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In-Depth: VaTech falls to Clemson Tigers

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Clemson v Virginia Tech
Look at the height on that leg kick.
Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

(I write this with a heavy heart, I’m very close to the shootings in Las Vegas. Best wishes and prayers to all impacted.)

In these write ups, I feel like my job is to try and point out some of the warts of the team. I like to think that we go under the hood a bit and poke and prod. I’m beginning from a critical perspective (I don’t want folks to think that I am always raging for no reason). Against Boston College this team didn’t play to a standard and I tried to point that out (constructively for the most part). In this game the coaches and players deserve a ton of credit and praise. I’m still going to try and point to a few warts, however, but I’m going to start with some players deserving of extra praise.

Clemson is in the drivers seat, which is its own unique challenge (it was the challenge at the beginning of last season). Hopefully we can continue to stay healthy and execute at a high level.

Kelly Bryant

Pocket presence improved tremendously. He hit just enough really nice deep throws (to McCloud, Renfrow, and two great balls to Cain in the two minute drill) to keep Bud Foster and VT honest. In the second half Bud brought an extra Safety into the box with more regularity, but the game was in hand. The best throw of the night was to Feaster leaking out in the flat after Bryant had read through his deep progression and McCloud on a dig route over the middle. He found a wide open Feaster for the touchdown (more passes to Feaster in the flats and involvement in the passing game!!). That was a legit read where KB deserves credit and the Oline for protecting.

KB certainly showed some of his flaws. He is going to struggle in the pocket at times. He is going to miss on some deep routes (the balls to Cain and Higgins were easy TDs and easy throws he can make). That is ok if he can hit enough of those deep balls. What needs to get corrected is his throwing high on easy layup passes at the line of scrimmage. He missed Cain on a screen and Cain on an easy first down that were just airmailed for no reason. The good thing is he can do it, it is just a matter of consistency and confidence.

What can’t be taught is his athleticism. Coming into the season I said there is no way KB doesn’t see the field as a runner. KB will help this team win, but it will be different than the past. Make no mistake this was probably KB’s toughest test remaining on the schedule with the road environment and a good Foster defense, and he passed gliding down the field.

Ryan Carter

I love being wrong. And I was wrong on Carter. In high school he was small, packed a punch, but played Safety at 5’9. He was fast, but never a 4.4 guy. He also wasn’t the most mature player early in his Clemson career.

Well, he played with great technique against VT. With Mullen sidelined as a precaution due to the concussion, Carter and Fields stepped up and played some of their best football to date (the last TD was more on Denzel Johnson not getting over than it was on Carter). Carter was solid in run support and his pogo stick reflexes to bat down the ball were textbook. Cam Phillips is one of the better receivers Clemson will see all year. Great positioning, great technique. Carter continues to give the defense versatility (which allows BV to be multiple in formations and attacking the offense) and tenacity. Solid on coverage teams as well.

I think the Coach Reed and Coach Conn split of DB responsibilities has been a huge success to date.

Dorian O’Daniel

Dorian. O. Daniel. He makes this defense fierce. DOD’s ability to cover in space (slot receivers and TEs) and still attack the run makes the defense elite. He has the speed to set the edge and cover the flats. His improvement in coverage and understanding of where he needs to be on the field allows BV to make all these awesome, complex calls.

The second pick-six in as many games sealed the victory.

A quick aside, the staff should be commended for their ability to teach the defense and get the players to not only buy-in but understand what they are doing. This also is a credit to recruiting smart, instinctual players. Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell are great examples. Playing DE for BV requires knowing how to line-up all over the field. We have added a zone game where DEs drop and are effective in coverage because players understand what they are doing. Joseph is another heady, instinctual player. Impressive.

Austin Bryant

I’ll use the above as a segue to talk about Bryant.

Is there a more improved player on this defense? Bryant was good as a true freshman, but still had a long way to go. He was great in Fall camp last year until he was hurt and wasn’t the same player when he came back at the end of last year with the tricky foot injury. He has been a cyberwolf at DE thus far. The way he caught the point of the ball on his interception? Not fair.

This is what allows BV to send his lethal zone blitzes, only sending four, and dropping Bryant into zone coverage. When he sends five on a delayed blitz (bringing Simmons behind Joseph or Lamar, it is lights out—Simmons is great at blitzing if you haven’t noticed, he is so quick and fast that he gets home remarkably well).

Bryant is long. In excellent shape at a svelte 265-270. He can set the edge and drop back in space and move tremendously well for a guy his size. His destruction of the 4th down bubble screen pass was my favorite play of the game. He just rips guys down with one hand. Those tiny VT receivers, I almost felt bad for how our guys were just throwing them around like rag dolls. I think we need to start considering Bryant as another potential first round departure. He is playing at that high of a level.

Ok, on to a few nitpicking critical observations:

Special Teams

Kudos to the coaching staff for sniffing out the fake FG. Last year Fuente got us on the fake punt play and stopping the FG was another momentum shift.

I thought the punting was a disaster but I went back and it wasn’t as bad as I thought. Two punts that went to the twenty yard line should have been hit deeper. The line drive punt was a disaster and effectively cost the team six points (you take away that score and the junk time score and VT only scored three points—wow). Punt coverage still needs a bit of work, but I like the personnel.

Kickoff coverage was awesome. Rock solid. Kickoffs need another yard or two in depth. I’m not going to get on Spence for the missed 41 yarder. He hit his extra points and the chip shot FG. It was a tough road environment, but he needs to hit almost everything within thirty yards (I will leave it at that).

Offense

No turnovers. This was huge. KB didn’t put the ball in jeopardy all night (other than a few overthrown balls, I guess the Cain ball on the first screen was in jeopardy but nothing else). Foster prides himself on aggressive pressure and forcing bad decisions/turnovers. After two interceptions against BC, this was an important part of this game.

The goal-line flinch on third down and goal from the one was on Richard before it was on Wilkins. I’ve stared at the Falcinelli snap infraction call a bunch and I still don’t see it.

I liked the call to go for it on fourth and one, from the one yard line, up 17-3. Feaster showed great strength. I’m also fine with the carries that Fuller got in the game. I think he is a great off the bench player, just not a starter. Feature Feaster, sprinkle in Etienne for ten carries and get him in space, and come back to Fuller as a compliment in big games.

Wide receivers missed some contested catches. Not a big deal because VT had good coverage, but surprised at the number of drops. Overton, Renfrow, and Cain all had balls in their hands that were then dropped. Cain did have some nice yards after the catch (get out of the way Richard or block somebody!). Cain is ready to breakout once KB gains a bit more confidence to sit in the pocket and attack down the field.

Etienne almost had a fumble. It was very close.

Glad to see some jet sweeps and getting McCloud the ball in space. We need to keep utilizing his talents in the open field along with Feaster.

Offensive line played its best game to date. The VaTech front four hadn’t gotten pressure without bringing extra guys in past games. Clemson’s Oline held up in pass pro for the most part and was effective running the ball against the robber looks. Crowder missed a few blocks, Hyatt got beaten a few times, but overall I was pleased. Anchrum stepped up and has taken over the RT position for the most part.

We struggled in the second half on offense, but a lot of that was with some uncharacteristic negative plays, penalties, and sacks taken. Then you combine that with a more conservative approach and Foster keying in on the run and you get largely shut down. I’m ok with that because ScElliott obviously decided to just try and win the game with the defense up two-three scores. KB hasn’t made

Defense

Turnovers! A forced fumble by the DexStar (I thought he looked a little better this game health-wise). Two insane interceptions and a couple other missed opportunities. This is the ball hawking element that the defense has been missing and if this can continue—then we can start talking about 91’ level defense.

Three three and outs to start the game on the road. Magnifique. That set the tone early.

VT’s TE/HB was getting blown up all night. Such a difference between this year and last. That really is a key position in a spread, split zone system that both teams run.

Thanks to Bryant and DOD and Ferrell our perimeter run defense is insane. Those plays are likely tfls for our defense, even against VT’s speediest receivers.

On one play Van Smith and Jalen Williams let a WR slip by in coverage, but other than that the DBs played with pretty good eye discipline with everything VT was trying (a couple other small busts, one on Muse and some on Davis, but nothing major). Clemson kept everything in front of them on defense and made VT earn their yards and drives.

Mark Fields needed to step up with Mullen and Edmond out and he played his best game to date. He is trusting his technique more and had a great pass deflection, doing just enough to not get called for pass interference.

Speaking of refs, they were letting them play. They could have called targeting on the Hokies a couple of times (probably good no calls, but very close nonetheless), but the lack of holding calls against this defense is getting silly (at least they aren’t calling them on us either).

We really only missed badly on one run fit all night (either on Davis or Joseph). We stuffed the RBs for the most part and bottled up the QB power.

Glad to see Huggins getting more reps with the second team.

I’m not going to do any JD Davis bashing today (especially not after what Dabo said today in his presser). He played well overall. He is playing better than I ever thought. I’d still be playing Smith and Skalski in front of him, but understand that trust issue is paramount with BV.

I’m becoming an even bigger fan of Isaiah Simmons. Venables most lethal blitzes come when he only sends four, but drops a DE into coverage, confusing the QB. Usually Joseph blitzes and he is effective. But Simmons is so fast and so quick coming on a delayed blitz that he gets home remarkably well. He just needs to catch these interceptions (which is crazy because he was a great WR/TE prospect in high school and had offers to play WR at P5 schools).

K’von Wallace played a good bit of corner with Mullen out and acquitted himself nicely. He can play any DB position on the team.

Hokies jingle them keys on third downs? I can’t stand artificial noise makers (cowbells or keys). It feels so cheap and should be illegal.

Against Wake:

On offense watch for RFr WR Greg Dortch who was a first down machine against FSU, converting 7 first downs on ten receptions. Wake’s QB has a good enough arm to challenge our DBs down the field.

On defense Wake has solid play across the board. Two really good Safeties, CB Henderson, and a pretty deep, undersized defensive line led by Duke Ejiofor who had 10.5 sacks last year and 17 tfl. Ejiofor was triple teamed at times by FSU and he still had 8 tackles, 3.5 tfl, and a sack.

Wake Forest is a good team. I was impressed with how well they played against FSU. Swinney is right—wake up and show up (and also don’t massively rotate players until up by two scores).