It seems like a good time to be taking a look at Clemson, considering the Tigers just got a commitment from defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1 recruit in the country.
If you missed Part I of the blog’s look at Clemson, you can read it here. Now for the Ask a Beat Writer portion.
To help me out, I went to Greg Wallace, the Clemson beat writer for the Anderson Independent-Mail. You can read his work here, read his blog here and follow him on Twitter here (be forewarned, he tweets A LOT).
To the questions …
AB: The Tigers set all sorts of offensive records last year in Chad Morris’ up-tempo offense. With quarterback Tajh Boyd, running back Andre Ellington and receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins back (although Watkins could face disciplinary action for his arrest for marijuana possession), can this group repeat that success? Or will losing three starting offensive linemen be more of a blow than anyone realizes?
GW: “I think the pieces are certainly there for success. The only skill player not returning is John Mackey Award winner Dwayne Allen, who lit up Virginia Tech in both meetings. It remains uncertain what punishment Watkins will face following his arrest, but regardless, he is expected to be available for the vast majority of the season. Hopkins is an athletic force who Dabo Swinney called the Tigers’ spring MVP, and Boyd worked all spring to cut down his mistakes and improve his pocket presence.
“Morris installed the Pistol formation – which places the running back directly behind the quarterback – which adds an extra wrinkle for opposing defenses to solve, and coaches have confidence that senior tight end Brandon Ford, who was productive as Allen’s backup, can be a capable starter.
“The offensive line is the clear X-factor, though. Only one player – senior center Dalton Freeman, a Rimington Award finalist – will start the season in the same position as 2011. Coaches were pleased with the production of new right guard Tyler Shatley, a converted defensive tackle, but new left tackle Brandon Thomas and right tackle Gifford Timothy are question marks on the edges. Four years ago, a similarly talented offensive group was derailed by an awful offensive line. Boyd is surrounded by talented pieces, but he needs time to throw.”
AB: Clemson put up crazy numbers early in the year but hit a rough patch where it couldn’t get anything going offensively late in the year. What’s the key to the Tigers avoiding a similar kind of skid this season?
GW: “There were two key factors to those offensive struggles. Senior left tackle Phillip Price was a rock protecting Boyd’s blind side, but after he suffered a sprained knee, the line was shuffled. Price returned for the ACC title game and Orange Bowl, but was never the same, leaving both games with a recurrence of the injury. With less time to throw, Boyd got happy feet in the pocket and made poor decisions.
“This spring, footwork and general pocket presence were huge focuses for Morris and Boyd. If he has time to make good decisions, feels comfortable and avoids silly blunders, the offense should thrive.”
AB: Kevin Steele was ousted as defensive coordinator after Clemson’s embarrassing 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. What changes will his replacement Brent Venables, formerly of Oklahoma, bring to the defense?
GW: “The Orange Bowl was the last straw for the defense; players struggled at times to run Steele’s complicated system, appearing openly confused at times on the field just before the ball was snapped. Venables was hired to implement a simpler, read-and-react system; I think by the end of spring practice, the players had bought into the system and Steele had been forgotten.
“Linebackers say they’re free to run downhill and make plays; Venables also shuffled the linebacker corps, installing sophomore Stephone Anthony, a former five-star prospect [edit: and Virginia Tech target], as the starting middle linebacker. Former MLB starter Corico Hawkins was shuffled outside to compete with Tig Willard at the ‘Will’ position. I think by the time Virginia Tech visits, you’ll see a far less confused defense.”
AB: Like the offense, the defense lost three starters on its line, including Day 2 NFL draft picks Andre Branch and Brandon Thompson. What will their absence do to the defense and who are the Tigers looking at as replacements?
GW: “The defensive line is one of the biggest concerns on the roster, along with the offensive line. Senior defensive end Malliciah Goodman is the only returning starter, and while coaches are confident in he and sophomore Corey Crawford, they’re worried about end depth.
“Venables was pleased with sophomores DeShawn Williams, Grady Jarrett, Tavaris Barnes and Josh Watson inside; Williams is the most polished out of the quartet and the most likely to nail down a starting position. I’m sure Tech fans are glad Branch is wearing a Jacksonville Jaguars uniform; he terrorized the Hokies’ line for 17 tackles, four sacks and six tackles for loss in the teams’ two meetings.”
AB: The Hokies lost three games last year. Two were to the Tigers and neither was close. Are there any reasons you can think of as to why Clemson simply had Virginia Tech’s number last season? And do you think that has any carryover to this year?
GW: “I think one of the biggest reasons actually was Steele’s defense. It was a pro-style system and designed to work against pro-style offenses, which is precisely what the Hokies’ system is. Steele’s downfall came against spread-it-out, fast-paced systems like West Virginia’s. I’m not sure exactly how Venables’ system will look against opposing offenses (the spring game, with its evenly-split rosters, makes it difficult to discern much). If anything, plenty of Clemson defenders have had success against the Hokies’ offense. They’ll just have to repeat it in a different way this season.”
So there you have it. Big thanks to Greg for helping me out.
After what happened last year — twice — this is obviously a game that’s circled on Virginia Tech’s calendar. Looking back, it’s almost inexplicable how much the Tigers dominated the Hokies in those two games, especially when you look at what other teams did to Clemson at the end of the year, particularly against that defense.
The skill players are back for the Tigers this year, although as Greg mentioned, the offensive line was overhauled. That’s an often-overlooked part of an offense’s success, and it will be interesting to see how Clemson adapts, especially against what is supposed to be the strength of Virginia Tech’s defense.
Clemson’s defensive line wreaked havoc on the Hokies all of last year, so the turnover up front for the Tigers has to be welcome news for Tech. Still, the Hokies will have to have something different in mind for trying to move the ball against Clemson, which clearly had things figured out last year.
I’d expect the Tigers to enter this game as decent favorites in Death Valley, although I wouldn’t say overwhelming (the offensive line situation gives me pause). Regardless, it’ll be one of the most-anticipated games on the Hokies’ schedule.
- Georgia Tech — Team overview | Ask a beat writer
- Austin Peay — Team overview | Ask a beat writer
- Pittsburgh — Team overview | Ask a beat writer
- Bowling Green — Team overview | Ask a beat writer
- Cincinnati — Team overview | Ask a beat writer
- North Carolina — Team overview | Ask a beat writer
- Duke — Team overview | Ask a beat writer