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Life After “3rd & Renfrow:” Exploring the Inside Passing Game

There’s Clemson football this month. Wake up and smell the content.

NCAA Football: Clemson Spring Game Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

The Clemson offense returns most of last year’s title winning unit, with eight of eleven starters named to the preseason All-ACC team. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence joins running back and Popeyes enthusiast Travis Etienne in the backfield. Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and more return outside at wide receiver, and four out of five starters return on the offensive line.

One area of concern for the Tigers is collectively found at the inside receiver positions: slot receiver and tight end. Experienced slot receiver/punt returner Amari Rodgers is still recovering from an ACL injury, and while he is ahead of schedule, expect Clemson to work him back slowly. At tight end Clemson loses Milan Richard to graduation and Garrett Williams for personal reasons. Braden Galloway is also serving a one year suspension.

Clemson has not really featured its tight ends in the passing game since Jordan Leggett left, and this year likely figures to be more of the same, with longtime blocker JC Chalk (who has totaled four receptions in his career) backed up by a pair of freshmen. Slot receivers have usually been shorter and quicker guys who excel in the quick passing game (think Renfrow or Artavis Scott). Cornell Powell, the listed starter on the preseason depth chart, fits this mold, as does T. J. Chase. Diondre Overton, standing at 6’4, provides a different look. Having demonstrated a penchant for making contested catches, Overton could be used to hunt for matchups with smaller defensive backs.

The inside receiver positions are particularly important in the Tiger offense on third downs. Renfrow (and Leggett before him) were incredibly reliable targets to keep the chains moving. Last we saw the Tigers, their ability to convert third downs was pretty important.

One way Clemson can take advantage of its world-beating talent at outside receiver is to get into trips formations in either 10 or 11 personnel. If you have a receiver who can’t reliably be covered one-on-one (check), the defense is left with a difficult math problem.

The defense has to figure out a number of options: either leave three defenders to handle the three-receiver side of the field where the single receiver has a matchup advantage, or they have to lighten the box against the run.

You don’t need to run RPOs to create mismatches; for the most part the QB can figure out what he’s doing before the snap. Clemson can further complicate defensive math with bunched receivers, motion, and formation to the boundary sets.

With two of Clemson’s most challenging games in the first three weeks, it’ll be worth watching if the coaching staff sticks with their preferred 11 personnel or work in more four wide receiver sets — a look that Clemson largely waited and gradually fully weaponized before the College Football Playoff — in order to get their best players on the field.

Some of this will depend on the progression of the running backs. For all Travis Etienne is as a runner, he doesn’t offer much as a receiver yet and still struggles with pass protections. Lyn-J Dixon is also unproven on this front. Now that Adam Choice has graduated, a reliable third down running back emerging is going to be important. It will also depend on how comfortable the coaching staff is with Jackson Carman and/or Tremayne Anchrum blocking edge rushers without help from the tight ends.

If the Tigers feel comfortable getting into spread formations, they have a lot of options. The Tigers are deep enough at wide receiver to present a serious matchup problem for the (admittedly weak by Crimson Tide standards) Alabama secondary, much less most of the teams on the schedule. This will become even more apparent once Rodgers returns. The Tigers can easily flood the field with four and five-star receivers and hunt matchups.

For example, in the playoffs Clemson was able to go four wide against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and throw to whoever free safety Alohi Gilman (an excellent run support safety) was lined up to cover. Doing this makes it possible to play defenders off the field if they can’t handle a vertical route.

That play could be a glimpse into the future if the Tigers choose to force the ball into Ross’s hands. With his ability to run routes and win deep balls from both the slot and out wide it’s conceivable Ross, (who did not have a game where he tallied more than six receptions) could become a moving matchup problem on third downs. Although Scott and Elliott like to spread the ball around, they tend to have a reliable target when they need to move the chains. We’ll be keeping an eye on who the offense targets the first few games.