This week we say farewell to the most pleasant and seemingly shortest offseason in my personal memory. In most respects, it still has yet to sink into my thick skull that Clemson are national champions and have been for nearly 8 months now. How old am I? What year is it? How many babies named Deshaun or Hunter are due next month? Why am I still crying? How can I be certain that the here and now is, in fact, reality; that I am not mired in never-ending, semi-conscious, fantastical football hallucination? All existential questions, all blissfully irrelevant today, because: IT’S GAME WEEK 2017 AND TITLE DEFENSE STARTS NOW, NERDS.
The here and now brings us to Kent State and their middling defense: a welcome tuneup for a Clemson offense which must replace the premier skill position talent from its national championship team (yes I’m going to take every opportunity to mention this all year). A 3-9 MAC team with little reason for expected improvement doesn’t draw quite the same attention as past openers from recent years, but it is a valuable opportunity for last-minute self-scouting before Auburn.
Kent State Defensive Coordinator Ben Needham employs what is technically a hybrid 3-3-5 defense, but in actuality resembles a 4-2-5: its “Leo” rush OLB, Marques Moore (6’1” 228) plays in a 3 point stance like a 4-3 DE and its “Apache” nickel/Sam, Akeam Peters, will often align in the box against expected runs despite his 5’10” 183 pound frame. This sort of flexibility is desirable when countering offenses, like Clemson, with similar flexibility (meaning the ability to employ different formations and alignments with the same personnel), yet can only do so much with the talent it fields.
The only obvious playmaker can be found in 3-tech defensive tackle Jon Cunningham, by far the most disruptive player I saw on film. He is similar to Grady Jarrett in frame (6’0”, 295), motor, and demeanor. If Clemson is stopped in the backfield at any point Saturday, Cunningham is the likely culprit.
Mike linebacker James Alexander brings size and experience (though not the quickness desired in a Mike) to the middle, so in theory, the run defense could improve from a paltry 89th in rushing defense S&P+ based on its returning strength up the middle alone.
The pass defense, however, should drop off considerably from its respectable 37th ranking a year ago due to personnel turnover; no returning defenders have more than 1 sack apiece and only 1 returning safety (strong safety Juantez McRae) has more than 5 tackles to his name. No apparent pass rush paired with turnover at safety will put stress on what is actually an experienced group of corners, but the unit must face the unenviable challenge present in Clemson’s greatest and deepest position group: receiver.
This leads to a wonderful opportunity for success through the air with new quarterbacks. Kent State will lack a pass rush without sending extra pressure, which they rarely attempt to disguise. Worse, they don’t disguise the coverage behind their pressure:
Above, Kent State employs a man cover 1 Will bullet with a Mike green dog. The nickel aligns on the boundary side to match the slot receiver, allowing the strong safety to line heads up over the tight end (tipping man coverage) and the free safety to sit deep. This is an obvious man blitz; no attempt to disguise. Due to the blitz, there’s no robber (whether a linebacker or safety) underneath to deter crossing routes. This should not be a difficult pre-snap read or throw for any Clemson quarterback; crossing routes against man coverage are about as easy as it gets for downfield passes. If Kent State shows a man blitz like this, I want to see passes successfully thrown into them.
Additionally there are problems in edge defense and eye discipline, particularly against zone read concepts, which Clemson and Kelly Bryant will likely make its staple this season. Regardless of discipline in edge defense, I question the athletic capabilities of those charged with keeping Clemson from consistently attacking the perimeter in a variety of play calls.
Their strategy against Alabama in 2016 was overwhelmingly simple, hoping to minimize the damage done on the ground and see what an unproven Jalen Hurts could do through the air against cover 3 and man cover 1. It’s the same approach Clemson will likely face on Saturday, with Clemson possessing a similar build on offense to Alabama in 2016: dangerous receivers, but an unproven QB; ultimately more threatening in the short passing and ground game.
With proven corners on the outside, Kent State should try the same cover 3 and man cover 1 approach, even without its departed star free safety Nate Holley, who held down center field in coverage and admirably corralled runs which frequently made it through the front 7. Kent State will hope for Clemson growing pains through the air, living with single coverage outside and generally letting strong safety McRae play robber underneath to help defend Clemson’s diverse run, screen, and sweep plays.
I don’t expect Kent State to offer much resistance to a Clemson offense which will look to establish its formula for success in 2017: ride its experienced offensive line and receiver group to build confidence for the young quarterbacks and running backs. Ultimately, Kent State is expected to field the 91st ranked defense in the country. A flexible scheme isn’t enough to overcome a talent deficit with such bland tactics, no matter the opposition’s quarterback rotation.
Saturday is an opportunity to spread the reps and celebrate the champs. Given Clemson will be experimental on offense in terms of personnel, don’t look for the Tigers to coast to the end when the outcome is in hand; 40+ points should be on the board by the end.