With no Clemson game to preview this week, I thought I would provide my season-to-date assessment. It is a time the coaches spend taking inventory of what has happened, self-scouting, and fortifying the plan of attack based on actual game production vs. just projections made from practices. In Clemson’s case, the need to heal is about as big as it has ever been after a rash of injuries in the first five weeks of the season. I thought I would discuss what I feel has gone well and, of course, where improvement is most needed (and assess how realistic those improvements are). I’m splitting this into two parts with this one focused primarily on the defense. I look forward to hearing what you readers think in the comments as well!
Overall: Now it is time to look at the positive side of this year’s Tigers: the defense! The #1 goal of any defense is to limit scoring and this defense has done that very, very well. The defense hasn’t surrendered more than 14 points to anyone in regulation, and the NCSU loss had as much to do with having to defend 100 plays as the performance itself. It hasn’t been perfect, and that NCSU game was marred by a bevy of penalties, but the defense has given Clemson a chance to be 5-0 had the offense been anywhere close to the normal product. Injuries have mounted, however, and how the staff manages those losses will be a big factor going forward.
Defensive Line: This unit entered the season as the deepest and best unit on the team, and it is a good thing too because the top two DT’s, Tyler Davis and Bryan Bresee, are out now (Bresee for the season). It is a real shame that we didn’t get treated to what those two could do this year together beyond a couple of games, and even then Bresee and Davis were not 100%. Ruke Orhorhoro and Tre Williams have stepped up as the starters and have done a nice job so far. Neither are on the level of Davis or Bresee but they are no slouches either. This has accelerated the need for Etinosa Reuben and Payton Page to provide meaningful snaps.
The defensive ends have been strong, particularly starters Xavier Thomas and Myles Murphy. Teams have done all they can to try to limit the Tigers’ pass rushers, from employing a ton of short passes like UGA and GT, to using a ton of max protections like BC. We would be seeing a lot more havoc if Clemson’s offense could mount enough of a lead to force teams to try to win with drop-back passing. I’m also not sure what constitutes a holding penalty after seeing Murphy get pulled down twice on his way to the QB last weekend, then literally pulled off the QB as he was sacking him. Perhaps we should teach our OL to just pull guys down if they are getting trucked on a pass rush? KJ Henry was Johnny on the spot with that game-clinching fumbled snap against BC. The depth is helping avoid overly heavy snap loads for Thomas and Murphy which will hopefully help them stay fresh and healthy. They are the remaining true difference makers up front. Grade: A-
Linebackers: This unit is on a different level when James Skalski is fully able to go. I’m a little concerned with the drop-off when he isn’t out there, though. The team seems to be able to handle not having Simpson or Spector out there a little better. LaVonta Bentley has become the clear next guy up, much to my delight, and he has mostly delivered, particularly when he’s able to play WILL as he did in Spector’s stead vs. GT. The unit has been strong overall (particularly the top 4 guys) in both run fits and pass coverage situations. Teams have really tried to attack them with the short underneath stuff. Boston College had success with their tight ends, but some of those issues were on the safeties more than the linebackers. They did an outstanding job in the UGA game when they tried to get James Cook loose on the perimeter. As long as the top guys stay healthy, especially Skalski, there is no reason to not expect very good LB play. Hopefully, Clemson can create some situations (a blowout or two please) to grow the young talent up like Barrett Carter, Jeremiah Trotter, and Sergio Allen.
Corners: Andrew Booth! He has been healthy and very productive, and it is a good thing because the depth has been an issue. Booth had to play virtually every snap against NCSU and Boston College with Mario Goodrich and Fred Davis out of action. This unit has tackled so much better than last year, led by Booth of course. It hasn’t been perfect, and we’ve seen a couple of guys get behind them in coverage, but they have forced quarterbacks to make tough throws into tight windows the vast majority of the time. You just tip your hat to NCSU’s ability to make enough of those plays to win that game in Raleigh. I can live with getting beat that way versus watching guys run scot-free for easy plays and scores. I’d put Booth at the top of the list for defensive MVP at the moment, but Goodrich and Sheridan Jones have also been solid.
Safeties: This unit has also been better than last year in my opinion. Nolan Turner hasn’t been able to play every game, including the UGA game, but it didn’t result in the issues we saw last year when that was the case. Lannden Zanders is out for the season but Andrew Mukuba, for the most part, has mitigated that situation. RJ Mickens has stepped up and provided two interceptions. Unfortunately, this group sprung some leaks last week vs. BC and it appears Mukuba was the main culprit for the big plays to the tight ends that led to BC’s lone touchdown drive in the third quarter. Turner got run over on the TD run as well. I’m mostly satisfied with what I have seen to this point, but the BC staff might have found something, and I’ll be closely watching to see if that becomes a trend or gets cleaned up.
Punting: Will Spiers has been solid so far this season. He’s been called upon a lot more than we would like, thanks to the offense’s problems. He hasn’t produced a truly “wow” punt that totally flips the field, but he isn’t shanking or punting for touchbacks. The blocked punt was not his fault because of a total bust in the protection in front of him, but the grade goes to the unit as a whole. Allowing blocks or giving up TD returns results in a hefty deduction.
Coaching: Venables and his staff found themselves having to protect a surprisingly poor offense. It has clearly affected how many risks BV will take in terms of aggressive coverages and blitz packages. The defense isn’t creating as many “havoc” plays behind the line of scrimmage as many of the past units, but teams are having to work it and execute to move the ball and are not creating very many explosives at all. The Tigers have been able to handle injury/availability issues more effectively than we saw last season.
The offense actually did give Clemson the lead in the first OT in Raleigh and the defense couldn’t shut the door. The defense also let GT and BC make things a lot more interesting than they should have been late in those games. There were more visible busts against BC than what we had been seeing in the previous games. This unit does not have much margin of error at the moment due to a horrible wave of injuries at almost every position.
Truth be told, no opponent has truly put the game in the hands of its quarterback to attack the Clemson defense. That is coming, especially when Clemson faces Kenny Pickett and Pittsburgh, and the staff will be tested in different ways when that time comes. But the unit has delivered a lot more than it hasn’t to this point and gives Clemson a chance every week. Talent and experience are big factors, but you have to credit the coaching and preparation as well.
My expectation going forward is slightly altered due to the losses of Bresee and Davis, though Davis will hopefully return in the latter portion of the season. I don’t think we are going to reach 2014 or 2018 levels of dominance, but I am cautiously optimistic the team can continue to play smart and force the opponents to earn every yard and completion. Hopefully, that NCSU game is an aberration as far as penalties go. With any luck, the injury bug has had enough of biting this year’s team and will leave them alone now; the best offenses on the schedule are still out there and the Tigers haven’t shown they can win a game in the 20s or beyond as of yet.