This year’s open date falls in the dead middle of the season. The good news about that is by this point, teams have the film and such to determine how they are really going to attack you. The staff knows this and can work on approaches to attack said strategies. We’ll look first at what we know about this year’s team to this point and what can be done to improve on the warts that have surfaced (especially last week).
The Good: Clemson has shown it can run the ball consistently against a standard box. The OL has done very well to produce consistent push for 3-4 yards before contact much of the time. A healthy Kelly Bryant has proven to be a strong, dynamic runner and the combination of Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne provide home run threats at running back. Adam Choice has shown real promise as a power back as well. Also, Bryant has excelled against man coverage/press coverage looks by consistently being able to throw the fade and the go, as well as his ability to scramble if things are covered up. Deon Cain has consistently run by coverage without deep safety help whether we have completed the pass or not. This gives certain pause to defenses wishing to go single high or zero coverage vs. this year’s team.
The Bad: Bryant has struggled (and Cooper as well) consistently reading and punishing zone coverages. Bryant was actually putting forth one of his best efforts in this regard against Syracuse before his ankle worsened and he was knocked out of the game. This, to me, is a good sign provided Bryant can return to 100%. There is more to be had over the middle of the field, especially against what Syracuse was trying to do, than the Tigers have taken advantage of. Yards after the catch haven’t been what they could be with only Renfrow showing marked improvement in this category IMHO. Cain and McCloud need to be able to get more than the standard 5-6 yards these cushions have allowed. Sometimes the other team will make good open field tackles, but this is happening more often than it should against athletes Clemson has at its disposal. Right tackle has been problematic in standard pass protection which clearly hinders Bryant (and other QB’s) chances of sitting in the pocket reading zone coverages. Clemson did a little more up the seams against Syracuse in the first half, but the hole between the blitzing linebackers and the deep safeties has to be exploited more when Clemson is defended this way.
The Ugly: Clemson’s screen game has been atrocious all season. This is a major problem against teams using cloud and 2 deep looks against the offense. In the past, Clemson could automatically pound the WR screens against off coverage for good, and sometimes great, gains. Teams are becoming less and less afraid of the perimeter pass game as Clemson consistently fails to execute blocks on the edge and time up the throws adequately. Also, Clemson has not executed a RB screen to take the pressure off of Bryant when blitzed. Screens are the ultimate blitz repellent IF you can execute them. If Clemson truly has depth, then why aren’t certain players who repeatedly miss assignments or fail to block well getting those chances? Clemson is really missing the Artavis Scott, Adam Humphries type guys who really were great blockers in the screen game. If I’m a guy like Cornell Powell or Amari Rodgers, I’m looking to find my way into more snaps by doing this part well. Both have the body types and strength to potentially be strong blockers. McCloud and Renfrow just lack the body mass and raw strength to ever believe they will be great at this part. Meanwhile, a guy like Milan Richard has no excuse for not being better. You really wonder how the staff will handle Garrett Williams should he be healthy enough to play this year. Is it worth burning the potential redshirt if Williams can really add the needed physical boost at TE?
Overall: In reality, this offense has produced better than what most people would have expected considering the extreme loss in production from the 2016 team and the greatest player in Clemson history. What has troubled it is a head-scratcher, especially the screen game which has been a consistent staple of the offense since Chad Morris’s arrival. Who can forget Clemson repeatedly pounding Ohio State with screens to Sammy Watkins in the Orange Bowl? How about Artavis Scott taking a screen to the house to start the Russell Athletic Bowl against Oklahoma? If I am Tony Elliot and Jeff Scott, I’m working on this HARD during this off week. The self scouting should clearly point them in this direction. I really think if Clemson can fix the screen issues, the offense will force more man coverage and press looks which favor Bryant’s skill set. Dabo has already alluded to finding more touches for Etienne and being willing to live with the occasional mental gaffe due to his youth. I certainly approve of this considering certain guys (cough, Richard, cough) have been missing assignments WITHOUT producing a bunch of explosive plays yet still pull high snap counts. We should see Travis touching it at least 12 times a game going forward. Why not use him and Feaster together in that split back look shown vs. Syracuse? I know most folks would have settled for just one loss at this stage of the season going in, but where and how that loss happened has us all out of sorts. My biggest hope is that teams have not found a defensive answer to this year’s offense. The Tigers have to have answers for everything with the level of talent at its disposal.