We caught our first glimpse of 2016 Clemson Football team last weekend, a team which currently has far fewer question marks than the 2015 runners-up did last spring. Those questions, however, are quite worrisome, and I spent the overwhelming majority of the scrimmage watching the personnel at field corner, defensive end, and safety.
First, we have arguably the best DT rotation in America, but uncertainty outside at end. Christian Wilkins can and will log snaps at DE, but how many will be determined by the development of Richard Yeargin, Clelin Ferrell, and Xavier Kelly. We are fortunate to have the depth inside which allows us to try Wilkins outside -- he is more than capable.
At linebacker we lost an unsung hero in B.J. Goodson, who turned in a spectacular end to the season and surpassed Ben Boulware to easily become our best linebacker. He will not be easily replaced, but unlike last year there is plenty of depth behind both Boulware and Goodson's likely replacement, Kendall Joseph.
The real concerns are in the defensive backfield, where I hope (more like beg) Mark Fields can step up and lock down the job at field corner in Mackensie Alexander's stead. Without Adrian Baker, Ryan Carter has moved back to corner and it seems he will at least be on the two-deep there. Another player fighting for snaps at field corner, Marcus Edmond, had a nice interception of Kelly Bryant, but was burned badly in the contest and does not appear to be ready at this time.
I am less concerned at safety, where I have always liked Jadar Johnson and feel optimistic about Van Smith's development on the condition he adds weight this summer. The issue here is depth. We do not yet have word on Korrin Wiggins' rehab; players like Tanner Muse and Denzel Johnson will likely be relied on before they are ready for significant snaps, which did not seem like anytime soon based on their performances in the spring game.
This review will follow the same format as the 2015 reviews, but since a Clemson defense is obviously on the field every drive and the second half featured mostly reserves and a running clock, I only annotated every drive of the first half. It's more than enough from which to draw conclusions.
Alley = area between the OT and WR. BCB = Boundary Cornerback, Bullet = ILB A or B gap blitz. C0, C1, C2, C3, C4 (quarters) or C6 (quarter, quarter, half) = coverage scheme by the secondary. DIME OF DOOM = 3rd down 3-2-6 havoc formation. FCB = Wideside or field cornerback. Fire = S, NB, LB blitz from the outside D gap. Green Dog = man blitz when your man stays in to block or is not in the formation. IZ = Inside Zone or Zone blocked play inside the tackles. Jailbreak = 7 or more blitz. LOS = Line of Scrimmage. Man = man to man coverage. OZ = outside zone run or zone blocked play off-tackle. PA = Play Action. PBU = Pass broken up. Red Dog (overload) = LB and S/NB blitz on the same side. Robber = S or LB moves to take away crossing routes. C3 Sky = SS moves up two yards, takes flat, CBs and FS take deep thirds. Soft = CBs/NB playing well off the WR until he gets to the 1st down line. Stretch= zone blocked run just inside the last offensive player on that side. Stack = the 3 LBs are stacked directly behind DL. Stalk = WR blocks DB in front of him. Sweep = TB/QB run, often FB/ H-B lead play to the D gap. TO = Triple Option. ZR = Zone read option play.
Thoughts within a play are separated by a comma. (,)
Each play is separated by an ellipsis. (...)
First downs are separated by a paragraph.
Comments on a drive are in italics.
Offensive Personnel is listed as a 3 digit number where it is listed: # of RBs, # of TEs, # of WRs like 212, which is 2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR.
Play By Play
Thanks again to the magnificent Tigerray of Clemson YouTube lore, who uploads condensed versions of each game. This article is meant to guide your viewing of the game, which you can find linked here.
Keep in mind, this scrimmage was rather bland both from a schematic and play-calling standpoint. The offense mostly stayed in its base 11 shotgun, and the defense in its 4-3. I will provide detail on the formations at first, but after some redundancy you'll agree it is not always necessary. If no formations are listed, it's 11 shotgun vs 4-3. The main takeaways are the personnel.
WHITE Defense, 15:00, Orange 35 (yardline)
1st & 10, 11 shotgun vs 4-3 Over (Wilkins at SDE, Boulware at WILL, Judah Davis at MIKE, Jalen Williams at SAM), IZ to Gallman met in the backfield by Ferrell, who got inside of Mitch Hyatt quite nicely...2nd & 10, ESPN producers stayed on the feed zoomed in on Watson til after the snap again, no clue what the coverage was but Williams and Denzel Johnson both chase Hunter Renfrow from 5 yards behind, Watson rolls out and hits him deep...
Best view I could get...looks like it's man under since Williams (the SAM) is chasing the slot receiver, Renfrow. Renfrow will win that matchup every time. Not sure where the safety help is, it's clearly not Cover 2 but even if it's Cover 1, Denzel Johnson should be in better position. A safety in Cover 1 shouldn't have to turn and chase a receiver already behind him.
1st & 10, 11 shotgun vs 4-3 Over, quick PA flex rollout (same play Jordan Leggett scored on against Notre Dame), batted down behind the line by Ferrell...2nd &10, empty shotgun vs 4-3 Over, speed option keeper, Watson jukes Davis out of his shoes but is tagged, otherwise he had an easy 10 yards, no gain...3rd & 10, 11 shotgun (TE flexed) vs 4-3 Over double LB bullet in front of man, Watson hits Renfrow on the easy slant in front of Williams, gain of 10...
Watson finds Renfrow again two plays later on a PA out route. Not sure if Williams at SAM is an experiment (last year he backed up Boulware at WILL) or done out of necessity due to the split roster, but Watson took advantage of him mercilessly on the drive.
ORANGE Defense, 12:56, White 47, 7-0 Orange lead
11 shotgun (trips left) vs 4-3 (J.D. Davis at WILL, Joseph at MIKE, O'Daniel at SAM), ZR handoff to Dye, Anchrum seals Yeargin to create a wide lane in the B gap, O'Daniel runs in to fill after a gain of 5...2nd & 5, 11 shotgun vs 4-3, quick screen to Thompson in the boundary, Tankersley blows through Milan Richard's block attempt and makes the tackle, loss of 1...3rd & 6, 11 shotgun vs 4-3 Tampa 2, Watson has a clean pocket but what I assume is sound coverage (off camera, regrettably) forces a checkdown throw to Dye, which is dropped.
The Orange roster looked far better on paper than the White, but with Watson quarterbacking both teams for the first few drives I didn't expect a 3 and out here. You can probably attribute it to Tankersley knowing the plays (thank goodness he came back) and Dye's drop. O'Daniel already looks ready for a significant workload this fall and I liked Joseph's dropback into coverage. Still eager to see Shaq Smith and Dexter Lawrence.
WHITE DEFENSE, 11:52, Orange 10, 7-0 Orange lead
1st & 10, Kelly Bryant at QB, 11 shotgun vs 4-3, Tre Lamar at MIKE, Boulware bullet in front of man C1, PA, quick flare out to Leggett after Wilkins gets immediate pressure from the edge, gain of 16...
Leggett looked like Lamar's man, but he was sucked in by the fake and found himself blocked too far inside. This is where Clemson's offense stresses linebackers and takes advantage of read keys, where the line showed run block and pulled in the high school senior linebacker.
1st & 10, ZR handoff to choice, huge hole off tackle, the OL stonewalled the DL, but Leggett can't block Ferrell properly and Ferrell helps hold Choice to only 5 yards...false start 2nd & 10, straight drop vs man C1, Bryant hits Leggett on a deep corner route, Smith had tight man coverage but he's giving up 6 inches to Leggett, who leapt and pulled it in, gain of 19...
1st & 10, IZ handoff to Choice, Wilkins got sealed upfield and there's a hole off tackle, Choice drags 3 tacklers for a gain of 9...2nd & 1, another IZ handoff and Choice finds more yards through the middle.
1st & 10, fire zone (Ferrell drops into a flat zone while the rest of the line stunts towards his gap, LB bullet blitzes) Boulware comes up the middle untouched, sack...
Finally, the defensive coaching staff mixes it up. The fire zone confuses the offensive line, and the protection is wrong.
2nd & 17, delayed draw, Lamar recognizes it a bit late but flies into his gap and finishes the play, what a specimen...3rd & 14, Cover 3 vs deep go route to the wide side (uh oh field corner) and it's intercepted by Marcus Edmond.
Edmond spotted the ball before Ryan and maintained his position.
Aaaaand we miss two plays while the crew interviews Shaq Lawson but his highlights were probably better than what happened anyway since it's 3rd & 16 for the White offense when we get back to the action.
3rd & 16, Schuessler PA rollout vs zone blitz (coverage indiscernible due to camera angle) complete to Thompson for a gain of 15...4th & 1, soft coverage allows easy bubble screen for the first down.
Fields attacked Scott's block aggressively, but it was 2 on 1 and he did well to limit the play to a short gain.
1st & 10, fire zone vs bucksweep handoff to Fuller, J.D. Davis gets completely leveled on a crack block by Shadell Bell (not sure where he was trying to go anyway), O'Daniel steps in and fills for the stop, gain of 2...2nd & 8, another fire zone toss sweep to the weak side, Yeargin is there to set the edge and force Fuller inside, where he finds Carlos Watkins and Tanner Muse (flew the alley quite well) for a big tackle, gain of 3...3rd & 5, PA swing pass to Scott, picks up the first down against soft zone coverage.
The Orange defense holds the White to a field goal in a goal-to-go situation thanks to solid defensive line play.
WHITE Defense, 3:36, Orange 21, 7-3 Orange lead
Watson back at QB, 1st & 10, quick lob throw to the boundary receiver against man coverage, acrobatic catch made over Ryan Carter, who never located the ball...
1st & 10, deep go route complete for a long touchdown to McCloud, looks like Edmond was beaten early and badly...
Edmond is beaten before the camera reaches him, so I'll only say that there's no excuse to fall 5 yards behind your man on a go route. Once again Denzel Johnson is far too shallow to provide any help, but as the lone deep safety it is understandable that he won't always be able to help the field corner down the sideline. Still, he could've here with proper depth. We have a LONG way to go on the back end.
ORANGE Defense, 2:58, White 26, 14-3 Orange lead.
Watson at QB, 1st & 10, jet sweep fake IZ handoff to Dye, Bryant destroyed Fruh off the edge and Joseph shot through the A gap before the center came off the double team, TFL...2nd & 10, WILL fire (Shaq Smith) vs back shoulder throw to Thompson in the boundary, Tank called for interference...
1st & 10, man C1 (Joseph green dog), deep go route to Scott in the boundary, Tank is a step behind but closes well and prevents Scott from making a decent attempt at the ball (close to interference honestly)...2nd & 10 quick curl route vs Cover 2, Smith is there for an immediate stop...3rd & 5, double LB bullets, quick screen batted down by Bryant, excellent job to stay on his feet against a cut block and disrupt the throwing lane, PUNT.
The Orange front looked very good here. Bryant and Lawrence (in a 3 tech?!) completely overmatched the right side of the OL seemingly every play. Nyles Pickney had a few good snaps as well.
WHITE Defense, 1:32, Orange 2, 14-3 Orange lead.
The Orange OL beat the White DL on consecutive handoffs to Choice, and there was little to glean from either play from a defensive perspective. As I mentioned earlier, the main thing I look for in this game is personnel and individual performances, and here comes a doozy: Ryan Carter played boundary corner on this drive. If nothing else, we can plug him in anywhere it seems.
1st & 10, Bryant QB, straight drop, corner route to Renfrow thrown out of bounds, Edmond had tighter coverage this time...2nd & 10, ZR power keeper tagged for 3...3rd & 7, fire zone, Bryant tries a deep go to the field receiver and it is again overthrown and out of bounds, had a mostly clean pocket but pressure approaching his face may have rushed the throw, PUNT.
The White DL (Register, Wilkins, Pagano, Ferrell) did better on this sequence, but Bryant's inaccuracy was the drive-killer.
ORANGE Defense, 14:09, Orange 39, 14-3 Orange lead.
1st & 10, fake fly sweep power handoff, Joseph fights off a block and makes the tackle...2nd & 5, same play, this time O'Daniel fills and makes a hard tackle...3rd & 2, orbit motion IZ handoff, Joseph flies through the A gap and wraps Fuller up, Yeargin shares the TFL after he freed himself of Richard's block...4th & 2, ZR O'Daniel fires off the edge and zeroes in on Fuller, Schuessler makes the right read and pulls for the 1st down.
After a couple of 4th down conversions and a few runs and screens, White eventually scores on a PA pass in the flat to Cannon Smith. Tank had the flat but slipped and Tanner Muse was caught peeking on fake, he unfortunately needed to cover both Richard and Smith once Tank slipped, ended up covering neither...
I really like Joseph, he's filling gaps well and staying off blockers. He looks like a more than adequate replacement for Goodson at this point. O'Daniel has been most impressive as well, look for him to take all of Travis Blanks' snaps from a year ago; in fact he looks like quite an upgrade at the position.
WHITE Defense, 10:09, Orange 25, 14-9 Orange lead.
Gallman gashes the White defense on consecutive runs before Van Smith breaks up a pass over the middle. Smith was playing Robber (underneath zone watching QB's eyes) and Bryant never saw him, should've been an easy interception but Smith was off balance and did not leap properly.
The drive ends when Bryant is "tackled" on consecutive 3rd and 4th down scrambles (each would've been conversions), which allows White to take over.
This is why it's somewhat unfair to anoint Scheussler QB2 after the spring game. Schuess certainly looked better, but Bryant's greatest asset is taken away in that he can't be touched if he tries to run. Wilkins was back outside on this drive and I saw flashes from Albert Huggins, but the Orange OL largely had its way with the White DL before the drive unfairly ended on Bryant's scrambles.
ORANGE Defense, 7:29, White 36, 14-9 Orange lead
1st & 10, touch sack...2nd & 10, go route to field, Scott vs Fields for the jump ball, Fields wins with the PBU.
This is what I want to see more than anything else: Fields stepping up and winning the job at field corner. Carter is undersized, Baker is out for the year, Edmond is not yet capable, and Trayvon Mullin isn't on campus. This position is my biggest concern, and in my mind it is Fields or bust.
3rd & 10, Lawrence whips the blocker and gets a free rush up the middle, wow that man is scary, Cannon Smith drops the checkdown pass, PUNT.
WHITE Defense, 6:30, Orange 20, 14-9 Orange lead
1st & 10, Bryant scrambles but is tagged as he turns the corner, "sacked" for a loss of 3...2nd & 13, ZR handoff to Choice, Van Smith steps in to fill but has his tackle broken, Choice rumbles for 16...
1st & 10, Renfrow makes a catch over Edmond but we can't see it on the broadcast...
1st & 10, tunnel screen to McCloud, 2nd & 4, Bryant throws a jump ball towards the sideline but misread the route, since Renfrow ran up the seam on the fake screen...3rd & 4, slant thrown behind Tuttle but it should've been a catch, PUNT.
It's concerning to see Smith run over by Choice, so many are quick to assume safety play will be better next year based on the hope that Smith and Johnson won't bust like Green or loaf like Kearse. If that's the case, pass coverage should improve but there is no way to deny they won't be nearly as strong in run support. Green and Kearse were essentially fast linebackers in spurts last year and were phenomenal in run support; physically perfect specimens. Jadar Johnson to a lesser extent, but particularly Smith, do no compare physically and to see Smith run over is evidence of the downgrade.
ORANGE Defense, 4:40, White 4, 14-9 Orange lead
1st & 10, IZ handoff, Robinson is double teamed and Yeargin sealed so there's a wide hole in the B gap, but Fuller bounces outside which allows Yeargin to make the tackle from behind...2nd & 4 man C1, quick out thrown incomplete, O'Daniel there in coverage...3rd & 4, Cover 2, slant complete to Scott for a gain of 5...
1st & 10, deep go route for Thompson against Tank, Muse is again too shallow to provide any help, looks like Thompson dropped it but Tank actually deflected it inches before it reached Thompson's hands, incomplete...2nd & 10, ZR handoff, Yeargin plays it beautifully by sitting to force the handoff and then crashing it, gain of 3...
3rd & 7, double LB bullet behind Cover 3 (Muse and O'Daniel have underneath) pass complete down the seam to Thompson in the hole in the zone...
1st & 10, Cover 4, rollout and thrown to Scott on the curl, fights for a gain of 5...2nd & 5, go route to Scott, Fields is there with tight coverage but doesn't turn to locate the ball, which allows Scott to go up and pin the ball to his shoulder, gain of 37...
The Orange defense was gashed but the drive stalls after a run for no gain and two incompletions (PBU by Bryant on a screen and a throwaway) before Alex Spence misses the chip shot field goal.
This was essentially the end of the first half, and with the second half on a running clock and mostly reserves and walk-ons, I'll conclude the play by play here.
Summary & Projected Starters
In all, the defense looked better than I expected. It's difficult to take away anything critical from a glorified scrimmage, since we never came out of the 4-3 or ran anything too exotic. Clelin Ferrell looked athletic and well-coached. If his development continues I think he earns a starting job. Likewise, I think Fields showed that he will eventually earn the starting job at field corner. He lost a couple of battles but did not bust and has the most upside. Ryan Carter looked better than he did a year ago and I like his flexibility to play wherever needed.
I was most impressed with Kendall Joseph and Dorian O'Daniel. Combine those two with Ben Boulware -- and the new blood behind them -- and I think this linebacking corps is a strength. Jalen Williams played SAM (he backed up Boulware at WILL last year) and was picked on by Watson and Renfrow, and hopefully all the 4-3 snaps go to O'Daniel. Tre Lamar and Shaq Smith both look ready for a heavy workload and I expect will earn snaps early in the year.
Based on the spring game alone, here are my projected starters at the conclusion of spring practice:
Bryant was projected on the weak (right) side, but can play either DE position; with Ferrell's development I'd flip him to the strong (left) side unless Wilkins is at DE, then he moves back to the weak. Speaking of Wilkins, he can play 1 tech, 3 tech, and DE, how crazy athletic is that? I pencil him at 1 tech but we have the flexibility and talent galore up front to handle any contingency. The strength of the rotation up front makes the starter label somewhat irrelevant.
I considered including Wiggins as a 12th starter at nickel, but we do not know how his recovery progresses. Right now I think Carter is our "starting" nickel corner, but Trayvon Mullen may shake things up in August.
I'm gambling on Fields but I'm sure the staff called him out as a motivational tactic, not an actual indictment on his play. I am more comfortable with Carter than I was before the spring game, but I do not think he has the athleticism to hold up against an opponent's fastest receiver at field corner. Either way, there's no Mack Island out there this fall.
The rest of the starters in the secondary is a pretty safe bet, but I am not yet sold on Smith. He is simply the only free safety with any relevant snaps and therefore the de facto starter. He needs to put on weight this summer to hold up in Venables' aggressive scheme -- although with uncertainty at field corner and a smaller body in Smith, Venables likely won't use the safeties as aggressively as he did with Green and Kearse. Still, Smith should reach 200-205 pounds by August.