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Q&A Season Preview with the Clemson Pawcast (QB & Defensive Line)

Check out the season preview Q&A with Ryan Kantor and Nick Tully in written or podcast format.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 CFP Semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl - Clemson v Ohio State Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Clemson Pawcast host Nick Tully interviewed STS writer Ryan Kantor about the upcoming season. They talked about the DJ Uiagalelei and the depth at QB behind him. Next they chat about the defensive line before pivoting to discuss the looming Georgia game and expectations for the season overall. It’s a short podcast and we encourage you to give it a listen. A written summary of some of the key points is also written below for those reading somewhere where they cannot listen. Enjoy!

Paint me a picture of Uiagalelei’s ceiling as a sophomore quarterback. What development will be needed for him to achieve it?

I think the main thing for him will just be developing consistency. There were a few mid-range throws in the Notre Dame game, especially before he settled in, where you couldn’t help but say to yourself “Lawrence would have made that play.” I think DJ could be better passing over-the-middle though. That’s something Lawrence got a lot better at last year, but it wasn’t necessarily his strength. With Ross in the slot and the tight ends poised for breakout that could be an exciting area of development for this offense.

What do you expect in terms of the number of run plays per game (Note: Watson was in the 15-20 range, Trevor closer to 10)?

I think we could see DJ use his legs against Georgia. We could see it in the ACC Championship game or the playoff, but overall I think it is very limited in the games where Clemson is a two touchdown favorite — which will be nearly all of them after Georgia. I will also add that the zone read has to remain part of the offense for it to be at its best and Elliott loves calling the QB’s number in the red zone where they very well may not be tackled at all. Overall, his usage as a runner will probably be similar to what we saw with Trevor Lawrence.

Are you confident in any of our backups QB’s capacity to beat a BC, NC State, or FSU in an emergency situation a la Chase Brice?

I’d break it down into three categories. Against the toughest teams on the schedule, which would be no. 4 Georgia and most likely no. 10 North Carolina or no. 14 Miami in a potential ACC title game the answer is no.

Against the next tier of games on the schedule, which I’d say include road trips to Pittsburgh, Louisville, NC State, and U of SC and a home game against Boston College, maybe. Perhaps by the time those games roll around the backups have proven themselves to the point where you feel ok about playing those games without DJ, but right now I’d be extremely nervous.

Against the weakest portion of the schedule (SC State, UConn, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Florida State, and at Syracuse), I think Clemson would win with Hunter Helms, Will Taylor, or a healthy Taisun Phommachanh at QB today. The gap at the other positions is so wide that a conservative game plan that puts the QB in position to succeed should be enough.

Which matchups within the game do you feel will determine our fate when Georgia has the ball?

Big games are often won in the trenches. Clemson appears poised to benefit from improvements on both the offensive and defensive lines. I think everyone is waiting to see which five O-lineman come out for the first series against Georgia. We’ve heard that Hunter Rayburn is close and just needs to be “pulled through the knot” — whatever that means. There’s chatter about Matt Bockhorst moving to center and Marcus Tate starting at left guard. Of course Mason Trotter could also start and if he’s made some strides that could be fine too although I have a little concern about that matchup against Georgia’s size on the D-line specifically.

What’s critical is that the O-line improves enough that the running game is better despite losing Travis Etienne and Chez Mellusi. That’s a lot to ask, but I really think it is more likely than not.

Clemson also has to do a better job generating pressure on opposing QBs without blitzing. Clemson got their fair share of sacks, but it was largely from blitzing linebackers or even defensive backs. I think with Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas now healthy and the other guys more experienced, we may see a major improvement here. Georgia’s starting center, Warren Ericson, has an hand injury and doesn’t sound like he’ll be 100% if he plays. That could give Clemson a slight edge.

All that being said, the matchup I personally find most intriguing, even if not most impactful, is CB Derion Kendrick versus whatever Clemson wide receiver is lined up against him. With Kendrick getting dismissed from Clemson and then going to Georgia, there’s just a great storyline there if he gives up a big play or makes one himself.

Whose development you’re watching closely. What specifically are you looking for in the first games of the year to understand if he’s making a leap?

Along the defensive line, I’m interested to see what the rotation looks like at defensive end. Will Xavier Thomas or Justin Foster blossom into a serious NFL talent? What becomes of KJ Henry? He got a lot of snaps last year with those two out. Will he reach his ceiling and play a big role or become more of a depth player?

On the offensive line, Right Guard Will Putnam was a big recruit and although the interior line struggled last year, I think he still has a lot of upside. I’d love to see him take a big step and I think he may.

The other is safety Lannden Zanders. He played through a shoulder injury last season and struggled, but based on some reporting from David Hood (TigerNet) it sounds like that injury was pretty serious. Now that he is healthy following off-season surgery, I think he could be one of the most improved players on the team.

Do you think this D-line hits its ceiling, and how might you define that ceiling from a statistical or anecdotal standpoint?

I think just at a high-level if you have a linebacker (Baylon Spector) leading the team in sacks (4.5) and true freshmen leading the D-line in sacks (Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee with 4 each) you know that’s probably not great for the D-line.

In terms of eye test, you want to see defensive ends bringing down the QB. Last year it seemed like it required a lot of elaborate blitzing to get to the opposing QB and there were a lot of plays that were just a tick away from a sack but the QB got away. That was especially true in the loss to Notre Dame. From a statistical standpoint, I think just having a D-lineman lead the team in sacks with more than 5 on the season is a good start.

Season Outlook Rapid Fire:

Regular season record: I’ll take the under on the 11.5 wins O/U on principle (betting on 12-0 is crazy), but there’s no game on the schedule where I would pick against Clemson right now.

ACC Coastal opponent: North Carolina. I think it’s Bo Time in Charlotte when Bojangles reps DJ Uiagalelei and Sam Howell face-off. Both are super likeable and could legitimately be the two best quarterbacks in the country.

CFP matchups: Given my predictions above, I think Clemson will make the playoff. Oklahoma, for as much as I will enjoy rooting against them after their move to the SEC, will likely be in the playoff. Ohio State is a stalwart and a good bet to be back. The last one is a wild card. I could obviously see Alabama or Georgia. Texas A&M, Oregon, or maybe even Cincinnati if they win at Indiana and at Notre Dame could be a contender.

Season outcome: I like Clemson’s odds. Obviously I would take the field over Clemson to win the National Championship, but if I could pick between Group A: Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma and Group B: the other 126 FBS teams, I’d take Group A without hesitation.

If you enjoyed this Q&A please check out Ryan Kantor’s quarterback season preview here. Also, if you’re not already subscribed, please find the Clemson Pawcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts and subscribe for all their upcoming Clemson preview content.