This week, the Clemson Tigers gear up to play...no one, as the team is off this Saturday thanks to their designated bye week. As always, their time is instead spent engaging in community service in very productive ways
In the meantime, this perfectly placed bye week is a perfect time to take stock and catch our breath in what had suddenly become an emotionally packed couple of weeks with the transfer of Kelly Bryant, the emotional Syracuse game in which quarterback Chase Brice became a legend, and the unfortunate passing of former running back CJ Fuller.
With perhaps the biggest game of the season in NC State looming next Saturday, let’s take stock of where the team stands in the bye week and what we could expect to see in the next six games:
In both his time splitting snaps and through one (and a half) games as a full-time starter, Trevor Lawrence continues to show signs of growth and big-play ability in the passing game. Through the first six games (in which he’s only been a full-time starter for two games), Lawrence has thrown for 868 yards, 11 touchdowns, and two interceptions while compiling a passer rating of 174.2 and an adjusted QBR of 74.1. While he has endured his growing pains as a quarterback (holding onto ball too long, taking unnecessary hits), experience will be Lawrence’s best teacher. Since being named a starter, quarterback runs have decreased, and it’s probably been for the better (more on that in a bit).
At receiver, sophomore Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross have become the two biggest threats on the outside for the Tigers. Ross has been as good as advertised, and has developed a nice rapport with Lawrence. Higgins leads the team in receiving yards with 307 yards, while Ross leads the group in touchdowns with four. Higgins has grown more physical in his second year on the boundary position, and has been a surprisingly willing blocker. Rodgers has had his down moments, but demonstrated his playmaking potential. And Hunter Renfrow is...we know who he is. The emphasis for the coaching staff was clearly in improving the passing game, which is likely what led to Lawrence’s promotion over Bryant, who still seemed less reluctant and able to push the ball downfield. Clemson is ranked a modest 54th in passing at 250.2 yards per game, which will only improve as Lawrence becomes more experienced as a starter.
The biggest weakness for the offense thus far has been the offensive line in pass protection. Through six weeks, tackles Mitch Hyatt and Tremayne Anchrum have been the most consistent of the bunch. After a rough showing against Texas A&M, Justin Falcinelli appears to have regained his groove. Right guard continues to be an issue. A combination of Sean Pollard and Cade Stewart have proven unable to contend with pressure in pass protection. Stewart has been especially overwhelmed, and teams even made a point to bring pressure from that right side in the last two weeks. Swinney’s benching of the entire first-team against Georgia Southern lit a fire under the group then. Maybe answers, consistency, and focus are found in the bye-week. For now, the O-line remains a concern heading into future ACC contests against more physical athletic D-lines like NC State, Florida State, and Boston College.
I will give this group props in the running game though, as the Tigers entered the bye week ranked fifth in the country in rushing with a whooping average of 280.8 yards per game. Per the words of one of our writers, dominance begets dominance, no matter who it’s against. The Tigers’ 471 rushing yards against an ACC opponent on the road was nothing short of impressive. Travis Etienne has become the feature back fans have been clamoring for, as Clemson’s outside counter play s among the most dangerous and effective play in their arsenal. Entering the bye week, ETN is college football’s fourth-leading rusher with 761 yards. Additionally, Tavien Feaster and Adam Choice continue providing effective depth and change of pace, while Lyn-J Dixon has proven quite a pleasant surprise with his ability to hit the hole and his effectiveness in pass protection.
The emphasis for the coaching staff this season was clearly in improving the passing game, which is likely what led to Lawrence’s promotion over Bryant, who still seemed less reluctant and able to push the ball downfield. Clemson is ranked a modest 54th in passing at 250.2 yards per game, which will only improve as Lawrence becomes more experienced as a starter. Needless to say, the Tigers are improving in hitting explosive plays in the passing game, especially in the middle of the field. It’s also aided in clearing the line of scrimmage and providing better running lanes for the backs.
The key for the offense in these final weeks are establishing a clear identity. Based on experience and performance, its clear the offense responds at its best when they run the football to set up the pass. Taking what the defense gives with short screen passes, especially early in the game, leads to stalled drives too often and taking Lawrence longer to establish rhythm. It’s clear that Lawrence can hit big passing plays in and out of the pocket, and he is one of college football’s growing talents at the position. However, ETN is the not-so-secret ingredient to maximizing Clemson’s offense to its fullest potential, and the offensive coaching staff should prioritize establishing the run with the Louisiana native first to aid in easing their young quarterback into the flow of the game.
When your entire NFL-worthy defensive line comes back for another year, you know what to expect. Six weeks in, it’s been about what most fans have come to expect: dominant.
As of this writing, the Tigers are 12th in total defense, tied for third in the nation in sack (20; despite playing three triple-option teams), third in yards per game (261), and seventh in points (14.3). Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, and Austin Bryant have lived up to their hype of dominance all year. At linebacker, Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar have proven solid in blitzes and run support, with JD Davis putting in solid minutes and consistent play.
The biggest unit of concern was the secondary, especially when it came to depth. At corner, Trayvon Mullen has been the Tigers’ best shutdown option, with Mark Fields and AJ Terrell being solid starting options. Terrell had a key interception against Syracuse that sparked the Tigers’ great comeback. Behind is where things might’ve gotten dicier as freshmen Mario Goodrich and Kyler McMichael are the options if one of the main trio is unavailable. When Mullen went down against Syracuse, McMichael held his own (albeit with some safety help) very well, and Clemson has had the luck of a healthy Fields this year. At safety, Tanner Muse and K’Von Wallace have had solid seasons thus far. After a bad showing against Kellen Mond in College Station, both have bounced back and been consistent in holding down the back end. Clemson entered the bye week with the 17th-best pass defense, which is very good for a unit that seemed to be overwhelmed against the likes of Texas A&M.
Unfortunately, the depth at safety has not been alleviated. Nolan Turner has not exactly been the model of consistency. He has demonstrated an inability to turn his hips in deep coverage and seems a step slower than the other safeties. The other backup, Denzel Johnson, has been serviceable, but it’s unclear how he’d handle significant minutes at the position. Regardless of how good the defense is, safety depth is arguably the team’s biggest concern outside of Lawrence’s health.
Clemson is not a team that kicks a ton of long field goals, nor has it needed to. Greg Huegel has been the kicker the Tigers have needed. While he doesn’t have extraordinary leg strength, he can confidently make most kicks that are 45 yards or less. He is 5-8 on field this season, which, while not great, has been good enough for Clemson to stay in games and sustain momentum.
On the other hand, kickoff returns have become a non-issue, as freshman BT Potter’s leg has been as strong as advertised. While it’s unknown just how accurate he is on field goals, there’s no denying his potential to become a special field goal kicker.
Rodgers has provided Clemson with playmaking potential as the primary return man. Unfortunately, it seems as though every opposing punter Clemson has played this season are among the best in the country, particularly against both Texas A&M and Syracuse. Nothing much to report on kick return duties, as the likes of Cornell Powell and Derion Kendrick have not made much headway.
Even then, the worst part of Clemson special teams has been the performance of Will Spiers. Even when not pinned deep in Clemson territory, Spiers has not proven capable of flipping the field in any major way, yet the coaches continue to roll with despite his subpar play. The Tigers are ranked 96th in gross punting average at 40 yards per punt. The staff hasn’t shown any signs of going with Carson King at any point, and it’s likely they won’t unless Spiers makes a glaring mistake.
Overall, Clemson’s right on track to do everything to reach the ACC Championship and make a return trip to the playoff. Another huge, season-defining matchup against NC State is on the horizon, but there couldn’t be a better time to have a bye week to prepare and get players healthy and re-energized. Enjoy this Saturday off, guys. There’s still a lot of game left, and the best is yet to come.