Most Clemson fans walked out of Death Valley pleased with our first glimpse of the 2015 Clemson Tigers. To the naked eye, the offense appeared balanced and improved from what we saw in almost the entirety of 2014. The defense shut down an option team -- never an easy feat no matter the difference in talent -- and took the first step in putting preseason depth concerns to rest.
What I love about football is how much more happens than what most see in the moment, particularly in the stadium where we miss a TV analyst occasionally providing competent insight. To properly evaluate how well a player performs, we must either focus specifically on one player or study game film. We at STS love analyzing game film as much as any coaching staff, and in addition to our weekly offense/defense film reviews and opponent film previews, I want to offer a primer with my own post-film study impressions.
My thoughts after viewing the film are much the same as they were live; Clemson met or exceeded all of my expectations. Our biggest concerns were along the line of scrimmage, and the OL gave cause for cautious optimism with an uncharacteristically strong performance. The DL blew up Wofford's interior run game from the start, and when we were able to bring in the second and third units to build experienced depth, the backups performed admirably as well.
Even in a justifiably vanilla offense, Deshaun Watson looked sharp, decisive, and nothing less than elite. I do not think there is a better QB in the country, nor do I think Clemson has ever had a better one. If we do not make the playoff during his time on campus, we either criminally squandered his talent or were terribly unlucky.
The running game was a much-needed and pleasant surprise. All of our running backs looked improved and most of all, aggressive. Zac Brooks, in particular, struck me. Brooks struggled to gain and maintain weight his entire career, but showed the most aggression Saturday. I all but wrote him off since last year, but he earned further playing time with his performance.
As Kraken eloquently illustrated, the area which consistently keeps Clemson from the ranks of the elite is yards per carry. This boils down to the offensive line generating a push or opening a hole (line yards) for the running back to then attack the second level of a defense (highlight yards). My attitude before the game was that anything less than a good performance on the ground versus a lesser opponent meant we are in for another long year at offensive line.
The line looked solid live and graded well on film. This was the least incompetent Clemson offensive line I have seen in some time. (Last year we ran around a slow South Carolina DL, but against Wofford we pushed them off the line -- a huge difference). To those saying, "it's only Wofford" we could not push SC State's defensive line off the ball a year ago. I won't pull a Tigernet and call the OL a strength after looking better than expected against Wofford, but I feel good about their potential development -- which is saying a lot. Brooks' touchdown is a wonderful illustration of Clemson's improved line play.
In the pixelated image above, you can see the line re-established the line of scrimmage two yards downfield -- which would allow even a bad running back to crank out 3 or 4 yards. We have not often seen this from a Clemson offensive line.
The center and left guard doubled the 1 tech DT to push him off the line before the center stepped upfield to attack the linebacker (21).
Thanks to solid line play, Brooks went through the A gap untouched for over 15 yards before dragging a defender nearly 10 more yards into the endzone. Outstanding inside running like this has been the missing piece of the Clemson offense for the last few years. Saturday was a beautiful step in the right direction.
The other pleasant surprise was the play of the DL. Scott Pagano blew up the center all day, consistently getting underneath the center (pad level!) and moving the line of scrimmage. However, when backup Jabril Robinson did the same, we knew Wofford's center was the reason. Still, to shut down the dive consistently cannot be understated, no matter the opponent. We could not ask for a much better performance from a rebuilding DL vs an option team.
I have few complaints with anything I saw from our linebackers, who excel against the run, but I am more interested to see how they perform in pass coverage this weekend. The same for our secondary; Wofford did not test Clemson through the air, and aside from a couple trick play busts, TJ Green was impressive. It seems his offseason praise wasn't the typical lip service, and he brings a similar physical presence to Jayron Kearse. If Green continues to develop mentally, he and Kearse will form an elite safety tandem sooner rather than later.
The band is still embarrassingly piped through the sound system, I saw a Howard's Rock foam hat, and the woohoo has yet to die in a fire.
Obviously the only damper on the day was the loss of Mike Williams. I wrote in the receiver preview that receiver is the one position where we are both deep and talented, but never dreamed we would lose our top receiver on the first drive of the season. Williams is our clear number 1 and no one will replace him -- but fortunately we have talented depth to replicate his production.
Given his draft status, it is interests me to see how Clemson handles his return to action. I know Clemson will not gamble with his future by rushing him back onto the field. But say let's he is not available until November, will Clemson redshirt him rather than letting him play in the last 3 or 4 games -- only for him to declare for the draft after this season? Hopefully it will prove moot and he can return in mid-October. I expect he will play the moment he is medically cleared.
Charone Peake is officially the new starter at the boundary, but I hope to see Trevion Thompson and Deon Cain at boundary more than Peake. With Peake at boundary, we will start Hopper in the slot -- a prospect which delights no one. I do not see much to like about Hopper's game; he is quick but has the worst hands for his position and is barely 170 pounds.
Nick Schuessler did not encourage me. His windup and delivery are laborious and slow. When the ball leaves his hand it is slow and arcing. He does not move in the pocket particularly well. The sooner we bring Kelly Bryant along, the better. To keep him at third string and only play in garbage time is a wasted year of eligibility. If Watson goes down, we need Bryant to accelerate his growth because Schuessler is even more physically limited than Cole Stoudt.