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Open Date Position Analysis (Part 1)

A look at how things are shaping up so far

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson has reached the mid point of the season and a needed open date breather before taking the trek to Tallahassee next weekend. It is a good time to analyze the position groups in terms of what was expected, what has occurred, and what we might see going forward. This, of course, is one guy’s take and really intended to start a larger discussion where the good readers can offer their own opinions. The best news is the team is 7-0 and in complete control of its destiny despite more scares than most thought would happen.

Quarterback: Life must be kind of tough when you can put up the kind of numbers Watson has put up so far and be considered “struggling.” Watson is still leading the team to victory after victory and has delivered in the clutch, but hasn’t delivered some of the superhuman play folks saw in the last three games last year which set the bar incredibly high. Watson is averaging around one really poor decision per game and has had some misfortune of those decisions really turning south (see pick six against NC State when a deflection or drop there could have happened). Watson was let down big time by the WR corps early in the season, even his NFL bound stud Mike Williams, and hasn’t been great on the deep throws as he has been in the past. The good news is the team is 7-0 and we all know there is another level #4 can reach when he really finds the zone. Backup QB hasn’t been an issue, thankfully, but those guys haven’t gotten as much work as hoped due to some unexpected close games (especially the Troy game). Next year is going to be interesting here but let’s enjoy #4 while we still can.

Midseason grade: B

Running back: I think we all know Wayne Gallman is important, but the NC State game added extra emphasis on just how valuable #9 is to the offense. Without Gallman, the Pack sold out on Watson and the jet sweep action, played with a six man box a good bit, and were more than happy to let Choice or Fuller get the ball. Gallman started the game strong and was coming off consecutive 100 yard+ games before getting knocked out with a very controversial hit. The silver lining, if there is one, is that Gallman hasn’t had a ton of work with a light load vs. Troy, SCST, BC, and now NC State and should be fresh for the stretch run. The biggest question is the backup running back position where the only guy who has really flashed is freshman Tavien Feaster who sits at fifth on the depth chart. Fuller was serviceable in extended action vs. the Pack, but the film showed he really left yards on the table with poor vision/timing on some runs. Tyshon Dye had a critical fumble and wasn’t bailed out like he was on a nearly duplicate play vs. Troy. The common fans can’t see practice where the pecking order is established, but if I’m a defensive coordinator, I’m more than happy to see the other backs not wearing 9 or 28 on the field. Feaster should smell the blood in the water if he can get the protections down or whatever else might be slowing his progress.

Midseason grade: B- (Gallman gets an A- but the backups pull this down for the group)

Wide Receiver: #WRU has had a tough first half overall. By my count, the WR’s have dropped around six touchdown passes in addition to the other drops which have already equaled the entire total from 2015. There have been flashes of the production most thought we would see, especially against Louisville and Boston College, but the group hasn’t been consistent. The opposing defenses have been good about not busting coverages and the group has had to really earn it by flat out beating guys. Mike Williams has been largely the stud we expected, but has really had some bad moments with drops and two fumbles which killed big plays. He’s also had some route misreads which have led to turnovers. He still is a total nightmare in single coverage and should continue to put up big numbers down the stretch. Deon Cain has been a feast or famine type guy all year. He leads the team in TD catches with 6 but has had some of the worst drops on the team as well. The talent is dripping off this kid and he is another teams really struggle to handle in man coverage. This about the time he took off last year before his discipline problem so here is hoping for a huge stretch run. Hunter Renfrow has been his usual clutch self when he’s had the chance. Injuries have stolen time from him but he should be close to full go after the bye. Ray-Ray McCloud had a hot start but has been more quiet in recent games. Artavis Scott has had, for him, a quiet season, but his huge TD in overtime is a reminder #3 is still a factor and you can’t sleep on him. Backups like Cornell Powell, Trevion Thompson, and Deondre Overton have all had flashes of great play when they have been out there. The start was bumpy for this group but the arrow is pointing up.

Midseason Grade: B

Tight End: I was about ready to send a missing persons report on Jordan Leggett the first few weeks of the season. This was a Mackey Award finalist but you wouldn’t have known it early on. Jordan has really come on as of late and has made some huge plays for the team. Other than the fumble against Louisville, he has been pretty lights out the last three games. The blocking is still not fully there, but he has not reverted to his whiffles days thankfully. Garrett Williams has had a quiet season so far after making some noise in 2015. We have yet to see the glorious I formation for short yardage where Williams plays fullback. Milan Richard is getting more snaps than last year but hasn’t gotten an opportunity to make any real noise. This position is much more of a factor when the run game is churning, which hasn’t happened all that much, but Leggett’s play lately has been encouraging. It certainly isn’t struggling like the 2014 group did.

Midseason Grade: B

Offensive Line: Perhaps the most overlooked losses from last year’s team were Joe Gore and Eric MacClain. I was as guilty as anyone feeling the group would be as good or perhaps better with (on paper) more talented guys stepping into those roles. Just goes to show you can never measure the intangibles of leadership and experience until those things are missing. The right tackle and left guard spots have been the most problematic on the team so far. I called out Taylor Hearn after the Auburn game, then felt foolish when he took home a lineman of the week award, but the rest of the season has vindicated my initial problems with him. Jake Fruhmorgen has all the tools but has shown a bad play can get in his head and lead to more issues. He played a good bit better against NC State, but there was really only one way to go after that performance in Boston. Overall the group has been adequate in pass protection but average at best in the run game. This has been the most evident in the short yardage game where only the super JUMBO package where war daddies Wilkins and Lawrence come in has been consistently successful. This team simply has to get better play from this group if it has any hope of reaching Tampa. Many of us at STS are eagerly hoping John Simpson can get more of a look, though it remains to be seen how strong he is in pass protections and such. Getting Anchrum back from injury is good news for the depth.

Midseason Grade: C-

Placekicking/Kick return/Punt return: I’m breaking special teams up for part 1 and part 2 so the offensive special teams go here. Greg Heugel has been solid in the field goal department but hasn’t been called on for a high pressure kick to this point. Kick return is better than last year, which wasn’t hard to do, but we would be remiss if we didn’t point out the BIG time return Artavis Scott had against Louisville that likely saved the day. Ray-Ray McCloud has been a feast or famine guy in the punt return game. He’s had spectacular returns like we haven’t seen since Jacoby Ford and C.J. Spiller wore orange, but he’s had two muffs (one lost), one dropped ball going in for a score, and a few badly read punts he let drop and roll. The coaches continue to have faith in him, but his leash is undoubtably getting shorter. He is a game breaker if he can get the ball in his hands.

Midseason Grade: B (would be higher if not for the turnovers)

So, no position group is working at an A level so far this year. Yet, this team is undefeated and ranked #3 or #4 in the nation depending on the poll. If some of these groups can get their play up to just an A- level, I think fans will begin to see some of the dominance that Alabama, Ohio State, and Washington have shown this year. The big question is when will this happen if at all? It is certainly uncharted territory for Clemson to be sitting at 7-0 and in the top 5 and folks are antsy. The comparisons to 2015 Ohio State are there, but that team bumbled through the quarterback situation. They just happened to lose their NC State style game where the Tigers did not. This team has not played its best ball, and arguably has only shown top flight play in half of the Louisville game and most of the BC game. The stage in Tallahassee is a perfect place for the team to make a major statement of being in it for the long haul or one that isn’t quite there like the 2012 and 2013 squads.