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An Option State of Mind: Georgia Southern at Clemson

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NCAA Football: Furman at Clemson Anderson Independent Mail-USA TO

After a nail biter of a game that drudged up rain-soaked memories of the 2016 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Clemson Tigers look to shore up some issues that plagued them against the Texas A&M Aggies when they return to Death Valley to face off against the Georgia Southern Eagles. The Tigers’ matchup against the Eagles, who sit at 2-0 following decisive victories over South Carolina State and the University of Massachusetts, is actually more of a critical game for Clemson than it appears to be.

While Georgia Southern is not a team that necessarily warrants much concern from Clemson faithful given the overwhelming talent on both sides of the ball, it is going to be a huge for Dabo Swinney and the coaching staff for one single reason: it will fully engage the team in operating in an option-offense mindset, as the Eagles just happens to run the option. Having already been exposed to the option against Furman in Week 1, it is extremely beneficial to have the defense in an option-stuffing mindset. With a big game looming in Atlanta against Georgia Tech next week, this will be a huge game for Clemson’s defense, particularly the secondary and Isaiah Simmons, who has experienced several growing pains thus far this season.

In terms of players, Georgia Southern has three that stick out the most: quarterback Shai Werts, running back Wesley Fields, and cornerback Monquavion Brinson. Hailing from Newberry High School, Werts has gotten off to a decent start so far, as he leads the Eagles with 246 rushing yards and four touchdowns, while also going 11-16 for 183 yards and two touchdowns. For an option quarterback, Werts’s passing numbers are efficient, and it will be a test for our safeties to not get caught peeking in the backfield, as was often the case against Kellen Mond, who made them pay often. Safety play is something to watch in the coming weeks, particularly if teams try to exploit in a similar fashion to the Aggies.

Fields, who was the Eagles’ leading rusher a year ago with 811 rushing yards and five touchdowns, enters the game as the team’s second option in their run game. Thus far, he’s rushed for 173 yards and a touchdown. On defense, Brinson is the team’s most notable playmakers. After nabbing five interceptions and coming through with 12 pass breakups last year, Brinson is the Eagles’ leading tackler heading into the third week of the season with 14 tackles (12 solo), demonstrating a willingness and ability to play physically.

As stated previously, coming off of probably one of their worst performances in quite some time, the secondary will look to get back on track, and what better way that facing a style of offense that relies largely on misdirection and requires sharp eye discipline? While not running the option to the highly-tuned efficiency of teams like Georgia Tech or Navy, Georgia Southern is a game to provide the defense with a much-needed bounce back period.

Two weeks into the season, we’ve seen plenty of growing pains from Isaiah Simmons in Dorian O’Daniel’s vaunted Nickel/SAM position. Simmons has a higher ceiling that O’Daniel given his size and athleticism; he just needs to continue growing into the position. Simmons will no doubt be an X-Factor for this defense moving forward, and as he rounds into shape, he can become a massive asset in both coverage and run support. Facing option teams like Furman and Georgia Southern can better aid in improving his eye discipline and dealing with misdirection.

On offense, the quarterback rotation is likely to be similar to how it was against Furman and Texas A&M, with Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence splitting snaps. The bigger things to watch here, however, will be the interior offensive play, particularly at center and right guard, as Cade Stewart saw increased time over Sean Pollard against Texas A&M. On all counts of Swinney, Stewart more than held his own, so it will be interesting to see how his playing time looks moving forward. In the case of center, Justin Falcinelli will need to bounce back after a poor performance against A&M, giving a number of bad snaps to both Bryant and Lawrence at inopportune moments in the game.

A return to the run game will be nice, particularly given the talent and depth at running back, as doing so will also further open up the play-action pass for both quarterbacks. We’ve seen little action from the backs to this point; while seeing an emphasis in stretching the field is nice given our blessings at receiver, getting our backs involved again will be important. Oh, and our offense can feel free to scrap every bubble screen. They haven’t really worked with either quarterback. Thanks.

Look forward to the option-heavy content for the next two weeks from Shakin’ The Southland (or whatever our Twitter name happens to be that week).