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2017 Clemson Football Season Preview: Understanding Clemson’s Offense

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Alabama vs Clemson Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Once again the Clemson offense will look similar to previous years. While there is an obvious hole at QB, all of the QBs on Clemson’s roster have at least some of the skills need to run this HUNH smashmouth spread. Or whatever fun term you want to use.

Obviously before we get too deep into things, the big question is how the QB race will affect things. The good thing about Kelly Bryant is that he provides the dual threat needed to help execute the offense. The problem is how he’ll be able to stretch the field with his arm. If he’s able to do that this offense will run well. If he isn’t, expect a similar look to 2014 when Cole Stoudt was in.

Clemson bases out of 11 personnel, most of the time differences in formation come down to where the TE and RB line 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. This means the OL has to get push this year. 2016 was hard on the running game and the offense suffered. It has to be better in 2017. Of course the QB is also expected to run the ball. The more confidence the staff has in Bryant running the ball the more empty sets you’ll see to take advantage of this.

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 three years but this year someone will have to step up. The initial thought is Ray Ray McCloud would feature, but with his work on defense we don’t know how much he’ll feature in the offense. In one and no back formations we’ll see a lot of QB runs. 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 so much of the OL should help in pass protection, but we’ll see what happens in the run game. We were optimistic heading into 2016 and that didn’t exactly work out.

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

This year Clemson’s passing game could be even more lethal than 2016. The plethora of options is pretty exciting. No one may be as finished as Mike Williams was last year, but the multiple options means teams are going to have to decide who to leave in single coverage. That gives Kelly Bryant some help. Ideally he won’t have to win games, he can just get the ball to his playmakers and they can make plays.

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 2017 if the QB position gets sorted out.