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2016 Clemson Football Season Preview: Offensive Strategy

CFP National Championship - Alabama v Clemson Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Clemson bases out of 11 personnel, most of the time differences in formation come down to where TE Jordan Leggett and RB Wayne Gallman are lined up. Clemson runs as fast of an offense as any team in the country, you can’t really do that substituting guys out all the time. Because of the versatility of Leggett, Clemson is able to comfortably move from having two players in the backfield to five wide without needing to substitute. I drew up how Clemson lines up most often in 20, 10 and empty from the same personnel (the running back is green, the tight end is red). Being able to run pretty much the entire offense out of the same personnel also means SCElliot can motion or shift from most formations to the other.

(All diagrams made in Pages)

Regardless of formation, the goal of this offense is the same. First and foremost the ball is going to be run up the middle. Gallman is largely the means of accomplishing this, but at 210-220 pounds (he was 218 at The Big Weigh-In on Aug. 1) QB Deshaun Watson is more than capable of carrying the ball between the tackles. There’s a reason why empty formations became a larger and larger part of the offense exactly at the same time Watson started carrying the ball twenty plus times a game.

How Clemson chooses to run the ball inside seems to vary by formation. For the most part, however, it all builds from inside zone, power and counter. When there is a tight end in the backfield the offense often bases off handoffs on inside zone slice.

“Slice” refers to the H back kicking out the backside end

From there power and counter are mixed in, with the ever-present threat of a quick throw outside should defenses cheat in against the run.

An example of how Clemson has run power since Chad Morris came in

Artavis Scott has made his living running bubble screens that punish teams for packing the box the past two years, expect him to do much of the same this year. In one and no back formations Watson is used more often as a running threat. Most of this is accomplished with option plays, but a fair bit of his yardage came from QB power and draws. If Clemson can line up and run some combination and variation of inside zone, power or counter all day they will. Returning 3/5ths of last years offensive line should help, with all three returners members of an All-ACC team and LT Mitch Hyatt may have been the best freshman left tackle in the country.

Clemson got the lions share of its passing yardage on quick throws to the outside. Running the ball effectively inside often makes defenders begin to cheat towards the inside and opens up space. Last year showed that this was more than enough to make a productive passing game when mixed in with play action passes and post routes to attack safeties too focused on the run or outside passing.

Y Stick and Y Corner, a pair of quick passing concepts Clemson runs punish defenses that load the box

Clemson’s passing game was actually somewhat one dimensional. After the loss of Mike Williams, there was a lack of a true deep passing threat. That reflects in Watson’s numbers. His completion rate was top five, his yards per attempt, while good, are nowhere near as elite. Unless they were running play action passes or someone broke a tackle it was pretty difficult for the Clemson offense to push the ball downfield quickly. The passing game was efficient enough (and the defense was able to keep scores low enough) that Clemson rarely found itself in shootouts. With Williams back from injury and Deon Cain having had a full offseason, there’s reason to believe Watson’s yards per attempt will rise. Williams is nigh impossible for a shorter cornerback to cover one on one. There’s no reason to think Watson’s arm strength was the thing keeping Clemson from showing a deep passing game last year. If Clemson can come out and burn teams over the top a handful of times a game for creeping close to the line of scrimmage, it gives more space for everything to operate underneath.

The pieces of the offense complement each other. Inside running forces defenses to react in a way that tends to open up outside passing. Outside passing and inside running can’t be shut down (barring superior talent, and that seems extremely unlikely) without exposing a defense to big plays. This is college football, and stranger things have happened, but I really struggle to see how a defense will be able to contain this offense in 2016.