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Straight from the Armchair: Clemson Devours Wolfies, QT’s Take

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Plus some recruitin’

North Carolina State v Clemson
Trevor Lawrence literally sits on the hopes and dreams of the Wolfpack. Literally.
Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

Clemson was amped and ready for this game. Coaches may play it down a little bit publicly, but this was every bit a ‘put them in their place’ kind of game for the players in the locker room. Emotions don’t win games, but they keep you sharp and motivated—this team was definitely motivated and felt like they needed to make a statement (at least in the locker room).

Coach Swinney is a wonderful person and cares about his players (his work on breast cancer and in the community is amazing), etc etc. But he also is competitive and doesn’t care to be needled. He also remembers. (the ‘troll’ play card with the laptop?? Priceless...)

Make no mistake, however, this is a good NC State team. Harmon and Meyers are good WR’s. Person is going to be a handful at RB in the future and ran well against Clemson. Pratt made running the football difficult. Finley will be a high draft pick and the offensive line is one of the best in the ACC. This was a great test for Clemson’s secondary and they passed with the highest of marks. This was the toughest team Clemson had remaining on the schedule.

DEFENSE

Hats off to Brent Venables. Another great gameplan—a schematic victory over the Wolfpack. Players make plays, of course, but BV deserves a ton of credit for how he attacked Finley.

The major weakness of the Clemson defense to date is LB’s in coverage responsibilities, primarily in zone coverage (the ability to pass off coverage responsibilities). You can add in some weakness with Safety depth and alignment issues, but lots of that also involves the LBs. If the opposing team doesn’t pass much or doesn’t use much of the quick passing game—that isn’t a huge problem. Our LBs are elite run stoppers, gap sound, and can blitz effectively. But an accurate QB on third and short/medium can rip that zone coverage to shreds.

Insert Jalen Williams.

Venables went with more of a dime look where Williams was your second LB (but really more like a Nickel DB) with Kendall Joseph, Mullen and Terrell as your CBs, Wallace and Muse at Safety, and Simmons. Williams could match up in coverage and still play strong enough against the run. He wasn’t perfect (on one play where he was misaligned Tanner Muse bailed him out with a great play to knock the ball out of the WR’s hand), but his interception was one of the best plays I have seen from a LB in coverage (not named DO’D) during the Dabo Swinney era. Straight ripped the ball out of the WRs hand while getting depth on a Tampa Two coverage. Impressive.

The defensive set-up/scheme limited Finley’s quick passing game. Clemson’s DB’s were schooled up and ready to make the appropriate jumps on the ball. The timing and route recognition was really good. I mean really good.

I also think BV found some kind of tell on whether NC State was going run or pass.

Tanner Muse has his best game in the secondary (also got a key early sack on a naked boot by Finley). Remember this is the game last year, playing with a club hand, where Wallace was inserted at SS and Van Smith moved to FS. Muse saw his snaps reduced.

Mark Fields makes a jump on the route and bats the ball out of the air—no chance for a pass interference call. Nolan Turner with good coverage, also batting the ball down. Routes were covered with very few busts.

Turner deserves extra praise. He was inserted on passing downs early in the game when BV rushed with three lineman. He needs to clean up a few run fits (got caught a few times on the stretch play between gaps)

AJ Terrell bit on a double move early that should have been six points, but other than that—not many complete breakdowns or coverage gaffes. Terrell was picked on from the beginning, but locked down his side of the field. Mullen and Terrell both showed they are premiere cover corners (as I said in the preseason, Mullen is going to be a first round draft pick and Terrell is headed there). Finley was going to get a few throws. He went back shoulder a couple of times, but was clearly rattled from dogged coverage, pass rush pressure, lack of a running game, and the crowd noise.

The early plan seemed to include going after AJ, but that switched to Simmons after Terrell was locking down the field side (and some of Finley’s passes weren’t showing the needed arm strength to beat a good corner). Simmons got beat a few times, but nothing too worrisome and nothing over the top or on a bust.

Christian Wilkins is just disrupting play after play. His ability to move, react, and blow things up in the backfield is uncanny. BV also dropped the defensive ends into coverage a bunch to try and take away some underneath routes—the defense did not respect the run. I imagine we will see a bunch of that against FSU as well, especially with the three wide bunch formations (and it won’t be pretty for FSU).

OFFENSE

All Hail Lord Trevor.

No turnovers on offense.

Trevor Lawrence still can improve, but this was an impressive performance against a quality opponent. But NC State isn’t great at rushing the passer and that helped TL. The single high Safety defense Doeren loves, where you shut down the run, plays to TL’s strengths.

Regardless, TL got the ball out quicker and his passes from the far hash to the opposite side of the field are ridiculous. Most NFL QB’s don’t make those throws with that velocity and timing. Very hard to defend those out routes, especially in college. TL also showed his wheels and athleticism. He covers ten yards in a hurry (needs to make sure he gets beyond the sticks before that slide, but not a big deal). He isn’t very shifty and doesn’t have elite change of direction, but he can move in a straight line.

I agree with Jeff Scott that TL looked in command of the offense from the start of the game, especially with little things like controlling the snap count, cadence, and little details. His first drive set the tempo for the game and he seemed comfortable with his reads and protections. That was the first drive we have been looking for around these parts.

TL also recognized where blitzes were coming from and burned the defense multiple times. Those are all important improvements and he is settling in. Now the challenge is to do all of this against a good pass rushing team in FSU.

Things to clean-up:

There were only two sacks and one was on ETN whiffing on a block and the other he needed to just throw the ball away where everyone was covered and Oline got confused (probably needed a different protection call).

TL still struggled on some of his deep balls again. This is still very surprising to me and it will get better in the next few weeks. Offense also dropped more balls this week and TL missed on a few passes he doesn’t usually miss (two on the backs and one to Overton were very catchable). One pass in particular was a roll out where he is usually is extremely accurate (it is one of his strengths) and he skipped it to Hunter Renfrow. When you pass forty times, a few of those will happen.

ETN is dynamite, but needs to improve his hands. When he did catch it, you saw the potential.

OLINE

Lots of passing downs and not a ton of pressure. There were a few breakdowns here and there, but no ‘matador’ moments. Right Guard had a few moments, but Gage and Pollard have improved the pass blocking (Gage did have a couple of potential holds and Simpson got caught with one, but if it isn’t called...). Pollard started the game, then Cervenka played and Stewart didn’t see much time until much later in the game, like the 4th Quarter (I’m sure this was because of all the pass blocking going on).

The Oline didn’t run block poorly and the NC State LB’s (Pratt and Moore) plugged holes while the defense put 8 or even 9 in the box, but it was the first time the run game got really stuffed. ETN did run well on the goal-line (can’t argue with three TD’s), but it is something to watch moving forward.

I thought the second team Oline performed well in the latter part of the game. They were fresh and leaned against the fatigued NC State line. Bockhorst and Carman continue to progress in backup play. Bockhorst got out in space and had a nice pancake.

I saw us dabble in a bit of 4 wide. Higgins and Ross on the field at the same time...

Derion Kendrick took Cornell Powell’s snaps and may not look back. Great return to start the game and made some impressive catches, along with some nifty work on the jet motion/pop pass.

Good to see Tee Higgins and Trevor Lawrence start to develop that chemistry. Higgins, obviously, needs to be our alpha WR with Ross over the top, but the ability to grab these out routes and turn those into YAC monsters will be tough for anyone, even Bama.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Not a great punting day for Spiers. Blackledge wasn’t holding back either. Spiers had one bad 37 yard clunker and another that luckily got a good bounce and ended up going 51 yards.

Looking at advanced stats our punting has been abysmal this year. Spiers is averaging 39.9 yards a kick with net yards a punt at 37.6 (the net yards you can kinda live with but it isn’t good by any stretch). That is a 53% success rate, which is good for an overall punt efficiency rate of 55% (Renfrow’s punt helps bump it up two percent) and 83rd in the country.

Kickoff efficiency is 5th in the country. Thank you, BT Potter!

Our punt return efficiency is also bad, ranked 98th in the country. Those numbers don’t tell the entire picture. Rodgers had the big drop against Syracuse, but has generally been more reliable than RayRay and he does a better job of when to call for a fair catch versus grab a couple of yards (RayRay would frustratingly give up those easy yards too often), but Rodgers hasn’t been as explosive to date.

Kendrick set the tone with a quality kickoff return and should settle into that role—helping him be a bigger contributor this year.

PARTICIPATION

I love that Dabo lets everyone play. I do get squeamish with early heavy rotations (see Syracuse) when a game isn’t in hand and I like to go for the jugular when a game can be put out of reach. After NC State had scored and then turned it over at midfield, I wanted Dabo to keep in starters or second stringers (on Twitter) rather than put in 4th stringers at that point (and by 4th stringers I am meaning those who won’t be meaningful contributors—those guys should get their season reps against Furman—that doesn’t include redshirt freshman). I was probably wrong and hyperventilating (on Twitter). ETN was inserted, converted a third and long, and the team scored a FG.

But it led me to dig through the participation numbers (where Swinney and the staff have done a great job managing all of this):

  • Shaq Smith and Chad Smith sit at 70 and 45 snaps, respectively. But they only got 3 and 5 snaps in this game. Joseph is at 296 (after missing one game) and Lamar 256. Baylon Spector is at 37. Those would be three guys who should see the majority of any blowout time moving forward. Save the legs of Joseph, in particular, as much as possible.
  • Guess who has played the most snaps on defense this year and started all seven games? I told you AJ Terrell would play a lot, but even I didn’t see 352 snaps-wow. Granted, he has played that good. It would be good to get Mario Goodrich with 44 snaps, Kyler McMichael with 66 snaps, and LeAnthony Williams with 53 snaps.
  • The goal for any backup or player avoiding a redshirt is to get over 100 snaps. Players like Logan Rudolph at 72 snaps, Justin Foster at 89, and Xavier Kelly at 65, all need to get over 100 and with Foster and Rudolph closer to 150 for depth purposes next season. Really glad to see Pinckney at 154. Jordan Williams despite the injury has 67 snaps (great job by Coach Bates!).
  • Very glad to see Bockhorst at 105 and Carman at 95 snaps.
  • Nolan Turner has 163 snaps and Denzel Johnson 162. Those two players are key to Clemson’s chances in the postseason and they have been given enough reps to grow in their roles.
  • Braden Galloway needs more snaps at TE. He is over the 4 game redshirt and only has 56 snaps.
  • Xavier Thomas has only played 121 snaps, but those are some of the loudest, most productive 121 snaps of any freshman in the country on defense. MOAR. Good move to redshirt Henry with Rudolph and Foster giving great depth with XT.
  • Chris Register has only played in three games. He is probably going to redshirt and either transfer or compete for snaps next year.

WORDS ON FLORIDA STATE

I expect a three score win.

FSU is improving, slightly. Wake Forest will make anyone look like an improved team and they handled Florida State for the first quarter of that game. FSU played tougher against Miami (who then lost to Virginia) and they will give Clemson their best shot, despite the noon game (that does help Clemson).

The pass rush is legit for FSU. #99 DE Burns is skinny, but an effective pass rusher who gave Clemson problems last year. You can run at him, however. #90 Christmas is a solid DT (who feels like he has been there forever) and #21 Marvin Wilson can be disruptive when motivated. Jones is playing better as a senior at DT too. DE #13 Kaindoh is out for the first half after a 4th Quarter targeting call in the Wake game.

The LBs have shuffled and seem to have found a better mix as the season has continued. Brooks and Jackson are emerging at LB. #56 Emmett Rice has settled into a rotation at LB and FSU isn’t busting as much on defense. They have talent in the secondary. Jaiden Woodbey is a blossoming star at Safety/Nickel and FSU has talent at cornerback, although a bit undersized.

The FSU defense has tons of talent and can limit Clemson’s offense for stretches in this game. Clemson should be able to run the ball and use their size at WR. The pass rush will be a good challenge for TL.

On offense FSU is slowly turning it around. Much of the season the offense hasn’t been explosive. They have found a bit of continuity on the offensive line, but they are one injury away from a complete disaster. Clemson’s Dline should feast. Taggart has added a bit more to the offense after starting extremely predictable and vanilla. Francois can sling it and take a hit, but he wasn’t reading the defense early on. He has slowly started to learn how to run an RPO system. Francois still isn’t the most accurate QB and the running game has been nonexistent.

Akers is a talented back if he can get in space. The FSU Oline hasn’t provided that space. I really like their TE #6 McKitty. They get him the ball a few times in creative ways. The WRs are also very talented, but they drop a lot of balls. WRs Gavin, Terry, and Murray/Matthews all can have their moments, but the offense struggles as a whole to sustain drives. Tre’Shaun Harrison is a future beast, but as a freshman hasn’t played all that much this season.

Matthews is a dangerous returner and this will be a week to not outkick the coverage.

RECRUITING

I stated awhile back that if the recruitment of Quavaris Crouch ended today, he would be a Clemson Tiger. Crouch (6’2, 235), from Charlotte, NC, is being recruited as an athlete and visited again this past weekend. The main competition right now is Michigan, but Crouch isn’t much for the cold weather. This recruitment isn’t over until it is over, but right now Clemson is good.

If Clemson can embarrass FSU, it will continue to help with the recruitment of DT Tyler Davis (6’1, 295) from Wekiva HS in FL and 4* OL recruit Will Putnam (6’4, 285) from Plant HS in FL. Normally those two would be long locked up for FSU, but their poor start opened the door for Clemson. It is important that FSU remain mediocre. Clemson gets an official visit from Putnam for the Duke game and then he will make a decision. He really enjoyed his FSU visit, so it is a tall mountain to climb, but Clemson gets the last crack. Auburn was the leader, but they have fizzled with coaching stability questions. With Davis, the longer it goes—the better for Clemson and the more FSU falls apart, the better for Clemson. He wants to go to FSU but doesn’t want to step into a bad situation.

5* Clay Webb (6’3, 295), from Oxford, AL, is my top offensive lineman in the 2019 class. I think he could step in immediately next year and play Center or Guard. He is the consensus number 20 overall player and every time I have seen him he plays like a piece of immovable granite. If Clemson can land Webb then the offensive line class is a success—he is that kind of elite caliber player. Georgia has made the biggest recent move and Alabama is always lurking, but Clemson likes their chances coming out of his visit.

Things remain status quo for 2020 CB Luke Hill. He will take some visits before settling down, but also pay attention to his high school teammate at St. John’s College, DC, defensive tackle Tre Williams who both visited for the NC State game.