Football season is finally here, and with it comes a far more interesting FCS opener than one would expect thanks in no small part to a certain freshman quarterback and the new redshirt rule, which allows players to compete in up to 4 games without losing a year of eligibility. For the first time in the modern era, it is likely we will see literally every player on the Clemson roster play in a single game; even those who will ultimately redshirt. This is an exciting prospect which will likely keep a few more fans lingering into the 4th quarter and (gasp) perhaps necessitate a 4th quarter film review!
In past years, the in-state FCS week has been one in which I’ve foregone the usual defensive scouting report in favor of a bit of a check-up on Clemson’s overall state. Obviously with this being the season opener there’s nothing yet to assess, and I want to at least attempt to outline Furman’s defensive approach even though the ungodly talent gap (look at me using that phrase against an in-state opponent, triggering a Columbian meltdown) will render the schematics moot.
Furman Defensive Outline
With 9 returning starters (1 of the 2 newcomers is arguably an upgrade in Clemson transfer Amir Trapp), Furman will bring a capable unit into Death Valley which is reflected in its preseason ranking within the FCS top 25. The Paladins employ a blended 3-4 front with a hybrid DE/OLB rotation which alternates between a 2 and 3 point stance. It is effectively Clemson’s 4-3 over — with the two inside linebackers serving the Mike and Will roles and a Sam who rotates between box and slot duty — but with two (on a high level, at least) differences: the weak side end in Clemson’s defense is a Jack hybrid linebacker in Furman’s, and the 3 down linemen usually align heads up over the opposing offensive line instead of in gaps:
The leader and primary disruptor up front is found in nose guard Jaylan Reid (#75; 5’11” 270) who is a figurative tree stump in both build and immovability. Clemson is blessed with All-ACC center Justin Falcinelli to counter Reid, but his disruptive threat could provide a few setbacks to the Clemson ground game as we see more and more subs enter the game, or when Reid slides into a 3 technique when Furman throws its Jack linebacker into a 4 man front.
The back 7 is a strength and strong safety Aaquil Annoor (#9; 5’10” 170) is the showstopper who jumps off the screen within moments. Furman likes to play single high, man cover 1 with linebackers spies and drop Annoor underneath, letting him fly the alley:
Furman will play a lot of soft cover 2 against 4 wide sets, and will likely lean a little more conservatively with zone against Clemson’s receivers when they know Clemson needs to throw. But more often than not I would expect Furman to play aggressively to try and slow down Clemson’s run game and take their chances on Kelly Bryant hitting receivers downfield. Whether they employ the same (presumptive) aggression against Trevor Lawrence will interest me mightily.
What I Want to See
Obviously avoiding injury goes without saying, but I also want to see crisp early execution which will allow Clemson to not simply empty its bench en masse after a few drives, but mix backups in with starters to accelerate the depth’s growth. A team with as much experience as Clemson should be expected to put up a few early scores on offense without needing a proverbial warm-up game to build chemistry, for example, along the starting offensive line. Liberally sprinkling in reserves with more experienced players/starters better simulates a potential injury replacement and better serves Clemson’s need to establish depth at thin positions, particularly in the defensive backfield.
Specifically, crisp execution in the downfield passing game is not only desired, but expected. We have seen what Trevor Lawrence brings in this element and if Kelly Bryant is as improved downfield as attested, this is the perfect — if not necessary, since there is no easier opponent on the schedule — place to show it. I already think Clemson’s receiving makeup is better suited to the downfield passing game than it was a year ago; combine Bryant’s improvement with Lawrence’s talent and the overall passing game’s improvement should prove evident early. If it doesn’t, you can expect to hear the first rumblings of an actual quarterback controversy.
Regardless, Clemson won’t need to be sharp to literally run away from Furman anyway.