We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. This edition of the Opponent Q&A features our good friend Ryan Kantor of Shakin The Southland, SBN’s Clemson blog. We discuss Deshaun Watson, a scary d-line, and what to expect from the Tigers on Saturday night in Doak Campbell.
TN: It seems that everyone wants to compare the 2016 Clemson squad to the excellent 2015 group. FSU fans know all too well that each year features its own team. That said, how would you describe the similarities and differences between the two teams?
STS: By the end of last season, the Tigers offense was clicking on all cylinders and scored 37+ in each of their last four games (USC, UNC, OU, Bama). With a great deal of experience returning on offense and WR Mike Williams coming back from injury, many thought they’d pick up right where they left off. Heck, we spent the offseason writing about how they would be on par with some of the great offenses of our time, the Charlie Ward led FSU attack.
Counter to those expectations, the offense has looked sloppy at times. Early season drops by an uber-talented WR corps were a surprise. Watson missing some deep balls have slowed the aerial assault, and a case of fumblitis just about cost the Tigers (particularly against NC State). With eight lost fumbles, Clemson is tied for 116th in the nation (Virginia Tech is dead last with 12 lost fumbles).
If I had to highlight one specific dissimilarity from last season, I would point to the Clemson rushing attack. The drops and fumbles are fluky or at least can be solved, but the Tigers inability to hand the ball off and feel confident in getting 3-4 yards is disappointing. The Tiger offense has had to lean more heavily on the pass than a year ago. I’m not sure if the Tigers can win a playoff game if they don’t improve on their 4.6 YPC.
As for a similarity, I think you can look at the defensive line. Even Alabama struggled to run up the middle against Clemson’s front four last year. With a handful of key players (Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd, and DJ Reader) departing, it wasn’t expected to continue, but they’re excellent once again.
TN: Deshaun Watson’s stats, particularly those on the ground, are down from a year ago to this point. The ‘Noles have struggled mightily defending mobile quarterbacks. Have the Tigers been reluctant to run Watson against lesser competition? Do you see him being turned loose in Tallahassee on Saturday?
STS: Watson didn’t really run the ball much in the first half of last season either, however he was coming off an offseason knee surgery so that made sense. Although he ran for 91 yards in a huge win over Louisville, by in large he hasn’t been as aggressive running the ball so far this year as he was down the stretch last season. There are a couple of possible reasons for that.
Clemson is trying to keep him healthy for the stretch run. This is a simple explanation. Oftentimes the simplest explanation is best and I think this tells part of the story, but only part.
Deshaun Watson doesn’t want to be a scrambling QB. This explanation is a bit more controversial and stems from an ESPN interview where he said he doesn’t like being labeled as a dual-threat QB and thinks the label is lazily applied to African-American quarterbacks due to their race. When comparing Watson with Lamar Jackson, fan favorite LB Ben Boulware, jokingly said “They are both dual-threat guys even though Deshaun hates that word – that’s what he is, so he’s got to get over it.” This attitude may play a small role, but only so much in how he trained and what he worked on all offseason.
Watson added almost 20lbs of muscle over the offseason. We were told that he added all this muscle in his first healthy offseason since high school, yet maintained his speed. Maybe he simply isn’t as quick as he was. I don’t believe this to be the case, but it is a possibility that deserves mention.
Finally, it could be that the offensive line has struggled a bit in run blocking. While it is obvious that it has made it harder for Wayne Gallman to find running room, it could be the case that the same is true for Watson so Clemson is simply running the ball less overall.
All of these may play some part in the explanation, but more than anything I agree with your assertion that the coaching staff has planned to use him more seldom when we face weaker competition. That’s why you saw him get a season-high 14 carries against Louisville, the only opponent who was favored against us. I think we will see him a bit more aggressive on the ground against a very talented FSU defense that’ll stress Clemson’s O-line.
TN: If the Seminoles are going to give the Clemson offense problems on Saturday night, how do you think they’ll have to do it?
STS: For all the talk that Watson is “off” this year, he has really been able to pick apart defenses when given the time. Auburn manned up and Clemson’s receivers were unable to get a ton of separation. I know the FSU defense hasn’t lived up to the billing of their raw talent, but this may be a case where they have to trust their talent to win some man-to-man matchups. The biggest concern in doing this is Watson taking off running and burning them on the ground.
The soft coverage strategy can be a good for teams at a significant talent disadvantage like GT and NC State, but FSU doesn’t fit into that category. It worked out fairly well for NC State, because Clemson shot themselves in the foot with silly turnovers, but GT employed the same strategy and Clemson was effective in taking what the defense gave them and converting in the red zone. It’ll be interesting to see if FSU would rather play soft and wait for Clemson to make a mistake or be aggressive and see if their talent shows through. If I was an FSU coach I’d sleep better at night knowing we came out with an aggressive approach and challenged our opponent rather than played soft and just hoped they made silly mistakes.
TN: The Tiger defense is led by an absolute wrecking crew up front, but the secondary appeared to be the weak link of the unit coming into 2016. How would you assess the play of the line, linebackers, and secondary so far this season?
STS: As mentioned earlier, Clemson’s D-line has been excellent. DE Coach Marion Hobby and DL Coach Dan Brooks deserve more credit than they get. This unit seems to inexplicably replace first round talent (Vic Beasley, Shaq Lawson) without missing a beat. Of course, it helps to bring in a 340lbs five-star freshman who almost immediately becomes a starter – Dexter Lawrence.
The linebackers have been solid overall, though they’re still occasionally exposed in pass coverage.
The secondary has exceeded expectations. The safeties have mostly avoided the type of silly busts that we saw down the stretch of last season. CB Cordrea Tankersley has filled the void shut down CB Mackensie Alexander left when he headed to the NFL early. Opposite Tankersley, CB Marcus Edmond has stepped up and made two game-winning plays (tackled James Quick to seal the Louisville win, intercepted Ryan Finley to beat NC State in OT). Lastly, I really like our spunky undersized Nickel/CB Ryan Carter who gives a great effort and really blows up screen plays.
This all may sound like a little bit of Clemson homerism, but the Tigers have the #2 S&P+ defense and are truly exceeding expectations so I don’t have too much negative to say here. The D-line is the strength of the defense and maybe the whole team. I’m hoping this can shape up to be like the Super Bowl New York Giants teams in that their D-line is so dominant they cover up some other blemishes en route to a Championship.
TN: Florida State’s offense has increasingly utilized its two tight-end personnel grouping this season with the emergence of Mavin Saunders, and I expect to see a lot of it against the Tigers on Saturday. How do you expect Brent Venables to defend these heavier formations, and what worries you about the FSU offense on the whole?
STS: NC State recognized the mismatches they faced when lining up against Clemson’s D-line and they had an excellent game plan to largely neutralize it. Rather than run RB Matt Dayes directly into the teeth of the defense they got him outside on stretch plays and let him cut back inside as holes opened up. They also avoided having QB Ryan Finley sit back and make traditional reads or deeper throws very often. They got the ball out quick and let their play makers make plays.
Florida State has better play makers than NC State and would be well served to do the same. The thought of Dalvin Cook making a cut back on a stretch play is worrisome to say the least. Having two TEs while they do it only makes it that much more dangerous. If the TEs are both capable pass catchers, they can stress the Clemson defense over-the-middle too.
I’m confident Clemson’s defense can stop FSU if they come with an attack reliant on A and B gap runs and slow developing routes. It’s when they are tossing it out to Dalvin Cook, using TEs to expose LBs in coverage, and quickly getting the ball out to play makers on the edge that I believe they’ll be more effective.
TN: Finally, let’s get a prediction. The Tigers opened as only a (surprising, IMO) 2-point favorite, which has since risen. How do you see this one unfolding in Doak Campbell?
STS: I think Clemson struggles to run the ball and that allows Florida State keeps it close. In the end though, Watson reminds us why he was the Heisman favorite coming into the season and DC Brent Venables asserts himself as the best defensive coordinator in the country. Even with a pass-heavy attack, Clemson should be able to score enough to pick up their most impressive true road win in quite a while.