We're very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team-specific sites with which to work during game weeks. In anticipation of Saturday's renewed rivalry between Atlantic Division heavyweights, we decided that multiple installations of the Q&A series were in order. Part one features Ryan Kantor of Shakin The Southland, SBN's Clemson site, and focuses on the match-up between the Clemson offense and the Florida State defense. We'll flip that script and have part two for you on Thursday. Without further ado, let's get to it.
TN: First of all, what were your expectations for this team entering the season? Have they changed after seeing just how good they've been?
STS: Clemson has far exceeded my expectations to this point. Before the season, we put together a detailed preview which included win-loss predictions from bloggers across multiple SB Nation sites including Tomahawk Nation.The aggregate projection for the Tigers was 9-3.
Part of the reason that number was so low, was because of depth issues and the risk of injury. In particular, Deshaun Watson was coming off knee surgery and missed a handful of games a season ago. With him healthy and now playing excellent football after a somewhat slow (for him) start to the year, the Tigers offense is clicking.
Another big reason the Tigers are ahead of expectations is because the defense has avoided a major drop off from last year's excellent unit. This is somewhat inexplicable with so many star players departing (I'm writing this just shortly after watching Jameis Winston beat Vic Beasley and company in the GA Dome). Many of the players who have moved from the second team to starting roles, such as Shaq Lawson and Ben Boulware, are making a name for themselves, and DC Brent Venables is proving to be elite.
Finally, I think our daunting schedule turned out to be just a shade more manageable than it originally looked. While we certainly have had a tougher road that our undefeated friends from the Big 12, some things broke our way. Our blogger panel from the previous only gave the Tigers an 18% chance to escape the Louisville/Notre Dame/Georgia Tech stretch with three straight wins. Louisville's offense has been disappointing and was especially poor at that point in the season. Notre Dame lost their starting QB and starting RB, though they're still a legitimate top 10 team. Georgia Tech has turned out to be awful.
This Tigers team is proving to be very well-rounded, and has given me reason to change my projections. I'm certainly not oozing with confidence (read: arrogance) that we'll beat the defending ACC Champs this weekend, but I would honestly be somewhat disappointed if we don't make the College Football Playoffs this season.
TN: This off-season saw Chad Morris depart to take the head coaching job at SMU. How has the Clemson offense changed with co-offensive coordinators? Do you think it's been an improvement?
STS: The most noticeable difference has been more dedication to the run game.
Chad Morris installed an excellent offense at Clemson and helped build our brand and offensive identity. For that, Tiger fans should be extremely grateful. One of the few complaints Tiger fans had about Coach Morris was his proclivity to abandon the run - particularly against South Carolina. It's very hard to say if this newfound dedication is due to RB Wayne Gallman's maturation, improved O-line play, or play calling philosophy, but that's been one of the biggest differences in this year's offense.
TN: If there was a question about the Clemson offense entering 2015, aside from the effect of the Morris departure, it was probably about the Tigers' offensive line. How has this group performed this season, and how do you expect them to fare against the Florida State defensive line?
STS: I completely agree with your assessment. Aside from depth issues, my primary concerns with the team going into the season were the offensive and defensive lines. The defensive line has blown away expectations, but they're not alone. The offensive line has been pretty solid as well. They're not the 2011 Crimson Tide, but they've been better than average.
Isaiah Battle, last year's starting left tackle, unexpectedly left the team during the offseason which created a lot of concern, but true freshman Mitch Hyatt was been well-above average (excellent for a freshman) starting in his spot. Jay Guillermo left camp for personal reasons, but has returned, won the starting center job, and been an improvement over last season's center play. Joe Gore started at right tackle for the Georgia game last season, but was promptly benched and then had an appendectomy not too much later. He came into the season in excellent shape and has held down the position this year.
All in all, improved recruiting has seemingly forced everyone to increase their level of play. Many of us at Shakin the Southland desperately want to see Dabo continue to recruit both the quality and quantity of offensive lineman that he brought in with the last class.
TN: Wayne Gallman has emerged as a very nice back for the Tigers this season. What makes him such a quality runner? Are there any other rushing threats ‘Noles fans should have their eyes on Saturday?
STS: Wayne Gallman emerged during the second half of last season, but struggled in pass blocking and had to learn to patiently follow his blocks. He's continued to improve in both aspects this season. As a bigger back (6'1") he's really great at fighting for extra yards and getting to the markers.
The other back the staff has been giving significant snaps to is Zac Brooks. Brooks is an excellent receiver out of the backfield and has started to show explosiveness after missing all of 2014 with a foot injury.
TN: Who has stepped up for the Tigers at wide receiver after the unfortunate injury to Mike Williams?
STS: The Mike Williams injury hurt the offense more than expected, but as you allude to, players have began to step up as the Tigers have now scored 114 points in their past two contests.
Charone Peake struggled when first thrust into a bigger role, but has really come on as of late. He is a very good blocking wide receiver, which is best shown in .gif format where, at the top of the screen, he completely levels a Miami DB.
True freshman Deon Cain has also begun contributing as a legitimate deep threat, and of course, Artavis Scott is still the same excellent playmaker he was a year ago.
Still, I think the receiving option that has helped the most in William's absence is Jordan Leggett. The 6'5" junior TE already has 17 receptions and six TDs after registering 14 receptions and only one TD all of last season. He's given the Tigers a tall target for fades and creates matchup problems for linebackers with his athleticism. The once admittedly lazy practice player has apparently re-dedicated himself and is making a difference this year.
TN: Which match-ups do you like for the Clemson offense against the FSU defense? Which concern you?
STS: I hope to see slot receiver Hunter Renfrow and TE Jordan Leggett attack the middle of the field against what I understand to be a thin linebacking corps and see if Gallman can get to the second level and create big plays. Though FSU has a somewhat average sack total, 18, I'm instinctively nervous when we face a talented defensive line due to years of mediocre O-line play and Watson's injury history.
Thanks to Ryan for his time and insight! Head over to Shakin The Southland for all your Clemson informational needs. Our answers to their questions are here.