Ever since the ACC finally grew tired of having its collective tail kicked on Rivalry Weekend, the regular season’s penultimate game has been a tuneup for those of us with SEC rivals, whether the opponent be an in-state FCS program or a North Carolina school (I see no actual difference). Thus, our Senior Day/Purple Out/Military Appreciation contest has been a chance for the opponent scouting report to relax, look inward, and reflect on Clemson; a self-scouting report/wish list, if you will.
This is a league game though, and I did try to find some film of the Duke defense which was worth highlighting. I did not. Only mildly deterred, I looked for Duke film which was worth passing mention. I did not. This endeavor ultimately devolved into non-germane condescension, and to use dbbm’s phrasing, “the defensive coordinator is a tub of vanilla ice cream in a yeti cooler,” and “this defense is the tofu of units.”
STS Cookin’ is for the offseason, not the Championship Phase, and I had to pull the plug before the commenters took offense to the word tofu and started debating barbecues (Texas brisket is superior) and IPAs (all are trash), before hopefully finding common ground on bourbon again. I want my comments section full of Dexter Lawrence gifs and Star Wars takes, with the occasional football discussion for fellow wannabe intellectuals.
So rather than bombard you with the usual technical jargon, the nuances of pattern match coverages, and fancy fire zone blitz gifs, this column will mainly reflect on the Clemson defense and what the Clemson offense should be able to do to the Duke defense (hint: a lot) since I did actually try to put some film together for y’all.
THE 2018 CLEMSON DEFENSE, A LOVE STORY
This is the best unit in Clemson history. Leave it to a millennial who came of age in the back half of the Bowden regime to make such a claim, but I dare you to refute it when you consider the nature of modern offenses (quarterbacks exist now) and the superior competition today relative to the Danny Ford years. This is the most athletic, smartest, well-coached, and mature defensive roster we have ever seen at Clemson, and you should vocally appreciate every single snap remaining this season; particularly these last two home games.
Every position has developed depth. The starting unit itself hasn’t allowed a touchdown SINCE SEPTEMBER — a 10 yard drive for Syracuse following a muffed punt — and the starters’ snap count is hundreds beneath where it was at this point a year ago. Every unit has at least one difference maker (even safety!) and this defense is impossible to run against.
The best part? We’ve yet to see this defense’s ceiling. Starters play only half the snaps, games have gotten out of hand before Brent Venables has felt the need to get particularly creative, and the big plays which were previously the bane for otherwise dominant Venables defenses have all but evaporated. I’m out of nits to pick, folks; there are no more weaknesses to mitigate, and only Alabama or Oklahoma/West Virginia would give me pause in my expectation for further dominance.
I could get carried away in specifics and comparisons to other elite Clemson defenses. But like I said, forget technical jargon and football nerdy talk this week. This is an appreciation gif thread now.
I never thought I could love a player more than Grady Jarrett, never find a better 3 tech defensive tackle to embody the heart and soul of my football team, and then Dabo Swinney went out and found Christian Wilkins; a bigger, faster, louder version of Jarrett the very year he was drafted.
There will never be another Christian Wilkins. Ever. There is no more perfect player or leader to ever grace this campus, no more dynamic personality, no person who has ever meant more to this program. Wilkins embodies the best of times here at Clemson, not merely its record on the field but the program and players Swinney built and molded. Soak it in when he’s honored at the top of the Hill (again). There is no easier lock for the Ring of Honor than Wilkins.
This matchup is lopsided at every position even though Duke has a legit future NFL quarterback and one of the most respected and beloved coaches running the show in David Cutcliffe. Injuries have mounted for Duke, especially in the secondary, and it should be as big a day offensively as Dabo Swinney will allow. Clemson’s offensive balance should resemble that which we enjoyed against Wake Forest and Louisville, though the output shouldn’t get so out of hand.
Duke faces an impossible task in trying to slow the Clemson offense with its personnel decimated. Freshmen who would’ve otherwise redshirted have been forced into action, and are physically inadequate both against more developed receivers and in run support (we will see the same problem with South Carolina’s secondary next week, look no further than their loss to Florida when the Gators ran through the Gamecock second level at will in a 17 point comeback).
With an overmatched secondary, Duke’s will have to compensate and expose its run defense. Yet Clemson’s run game — despite its recent disappointing outputs against loaded boxes — is still dangerous enough to warrant extra hats in run defense, thus further exposing the secondary. It’s a broken record by this point, but the point remains: no one can defend Clemson without a dominant defensive line to take away the run and protect its secondary.
Top priority tomorrow is to fine tune Trevor Lawrence’s deep ball. He’s overthrown most deep go routes this season and he must hit those one on ones to Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross when Clemson faces defenses like Alabama or Michigan. He’s been phenomenal underneath, intermediate, and in executing RPOs, but the deep ball has to be on point or else Clemson will struggle to move the ball against elite defenses. Duke will provide ample opportunities for receivers to get open downfield, and I want to see Lawrence air it out 60 yards downfield with accuracy.
Second priority should be re-establishing and diversifying the Clemson run game (without putting too much on film of course). Travis Etienne still gets far too few carries, and it’s remarkable he’s racked up so many yards and TDs without the workload other All-American candidate running backs enjoy. I would attack the perimeter both on the ground and in the screen game in order to soften up the A gap runs which have almost never been successful early.
I won’t bang the “feed Etienne” drum against Duke, but I still want to see more power, counter, and even some stretch handoffs to get Etienne momentum on the edge where he is at his most difficult to tackle. The interior line is still rather mercurial, and running inside zone against a fresh defensive front hasn’t been conducive for success. Clemson touts its own depth, but is just as capable of wearing out an opponent with its play-calling as with its superior body count. Get the defensive line running laterally to wear them out and soften up the inside runs.
Third priority is personnel-specific: bring Braden Galloway along. The most overlooked difference between Clemson’s success against Bama in the 2016 and 2017 title games versus the 2018 Sugar Bowl was Jordan Leggett. With Leggett, Clemson had a tight end who could play the H and was a threat split out wide; Clemson presented a capable run threat and dangerous receiving mismatch with the same personnel.
Though Clemson has a phenomenal run blocking H in Garrett Williams, he and Milan Richard are still an afterthought when split out. Of Clemson’s tight ends, only Galloway presents the receiving threat Leggett did, but is horribly raw and a liability to the run game. When he’s on the field it tips the pass because we can’t expect adequate run blocking. Galloway needed to be brought along far more than he has already; his redshirt is burned, so throw him in the fire for a crash course so he’s a viable option against an elite defense.
Accomplish or at least progress in these three areas and it’s a very successful day. I have zero concerns or wishes for the Clemson defense as you might’ve guessed. All else we could ask for are no injuries and to empty the bench on a crisp senior night. Many of you may pine for a Christian Wilkins TD pass, and I can assure you the attempt is coming. But I want it saved for South Carolina because I am that petty. When it happens, meet me in the stratosphere.