We are very fortunate to have an excellent network of team-specific blogs to talk with during game weeks. Today we have ggggmen08 of the fantastic Clemson blog Shakin The Southland to answer some questions for us about this weekend's prime time matchup between the 'Noles and the Tigers.
TN: The main storyline for the Tigers entering the 2012 season was new defensive coordinator Brent Venables and the upgrade he sought to bring to the unit, which had its struggles in 2011. What changes has he brought with him from Oklahoma and how has his group fared early on this year?
STS: The hire of Brent Venables received mixed reactions from Clemson fans. I for one thought it was a very good hire. Some people attempted to point out that Oklahoma's defenses had been regressing, when in fact their 2011 unit was 7th in the country in F/+. Since he had already been on the opposite side of the ball of a HUNH attack, I thought he would be a good compliment to Chad Morris.
Scheme-wise, not much has changed. Both run a 4-3 base and like to substitute the SAM backer out for an extra DB against spread formations or in obvious passing situations. He prefers more cover 3, whereas Kevin Steele was more of a cover 1 and cover 4 kind of guy. The players have talked about how this scheme is much simpler than Steele's, where the defense looked completely confused the entire 2011 season, but what they really mean is that the calls are simpler. Steele was constantly changing his play calling after he got a glimpse of the offensive personnel. The problem was that the nomenclature that he used to was very long and complex. The players had a very difficult time adjusting and understanding, which ultimately resulted in the worst Clemson defense in the last 15 years.
The most obvious change that Venables brings to the table is his tenacity. The guy doesn't have an off switch. He's always energetic, always in your face, and always asking for more out of his guys. You may have seen Venables quote this week that if the defense continues to play as poorly as they have been then FSU's offense will break the scoreboard. Steele on the other hand had a very laid back and calm approach to coaching. He also routinely deflected criticism of his defensive unit. It was always "a play or two" that went wrong for the defense. Clemson fans became very tired of his excuses. It's nice to have a guy like Venables in here that isn't afraid to call it like he sees it and kick these kids in the rear end when they need it.
Jump on in for more!
TN: As a follow-up, which matchup with the Florida State offense worries you most come Saturday night? Can the Tigers set the edge against the Seminoles' outside running game, which had a field day against Wake Forest last week?
STS: That's a tough question considering that Clemson's defense hasn't looked good in any area on defense yet this year. But if Clemson is going to have a chance on Saturday night they'll have to slow down the FSU rushing attack. A ground game that just continues to pound on you is not only mentally demoralizing, but it's the type of approach that is needed to put 6 on the board in the redzone instead of 3. Clemson's defense hasn't been able to stop the run yet this year. Auburn, Ball State, and Furman all were able to break a few big runs here and there, if not maintain a steady ground game. The DEs have done a poor job of setting the edge, the DTs have allowed themselves to get sealed and run out of plays, the LBs have struggled with gap discipline, and the DBs have taken atrocious angles as the last line of defense. If it was just one area that needed to be corrected I'd feel better about the coaching staff's chances of getting it done before Saturday night. But it's the compilation of bad technique and poor assignment football that has allowed this unit to be gashed.
TN: Quarterback Tajh Boyd has dropped a significant amount of weight from 2011 and has looked very good so far this year. Has the weight loss allowed Boyd to be a more effective piece of Chad Morris's attack, for example, in the running game, or has his solid start been more due to a progression in his understanding of the offense?
STS: Tajh Boyd looks a lot quicker and more elusive with his trimmed down figure this year. He's a lot more like the Tajh that we saw on his recruiting film and less like the straight ahead bulldozer that he became when he ballooned up over 240 lbs last year.
Tajh has truly only been asked to carry the ball against AU. Against BSU and Furman it wasn't worth the risk of having him run the ball. But against AU he ran for 80+ yards and kept numerous plays alive with his feet by shaking off AU's Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford. He also looked really good when running the zone read. If he can keep his weight down and continue to be a threat in the running game then it gives DC's and DE's one more thing to think about.
A few other things have played into his superb start this year. One, his footwork is a lot better than it was last year. This is something that he has been improving on each season. He sought out professional help at a clinic over the summer as well. At times he'd get sloppy with his footwork and try to make passes with just his arm, which led to some inaccuracies. This year he's had much better balance and the results show. I can count on one hand the number of inaccurate passes he's thrown this year.
You already alluded to the third major change from last year to this year - his knowledge of the offense. He's much more in command, much more composed under pressure, and knows exactly what Chad Morris is looking for out of him. He's reading defense and making good decisions with the football. His only interception on the year was a ball that was slightly off target to his backup TE, but one that hit him right in his hands and bounced into the defenders gut. He's going to need to continue to make good decisions with the football on Saturday. Taking a sack or throwing the ball away is going to be acceptable against this defense. Trying to make a play when it's not there is a recipe for disaster.
TN: The Clemson offense has seen Andre Ellington emerge as a serious playmaker in the running game. Last season, the Tigers had Mike Bellamy in the 2/3 back position who opened up inside running lanes for the Clemson backs via his ability to stretch a defense horizontally. How has he been replaced and how important will this horizontal stretch be against FSU?
STS: Clemson showed it last week, and you probably saw it some last year, but they'll use Sammy Watkins on jet sweeps to stretch the defense horizontally. It's important for Clemson that FSU respect the jet sweep because it could potentially open up some A gap running. I don't think Clemson is the point yet where they can just pound the ball up the middle at will without a little smoke and mirrors.
DJ Howard and Rod McDowell have also started gaining the confidence of the coaching staff. McDowell is a little bolt of lightning, so you could expect to see him used in much the same way that Mike Bellamy was used last year. Depth at RB was a question mark heading into the season because the staff didn't trust Howard and McDowell to hold onto the ball or pick up blitzes. But there haven't been too many complaints in these areas so far this year. You'll see Andre Ellington on the field the majority of the game. But he can't be expected to take 70 to 80 snaps per game. Howard and McDowell just need to be solid when they're in the game to give Ellington short breathers.
TN: Receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins pose a formidable challenge for a good Florida State secondary. Talk a bit about how Tajh Boyd will look to get these two involved and how much success you think he'll have in doing so on Saturday.
STS: Sammy Watkins was unbelievable last year and deservedly received a lot of national attention. As a result though, Nuk Hopkins became the forgotten man to most non-Clemson football fans. But this offseason was his first where he wasn't either injured or playing basketball. He had a full offseason to devote himself to football. And boy did he ever. He added muscle, worked on his speed and quickness, and he was the clear MVP of spring ball. If there is one area where Clemson fans are confident, it's in Sammy and Nuk's ability to get open. I don't think any set of DBs in the country can match up with these two guys. They are both tremendous college wide receivers and both have 1st round talent.
Their skill sets compliment each other very nicely too. They're both very physical at 205 lbs each, so it's difficult to jam them off the line. Both run very good routes and have a knack for going up and getting the ball. Sammy's faster than Nuk, but Hopkins isn't slow by any stretch of the imagination. If Clemson's offensive line can give Tajh time, and this is the biggest "if" in the game in my opinion, then Tajh will have open receivers.
TN: Last week, Florida State truly unveiled their kickoff strategy that involves Dustin Hopkins launching the ball into the air with as much hang time as possible and attempting to land it right on the goal line in order to maximize field position advantage with FSU's excellent coverage team. The results were striking, as Wake failed to return the ball past the 15 for most of the day. Clemson's return game is far more potent than Wake Forest's, obviously, but it will be interesting to see if the ‘Noles stick to this strategy or ask Hopkins to kick it out of the endzone and allow the Tigers to start at the 25. Which would be the more prudent strategy for Florida State, in your opinion?
STS: Sammy Watkins is expected to return kickoffs for Clemson and he is a threat to take it to the house any time he touches it. I've also seen Dustin Hopkins kick a football (55 yard game winner anyone?) and I know he has a strong leg. But if I were FSU I wouldn't mess around with kicking it to Watkins. I don't think the risk is worth the reward. It's possible that you can pin Clemson inside the 20 yard line each time, but why worry about saving 5 to 10 yards when the risk is a kickoff return 90 yards to the house? With a defense like FSU has, I would trust in them to make stops and wouldn't risk letting CU get a special teams TD.
TN: Prediction time! The line has swelled to two touchdowns, as of right now. How do you feel about this spread and how do you see this enormous game playing out in prime time?
STS: I've gotta say that I'm pumped for this game. It should be an incredible atmosphere and a real good litmus test for this Clemson team to see how much, if any, they've improved from last year. Clemson's closest defeat last year was 14 points. So our fans are used to either winning or getting demolished.
I think Clemson's offense will fare okay. I'm confident that they'll be able to move the ball between the 20's. But will they be able to score TD's in the redzone against a defense that should be able to limit their power running game? That's a tough task. And what will they do if they fall behind? Will they press like they did last year?
On the other side of the ball, I don't expect much out of Clemson's defense. I think they'll need to be aggressive and look to cause turnovers to hold down the Seminole's offense. I don't have confidence that our defense can consistently play their assignments and make fundamental plays to halt drives.
As much as it pains me to say this, and I hope I'm proven wrong, but I think that FSU pulls away late in this one. I think 40-24 sounds about right. Clemson is a good defense away from being a national championship contender, and right now we don't have a good defense.
Thanks to the guys at STS for the awesome Q&A!