This is not a drill. This is a compilation of actual impressions gleaned in person from Saturday morning’s scrimmage in Death Valley. First, I want to touch on a sneaky stadium upgrade (since I love all these construction projects and enhancements, fight me IPTAY parking truthers) which has largely gone unnoticed.
The old weight room in the WestZone is being repurposed into a game day recruiting center. This is the latest minor trend in the facilities arms race — one which Clemson continues to lead — as programs with gleaming practice facilities want to show off even more with equally opulent recruit-focused areas in their stadiums to use on those seven special days each year, game days.
The logic goes, if all the fancy amenities are in the practice and operations centers, we’re falling behind on recruits’ actual game day amenities. (UGA used this to justify enhancing their entire west end zone and they’re our primary threat in recruiting until Kirby is brought back down to earth.) The southwest tunnel has been refurbished to further enhance this crucial corridor.
Home team tunnel & stadium game day recruiting center for @ClemsonFB taking shape. Complete new design & paint scheme✅new lighting✅new flooring✅ and most important new graphics✅. Install of new graphics starts today. This place will look a lot different in a couple weeks. pic.twitter.com/gHliS1pNTF— Joe Simon (@JoeSimonCU) July 26, 2018
Right from the start, the offense certainly got the better of the defense Saturday morning no matter which scholarship QB was behind center. Considering I still expect this to be the best Clemson defense ever, this is a positive development and you should take it as such. I entered the morning telling myself not to focus entirely too much on Trevor Lawrence and instead focus on other positions like safety, corner, Sam linebacker, and the general pecking order at the skill positions. But naturally Lawrence drew my eye.
Lawrence is an unreal talent. Every throw appears effortless until he decides to look like he’s actually trying, and then someone loses a finger. On his first drive he eluded pressure in the pocket (avoiding the touch sack) and threw 40 yards to Overton off his back foot. Lawrence continues to be the best QB on the run and (surprisingly) at continuing plays. His movement buys time to find openings, but what makes him special is he keeps his eyes downfield, finding easy chunks with accurate throws on the move. It goes without saying he’s an elite passer downfield; every deep ball was on target and either was completed or could’ve been. The way he controls the pocket, checks to secondary deep reads (opposed to merely checking down), and delivers catchable balls is unmatched.
Kelly Bryant’s mechanical issues were never going to be corrected so I did my best to ignore his windup and focus on ball placement. Early on, Bryant did indeed look like the best quarterback even though quarterbacks weren’t live, which took away arguably his primary attribute. He was in command and on target, particularly when throwing corners, outs, and fades outside.
Bryant delivered a 3rd down out route to Tee Higgins vs. Mark Fields from the far side on the opening drive well enough to catch my eye. He followed it up with beautiful touch on an out and up route to Amari Rodgers for a 30-yard touchdown. Bryant had a few more nice throws on the day, one being a rollout corner to TJ Chase for 25 yards which he immediately followed with a touchdown to Overton on an out route at the front pylon.
Bryant still struggles throwing across the middle no matter the depth though. His accuracy is much better outside (and looked improved on screens) but the lack of velocity and/or the high arc due to his elongated delivery scare me. Against capable corners in press coverage, his easiest throw (the out) isn’t as safe as it seemed Saturday.
If you ask who I think should start, I’m still on the fence...for September. Bryant looked crisp and has improved his mental game. But the physical deficiencies (meaning his arm mechanics) still handicap the offense; corners and go routes are the only deep routes he throws with any sort of success, thereby pruning half the route tree. But his unquestioned grasp make me even more confident Clemson should go 13-0 no matter who plays quarterback.
But any wins beyond that, meaning the College Football Playoff? Bryant can (and likely will) get us there, but I don’t see Clemson winning it without Lawrence. My lasting impression from the spring remains: if Lawrence is the quarterback in the postseason, Clemson will win the national championship.
Don’t mistake this for dumping on Bryant; his performance showed me he may be able to fend off Lawrence longer than most expect, and his praise is not lip service from the coaching staff. But by November, if Lawrence isn’t taking the majority of the snaps (ideally, in my mind, he will relegate Bryant to a short yardage/red zone QB package like Tim Tebow in 2006) then I fear 2018’s ceiling is the same as 2017’s: a flameout against a good defense which won’t allow efficient drives.
Bryant simply doesn’t have the skillset to take the top off the defense consistently, whereas Lawrence was already manipulating safeties with his eyes and obliterating them with his arm this spring. The staff knows this, and it’s why I expect Lawrence to siphon more and more snaps throughout September and October to prepare him for the heroics Clemson will surely need against elite defenses in the postseason.
Travis Etienne is clearly the best runner and his running style excites me more than any Clemson running back in memory. I wanted to see more upper body mass put on his frame this summer, but with his tree trunks for thighs his 200 pounds are deceptive. Pass protection does indeed look improved, but the offensive line protected very well and I didn’t get many looks at his technique.
Adam Choice was first off the bench and we know exactly what he provides. Now that he’s 225 he’s gone from bowling ball to wrecking ball; a quick one at that. Yardage is guaranteed every time. Tavien Feaster didn’t get many carries and I wasn’t able to decide if he looked a step quicker or not. With the weight loss it’s safe to assume so, but Etienne and Choice have separated.
Lyn-J Dixon impressed with a strong inside zone run and a monster stiff arm on Denzel Johnson on a long run, then had another long touchdown up the middle called back due to a holding penalty. I think the comparisons to Etienne are a bit hyperbolic, but he’s definitely a hit. Given the depth and experience ahead of him, I expect a redshirt; luckily we’ll still get four games out of him this year if that is the case.
No yellow jersey for Tee Higgins. There was concern last week over his hamstring but there is obviously no issue. Justyn Ross looks like a Higgins clone but appears (gasp) stronger in the air. It is already apparent these are the two best receivers on the roster and I’m interested to see how much time Ross will steal from Diondre Overton, whom I perhaps have never given enough credit, but has to be worried about getting buried on the depth chart.
Ross made an amazing catch along the sideline when I thought Lawrence was throwing the ball away after eluding pressure. It was a back shoulder lob which Ross caught halfway through a 360. WITH ONE HAND. BACKHANDED. Nuk Hopkins-esque is putting it mildly.
Ross followed it up by catching two deep fades from Chase Brice for touchdowns, each from about 35 yards out, again twisting and winning the ball in mid-air. Even without the new redshirt rule, Ross would see the field; he looks ahead of where Higgins was this time a year ago. I want to see these two on the field together. In fact if I’m not handing it to Etienne I’m telling one of these thoroughbreds at boundary receiver to just go get the ball. I was in total awe.
Amari Rodgers had himself a good day and it’s clear he’s separated at field receiver. He handles screens with the same ferocity as Artavis Scott, but has the ball skills of a man bigger than 5’9”, evidenced by the opening touchdown in which he fought off Mark Fields on an out and up. Cornell Powell is still a receiver; no safety reps.
TJ Chase impressed mightily in the slot and Hunter Renfrow did the usual Hunter Renfrow things. Each will provide a solid possession option underneath and hopefully up the middle. Trevion Thompson is still working behind Renfrow in the slot and was fighting for boundary reps, but was injured late. Weapons galore nonetheless.
Braden Galloway was in yellow and running stadiums steps throughout the practice, which let me take a closer look at Garrett Williams 2.0. He looks like the starter to me at this point, since I’m not sure if there’s a drop off as a receiver compared to Milan Richard, and even if there is, he’s by far the best blocker. Pass catching opportunities for this unit were few and far between, which is disappointing. But with the weapons out wide and particularly at boundary, I’ll be more than satisfied with competent blocking here.
The offensive line by all accounts was fantastic. We knew the starting five would be perhaps Dabo Swinney’s best OL, but the backups are developing satisfactorily too. The question everyone has is about Jackson Carman; he looked quicker thanks to his weight loss but still has work to do. He’ll see time in at least four games and will ultimately avoid a redshirt redshirt. I thought if he contributes meaningful snaps (as in not garbage time) this year, they would come at guard, but with his weight considerably more manageable, he could fill in for Mitch Hyatt here and there.
I wanted to focus on the depth here since I can’t write anything about the starters which hasn’t already been said and they’re tired of all the praise. Well, this scrimmage should quiet the hoopla for at least a moment. Kelly Bryant drew two offside penalties on his opening touchdown march and the offensive line protected every quarterback well. This wasn’t like the spring game where the line racked up double digit touch sacks; in fact I don’t remember seeing more than a few. There were a few standouts, however.
Clelin Ferrell of course never has a bad day. Xavier Thomas is an absolute terror on zone read plays. Do not choose this man to be your mesh read. Had Austin Bryant or Ferrell gone pro, he might’ve worked himself into the starting lineup. Logan Rudolph and Richard Yeargin look healthy and strong, which just adds to the disgusting abundance of DE depth. Justin Mascoll looked bigger than his listed 210 pounds; when I saw a number 17 at DE, I thought “ah excellent, Cornell Powell at DE means Christian Wilkins is playing safety.” Alas.
The starters alone are the best DL in the country despite this disappointing effort, but I think this could be the best unit of all time with such amazing depth. This amount of top end talent should be illegal.
Tre Lamar played with the first team throughout the day, which was unbelievably good to see. Kendall Joseph and JD Davis at Mike and Will, respectively, is a perfectly serviceable duo behind this DL, but Lamar at Mike and Joseph at Will truly takes the ceiling for this defense into the stratosphere.
The entire front seven is now settled in; the clear first teamers are what we all expected and hoped for: Isaiah Simmons at Sam, Lamar at Mike, Joseph at Will. This is the ideal lineup and should complement the DL to form the best front seven in the land.
The depth at each position is ridiculous to boot. Senior Jalen Williams and Baylon Spector backup Simmons, Chad Smith and Judah Davis backup Lamar, and JD Davis and Shaq Smith backup Joseph. Not to mention James Skalski backs up all of them. Brent Venables has to love this linebacker room.
Unfortunately, it seemed Trayvon Mullen was absent due to a family funeral, so I can’t say for certain which of Mark Fields and AJ Terrell have nailed down the position opposite Mullen. The cornerback play largely underwhelmed, with Terrell being flagged for PI and Fields giving up a deep ball early.
Behind them were Brian Dawkins Jr and LeAnthony Williams, who had the unenviable task of trying to cover whichever monster the offense threw out at boundary receiver. Kyler McMichael played corner, not safety, and Mario Goodrich was in yellow. It’s tough to judge this group too harshly without its best player and another freshman being counted on for depth, but it could foreshadow one of the few (if only) weaknesses on this defense.
Safety, which was once my primary concern, looked better than I expected. Tanner Muse looks comfortable, particularly when dropping into the box and laying the wood underneath. K’Von Wallace simply doesn’t make mistakes and is everything we could want in deep coverage. Avoid injury (same at cornerback) and Clemson should be solid on the back end, rounding out what I believe will be the greatest Clemson defense of all-time.
Every kicker was solid on field goals so it was tough determining a leader. Greg Huegel drilled a 50-yarder and his shorter kicks looked like they’d have been good from such a distance. BT Potter left no doubt who has the strongest leg though. His kickoffs boomed with beautiful technique every time. I don’t think it’s worth wasting a redshirt on a kickoff specialist, but the new redshirt rule (you can play four games and still retain a year of eligibility) could make this interesting...hold Potter for the postseason and let him boom touchbacks when it matters? I think yes.