We always hear loads of positive stuff from coaches and players this time of the year. It is often hard to really discern what is actually getting better and what is just wishful thinking or maybe even a false front put out for fans and opposing coaches. Of course, Clemson fans are very eager to see the impact of new Offensive Coordinator Garrett Riley and his version of the “Air Raid” offense after two frustrating years of offensive underachievement (by Clemson standards). Dabo, as always, is preaching from a glass half full mindset, but if Clemson is really going to get back to where it was from 2015-20, these are the areas where we need to see growth:
1. Beat man coverage schemes. The Tigers have been shockingly bad in this department the last two seasons and it has offset an otherwise strong running attack that emerged midway through the 2021 campaign. This was never more apparent than the mind numbing defeat at the hands of U of SC that ended a glorious 7-game winning streak in the rivalry and and even more glorious 40-game home winning streak overall. The Gamecocks, particularly in the second half of the game, relied almost entirely on cover 0 and cover 1 defenses to load the box and, even moreso, entice the Tigers to check out of runs into pass calls. Clemson did and very, very rarely were able to make the Gamecocks pay as guys couldn’t create separation or, when they did, complete the catch or got an accurate throw. In the old days, we would have seen a steady diet of big plays from fades, back shoulders, and slants or screens popping for large chunk plays.
How much of this was WR play? How much of this was QB play? How much of this was scheme? It is hard to really know for sure without being behind the curtain, but one thing is for certain, Riley has to recreate the fear of playing these aggressive coverages that existed in the peak #WRU days. Only the most talented and bold defenses, like Alabama, Ohio State, Auburn, Pitt, and some Florida State units, really dared to try this consistently and most of those teams got burned for a lot of big plays before 2021’s huge drop in explosiveness from the Tiger offense. Otherwise the Tigers were free to operate against more run-friendly boxes against deep safeties that helped guys like Andre Ellington, Rod McDowell, Wayne Gallman, and especially Travis Etienne rip off 1000+ yard seasons.
Even Tennessee, whose secondary had been absolutely scorched by the Gamecocks among others, were happy to defend Cade Klubnik’s 54 pass attempts that produced just 320 yards and 14 total points. Cole Turner’s 33-yard catch early in the game would be the biggest play of the night.
Just for comparison, Trevor Lawrence never threw more than 48 passes in a game at Clemson and the game he did, vs. Ohio State in his last outing, resulted in 400 yards.
Deshaun Watson eclipsed 50 attempts 4 times, twice exceeding 400 yards and topping 375 another time.
Both of those are obviously legendary quarterbacks, but it also takes WR getting open and making plays for those guys to produce numbers as well as schemes and play calls that effectively attack coverages.
Playing “faster” is great but tempo and play count were not an issue vs. Tennessee in particular, it was the inability to burn teams for using one-on-one concepts. Riley’s top priority, in my view, is to get that element back because Clemson has the recruited talent to do it.
2. Getting the interior OL to be more effective. Clemson’s offensive line play has long been a source of derision for the fans. It is a pretty thankless job where usually you are noticed when you screw up and rarely otherwise by the common fan. Clemson’s issues in recent times have largely been due to breakdowns from guards and/or center. Clemson’s highest graded linemen for two straight seasons have been offensive tackles, and the Orange Bowl in particular was a very bad night at the office for the interior OL who were whipped consistently by Tennessee’s front seven. Clemson’s primary run has been, and likely will remain, the inside zone play. That play, when it struggles, is usually from a guard or center getting whipped inside or two guys getting split. Sometimes you see one or more of the linemen getting “put on skates” and pushed into the backfield which often destroys a zone run’s effectiveness.
It is hard to say how much Coach Riley’s scheme will affect the OL, and it is likely to be the least amount compared to the skill positions, but the Tigers return every major contributor on the interior OL and have recruited at a higher level there the last three cycles. Coach Austin now needs to show he can turn that talent into production more consistently. All of Clemson’s losses featured several ugly moments from the OL, particularly the interior.
3. Bring back the “No Fly Zone”: Clemson’s pass defense was inexplicably poor for a large chunk of last year. Some of that was due to the loss of key corners Andrew Booth and Mario Goodrich from the strong 2021 unit. Some of it was because of injuries to veterans Sheridan Jones and Malcolm Greene which forced more action for inexperienced younger players. However, for a defense with the front seven firepower that Clemson possessed, way too many teams feasted on big pass plays against the Tigers last season. Clemson’s pass rush was not nearly as consistently effective as it should have been when you look at guys like Myles Murphy, Trenton Simpson, Bryan Bresee, Tyler Davis, K.J. Henry, et al.
Juice Wells’ 72-yard TD catch that truly turned the tide of the U of SC game came against a four man rush that allowed Rattler to easier roll to his dominant right hand and gave Wells time to beat Mukuba on a dead sprint across the field.
You definitely like how Nate Wiggins was playing the second half of the season and he has all the makings of a true alpha corner on one side. Jones is back as a steady veteran on the other side. Mukuba is one of the most talented players on the defense coming off a sub-par sophomore season. Phillips, Mickens, and Venables all return at safety with a lot of career snaps. There really shouldn’t be much reason the back seven can’t be a very good unit, but the pass rush has got to improve as well to help those guys not get caught on plays like the aforementioned bomb to Wells.
Defensive Coordinator Wes Goodwin had a solid first year, but there was a drop-off from Venables (not to be unexpected as Brent is a GOAT-level DC). The defense struggled in two of the final three games, and the Tennessee performance was particularly disturbing considering the Vols were without Hooker and Hyatt and Tillman. For a defense that folks were thinking could be 2014 type good, it wasn’t close to that.
So that’s my wish list. Spring won’t answer all of these of course, especially with several guys out recovering from injuries, but I’m hoping for signs that these things will be better in 2023.