After 9 years since our last visit, Clemson finally returns to the idyllic Chapel Hill to face a new look UNC led by an old face. You won’t find the typical Tar Heel hate in this space like you will from 1980s Clemson fans or especially shootyhoops fans (football and soccer are all that move the needle for me and I won’t apologize for it) and I for one am excited to play the Triangle area school which actually has a scenic campus and stadium in the heart of said scenic campus; far removed from the desolate fairgrounds and Texas high school stadium we endure at NC State every two years.
From hereon the challenges to Clemson’s offense will be few and far between; nobody left on the schedule has the personnel to threaten Clemson’s talent save for a handful of game-by-game positional matchups, and even fewer defensive coordinators remaining inspire the sort of wariness I felt before Mike Elko. I always prefer to highlight scheme over personnel, and this is a rare occasion where a new coordinator requires more than merely an obligatory first look. Not merely because Jay Bateman is a new face; not only because UNC fails to offer a challenging positional matchup; but because his track record and film truly warrant a closer look.
Bateman arrived in Chapel Hill after a successful stint in West Point, where he grew into one of the most respected coordinators in America. His scheme is erroneously labeled a blitz-heavy 3-4, but in actuality it is a multiple, flexible scheme with blended positions. Much like Alabama’s alleged 3-4, Bateman has moved to a blended 4-2-5/3-3-5 to counter the now universal 11 personnel nearly every offense considers its base. No matter the alignment or blitz-happy label, Bateman is loath to send more than 5 rushers and it is uncommon for him to send even such a relatively modest number; succinctly put, Bateman’s modus operandi is to maximize pressure with the least amount of rushers, creating the illusion of pressure and preserving coverage integrity with adequate numbers.
To point, Bateman’s 2018 Army defense led the nation in defensive back havoc rate, illustrating Bateman’s preference for fire zones to disguise both his coverages and his pressures. Following his work and watching his defenses, it’s easy to see why UNC fans overcame initial skepticism with the Mack Brown re-hire and optimism grew with two highly-regarded coordinator hires. The obvious hedge is just how will Bateman’s defenses perform when complemented with Phil Longo’s tempo offense, versus the plodding, possessive option Bateman enjoyed at Army. The results thus far have been mixed, but highly encouraging for a rebuild.
UNC and Clemson are blessed with many common opponents, so in theory there should be plenty of relevant film from which to choose. One opponent in particular though drew my eye for film study, since this opponent is “not that much better if at all really” than Clemson and is, ahem, closing the gap.
In all seriousness, the screencap shows the “base” alignment we’ll likely find in Chapel Hill on Saturday:
It’s a blended front, perhaps 3-3-5 personnel but effectively a 4-2-5 with a standup end. Nowadays there’s virtually no difference, and especially so in Bateman’s defense which emphasizes, well, de-emphasizing positional typecasting. Fire zone blitzes magnify this, since edge defenders drop into zones and rush the passer alike.
If UNC is intent on taking away the run and keying on Travis Etienne (of course they will be), we’ll see more of the typical 3-4 with a Jack (rush LB/weakside DE) and traditional Sam on the line of scrimmage, which effectively mirrors a 4-3 Under, which evolved from the archaic 5-2; again blends are everywhere:
Clemson will find essentially a 5 man front with disguised pressure in an effort to both deter and contain Etienne. In this “pick your poison” era of the Clemson offense, most teams have chosen to concede the perimeter explosiveness as long as Etienne can’t consistently carry Clemson downfield with unacceptable efficiency. UNC will be little different, but will try not to sacrifice numbers in coverage. A loaded front with pressure looks and adequate numbers in the back end can achieve this. UNC’s personnel though, perhaps not.
Much like its young, rebuilding offense, UNC’s defensive schemes will challenge Clemson far more than any personnel on either side of the ball. Tempo and RPO calls will try and mitigate UNC’s talent disadvantage versus the Venables defense, and blended coverages and guess-where-it’s-coming-from pressure will hope to confuse Trevor Lawrence and his protection into mistakes and giveaways. Both phases of the game will provide the ideal learning opportunities for Clemson’s relatively young defense and relatively (nitpicking here) inefficient offense to test themselves against serious schematic challenges without the personnel to truly threaten the Tigers’ chances of victory.
I consider UNC the biggest of all the ACC’s supposed sleeping giants in football (and it isn’t close), and with the coordinator hires to complement Brown’s ability to recruit and fund-raise, the future should be bright for the Heels; Brown is younger than his actual age and is one of the first “player’s coaches” to find serious success in college football (his opponent Dabo Swinney, ironically, is the most successful and well-known player’s coach today). But this should still be a year 0 with a freshman QB and relative talent dearth, and no amount of scheming can make up for the mismatches at every position on Saturday.
The Heels have come back to earth a bit after earning a more dominant win over UofSC than the score indicated, and then stealing a win from Miami the next week; fresh off consecutive losses to smaller in-state schools, the Heels must now meet the reigning champs. It could be interesting for a time and perhaps even more frustrating than we’d like, but Clemson is still too overpowering at every position for a rapidly modernizing UNC team.