz off the edge without the fear of getting beat downfield by Stoudt's arm.
There is some optimism for improvement in run blocking as well. The optimism stems from: 1.Can we really be any worse? 2. The hungry talent pushing the veterans for playing time and 3. Tyrone Crowder and Jay Guillermo should be upgrades over last year.
Crowder brings more meanness to an OL that desperately needs it. His weight (340+) has been an issue and his feet need to get better on pulling (he fell down on his first pull attempt last year) and also stepping and hinging in the pass game, but he is a mauler/roadgrater by nature who blocks until he hears the whistle.
Guillermo really improved his technique last offseason and is a more imposing presence at C than Norton. I'd be surprised if Guillermo didn't start. Norton is going to have to improve greatly to hold him off.
Coach Caldwell's mission in fall camp is to find a "best 5" combination (maybe a best 6 with a swing guy) that can gel together in those first couple of games. Thankfully, we're going to have 5-6 weeks of practice before Louisville.
We'll need it because RG and RT were a disaster at the beginning of last year. Joe Gore was terrible to start the season and was replaced by Kalon Davis. That opened up RG and forced Reid Webster into the starting lineup where he might have been the worst run-blocking OL I've seen in my lifetime at Clemson. However, the move did help our pass blocking improve.
This year, Eric MacClain and Joe Gore are the two voted "Most Likely to Lose Their Job in Fall Camp" after the spring. There are some sharks in the water waiting for these guys to slip up. Look for the intensity to get turned up bigtime on the OL competition in August. Jake Fruhmorgan, Noah Green, Taylor Hearn, Justin Falcinelli, and Maverick Morris are in a dogfight to become that "next man up" at RT and LG.
While Fruhmorgan and Green are the longterm favorites to lock down those spots, Falcinelli, Hearn, and Morris will battle them like their chance of ever starting at Clemson depends on it...because it probably does. If the two-deep veterans get passed by the true freshmen, more attrition at OL is the most likely outcome. Did I mention we should be targeting more elite level OL?
Competition from the underclassmen in the two deep should help make this OL stronger than last year. However, competition is not a miracle worker. I don't expect the OL to win up front against great run-stopping defenses and great pass-rushing defenses. I think we're still a year away from the possibility of seeing that. The good news for us is that, with our schedule, we might have to make the the playoff to face a team like that. I do think FSU and Notre Dame is going to be salty and Miami and Louisville won't be too far behind.
My prediction for the OL is that (in Football Outsiders OL Rankings) I expect us to finish around 50 this year in run blocking and around 45 in pass blocking. I think the pass blocking will be worse this year but, Watson will be better at getting rid of the ball than either Stoudt or Boyd which will help the pass block rating.
From No RBs to All the RBs
There will be just as serious of a fight for playing time at RB as there is at OL this fall. There is a starter but nobody's place in the pecking order is safe.
Wayne Gallman really improved his vision, toughness, and overall running ability as the season progressed last year. Gallman is the most well rounded RB heading into camp and will serve as the starter until further notice. Gallman impressed me with his ability to learn and improve on a game by game basis.
The vision light came on for good at Wake Forest but, the toughness light came on after watching Tyshon Dye physically punish defenders against Georgia State and threaten to take Gallman's job.
This is what competition is supposed to do. Gallman was a finesse runner and by his own admission was used to "running to the sideline and taking a left." It was on this Counter play where Gallman first demonstrated the understanding of "one-cut and get downhill" college football power running in the redzone.
The rest of the RBs can easily be called upon to fill certain roles based on what we need against a certain defense. If it's tough sledding out there, Tyshon Dye is the downhill I-formation type. On 3rd down, Zac Brooks is the pass catching threat out of the backfield. C.J. Davidson is the speedy change of pace (and, good news, after he lost some speed last year his speed had returned in the spring).
When Tyshon Dye finally got his chance to play against Georgia State last year, he looked like every bit like a veteran NFL RB in pads. I was thinking to myself, when did we sign Willis McGahee's 28 year-old brother?
Apparently this year, Dye wants to play at 210 instead of 235 and is already around 215. So for the third straight season, Dye remains this enigma that had reportedly "beaten out Rod McDowell" two fall camps ago. Will we finally see that Tyshon Dye at 215 pounds or have the injuries sapped the athletic ability he once had?
Two other wildcards at RB include Adam Choice and C.J. Fuller. Choice was the starter last year until he tore his ACL in October and C.J. Fuller is the redshirt freshman that held his own in the spring. My guess is that Adam Choice will redshirt and take the year to get back to full health. Fuller is probably waiting on an injury before he sees any meaningful time in the backfield. He should bust his behind getting good at special teams.
Of course, next year the top RB recruit in the south, Tavien Feaster comes in and we only lose Davidson. I'd be wise to expect some attrition there.
I have no delusions of grandeur for the RBs this season. They, along with the OL, are going to have to show me something. I think Dalvin Cook and James Connor are the best RBs in the ACC. I do think we take some baby steps in the running game though and that our RBs are ready to break the 5.0 yards per carry barrier.
This is the deepest WR corps we've ever had and WR has routinely been one of the deepest position groups since 2011.
There isn't a Nuk or Sammy here yet, but the gluttony of WR talent that thinks they are the next Nuk or Sammy is here. Here's my preview: Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, Charone Peake, Germone Hopper, Trevion Thompson, and Hunter Renfrow can play.
Two 5-star recruits, Ray Ray McCloud and Deon Cain, will be added to the mix in the fall and I bet they can play too. Shadell Bell is voted "most likely to redshirt."
We have one of the top 3 secondarys in the conference and by all accounts, this WR corps took them to the woodshed during the spring with Dr. Scheuss at QB.
Will anyone who would like to play TE for a top 20 program please stand up? You don't have to be Dwayne Allen, just hit somebody and run your routes like you mean it.
New Beginnings for the Offensive Braintrust
If you had an All-Time Clemson coaching staff, Chad Morris would be my Offensive Coordinator. As a fan, I have nothing but gratefulness that we landed an OC of his caliber when we really needed one. Morris provided an offensive identity that was consistent with Dabo's vision for the offensive direction of the program.
However, I think as a program, Clemson had outgrown Chad Morris by the end of the 2014 season. In turn, Morris had outgrown Clemson as well. Unlike 2011 when he was hired, Dabo is now a stable head coach and Morris is now ready to be a head coach.
With 4 years of experience under The Chad, Dabo promoted Co-Coordinators Tony Elliot and Jeff Scott from within and brought in Brandon Streeter to fill the QB coach spot. After the offensive debacle of 2010, some fans are understandably skeptical that promoting from within will cause an implosion of the offense.
This time, though, there is no difference in philosophy between Dabo and ScElliot like there was between Dabo and Billy Napier. They'll just be putting their stamp on the same philosophy, same terminology, and same plays.
Therefore, I think that the performance level of the new offensive braintrust will fall somewhere between "almost as good as Morris" to "better than Morris." Exhibit A, of course, is the Oklahoma rout last year. ScElliot called a clean, balanced game between run and pass and attacked all areas of the field.
That's all I want to see on gameday because coaching is mostly about teaching and developing. I realize there will be some of you out there watching with a close eye trying to find the growing pains in gameplanning and playcalling early on. With the simplicity of this offense and Dabo's attention level to maintaining a public appearance of competency, they'll have that down.
I think the real issue is down the road when the players get further and further away from Morris' tutelage. Will the new offensive braintrust be able to teach and develop offensive players on the same level as they did under Chad Morris? Will they be able to evaluate talent, especially at QB, on the same level as Chad Morris? We probably won't get an answer on that until next season.
As far as this season goes, I'm predicting that, if Watson starts every game, we will have our most productive season offensively so far under Dabo. I don't think that this will be reflected by our national offensive ranking though. I think it will be reflected in "yards per play" where we we'll break 6.50 for the first time.
The Song Remains The Same though. If we could ever get a potent running attack going, the sky is the limit for us offensively.
Defense/Special teams next.