Needless to say, the official start of the Trevor Lawrence era didn’t go as planned. Lawrence left the Syracuse game with only 7 points on the board but many more left on the field against a decent but not very good defense last week. The silver lining, aside from avoiding a serious injury, is Clemson was forced to lean on its run game, and guess what, it worked. Hopefully this served as the Wake up call (hit y’all with a pun in the first paragraph oops) to the offensive staff: quit messing around early and let dominant running open things up for the freshman quarterback.
Fortunately, Wake Forest offers little to no resistance defensively no matter how Clemson will choose to attack. Statistically one of the worst defenses in the country by nearly every metric, it is actually so bad that Wake fired defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel a month into the season, and replaced him with defensive analyst Tim Gilmore. That such a move was made so early tells me it was done for reasons beyond statistics; there must be overwhelming issues and confusion in scheme and alignments which were beyond Sawvel’s ability to rectify.
Given this knowledge and the fact I hadn’t watched any Wake film until this week, which is also when I learned Wake made this nearly unfathomable move two whole weeks ago, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn I struggled to find anything Wake does particularly well defensively. Many of the problems are exacerbated by injury, but there’s no denying the deficiencies which came to a head in the Notre Dame game and led to Sawvel’s ouster.
The underlying scheme hasn’t changed following the transition; Wake still runs a 4-2-5 with a nickel split out on the slot far more often than in the box against 11 personnel. They play soft zone, usually cover 3 or cover 4, and their pressure looks left a lot to be desired:
Much like Clemson discovered against Texas A&M, linebacker drops aren’t consistent enough to help out a secondary which has largely been the scapegoat for the defense. The play above is a cover 3 FS fire, but the blitz is too slow to matter and the play action kept the Will from dropping into an adequate hook depth to defend the TE seam.
Part of the reason for this is Wake’s defensive line has done a poor job thus far fighting off blocks. Wake’s line is getting stoned or sealed up front, and it makes things even harder on an undermanned linebacking unit. With often only 6 defenders in the box, linebackers have been forced to take on a climbing lineman when they are in the proper gap.
And when they’re not in the right gap, there hasn’t been enough lateral quickness to recover. So while it’s the back 7 which has been maligned by Wake fans, it all begins up front; everyone else has to compensate.
The biggest noticeable difference under Gilmore is more exotic pressure looks in obvious passing situations (though in fairness the Notre Dame was rarely in obvious passing downs in Sawvel’s last game). Similar to Clemson’s own dime package, FS Cameron Glenn moves into a box safety role to blur the lines of the defense and create some havoc; in the example below, he fakes pressure and drops into an 8 man, cover 4 shell:
Gilmore’s aim is to simplify the calls and incite more pressure, which literally every new defensive coordinator on earth always says about his new system, but after one game — albeit against Rice — the difference was evident.
But it hasn’t fixed the underlying problem plaguing the defense: linemen being stood up and sealed out, meaning Wake has not been gap sound. Being sealed out of gaps and failing to fill them is ultimately what cost Sawvel is job, and until Wake can fix what we see above, more pressure and simpler coverages are irrelevant; there’s a clear domino effect when you can’t stop the run, and Clemson’s run game arrives at a bad time.
All week we’ve said there should be a renewed focus on the run game; it’s the identity Clemson needs to establish to not only lean on its best playmaker (Travis Etienne), but also to make things easier for the freshman quarterback. This front 6 should offer Clemson the chance to do so, particularly if Wake keeps 2 safeties back out of respect for Lawrence as they did Ian Book.
Yet if there is a week to let Lawrence air it out early against an unreliable back 7, this is that week. Not to say I want Clemson to go pass-happy, but yards on the ground will come regardless given the strength of the Clemson running backs and offensive line in run blocking. I merely won’t be frustrated to see Tony Elliott open it up for Lawrence from the start and allow him to build a rhythm...unless Wake starts racking up the play count with their own offense.
Clemson should find yardage and points in bunches tomorrow, the question is how many will Wake find? On one hand, the tempo will give Clemson problems and Greg Dortch is a nightmare in the slot. On the other, freshman quarterback Sam Hartman should be overwhelmed against the best front outside of the NFL, with little to no help from the run game to boot. As ever, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.