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FSU football opponent Q&A: Clemson

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. This week’s edition of our Opponent Q&A series features a chat with Ryan Kantor, editor over at Shakin The Southland, SBN’s Clemson blog. We discuss figuring things out, a freshman quarterback, and what on Earth FSU might be able to do to move the ball.

TN: The Tigers roll into Tallahassee appearing to have figured some things out over the last couple of weeks. Would you agree with that assessment? Where do they still need to improve to make a deep playoff run?

STS: Yes, I think the Tigers answered some big questions last weekend against NC State – most notably in their secondary. The Tigers lost safety Van Smith (who unexpectedly left early and didn’t stick in the NFL) and moved safety Isaiah Simmons to SAM linebacker to fill the void left by Dorian O’Daniel (who is now on the Chiefs).

QB Ryan Finley and the Wolfpack were well-suited to expose this weakness, but were shut down. It wasn’t just a matter of Clemson winning in the trenches. Their solid WR corps were well covered. Safety K’Von Wallace had an INT, Safety Tanner Muse had a sack, and even backup Safety Nolan Turner had an impressive pass breakup.

On offense, the Tigers answered a big questions as well, showing they can win passing the ball if teams stack the box.

To make a run to the National Title game they just need to continue to grow and become more consistent. Continuing to get experience for young players (e.g., Trevor Lawrence, Xavier Thomas) will be important.

TN: Tell us a bit about the man with whom we’ll become all too familiar on Saturday and the following two years. What does Trevor Lawrence do particularly well, and where does he need to make strides to reach his maximum potential?

STS: Trevor Lawrence has totally changed Clemson’s offense. He has a strong arm and gets it out quickly. His deep ball accuracy and willingness to air it out is a major step change from a year ago. Now we’re using our elite WR talent to their full potential. Tee Higgins is averaging 16.4 yards per catch and freshman Justyn Ross is averaging 19.0 yards per catch! Last year, Clemson’s top targets were averaging about 12 yards per catch. Additionally, his quick release and impressive arm strength has made screen passes much more effective.

His most obvious area for improvement is knowing when to get rid of the ball. He failed to throw the ball away against Syracuse on the play in which he got hit and strained his neck. He took a sack last week that was more a case of him holding the ball too long that the offensive line letting him down. He needs to know when to throw it away or quickly hit the check down.

TN: Obviously Travis Etienne has exploded onto the national scene this season, but how have the guys blocking for him fared?

STS: Etienne leads P5 RBs in YPC and rushing TDs. The offensive line has certainly been a part in that, but I think the story here is more about progress from Clemson RBs than a dominant run blocking Tiger O-line. Clemson ranks 25th in line yards and 39th in stuff rate, both slightly worse than last season.

Conversely, the RB corps is a major strength for the team. They returned three very solid RBs and they all look improved. Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster appear improved in pass protection while veteran Adam Choice has improved as a runner. On top of that, Lyn-J Dixon is already showing great promise as a true freshman.

TN: Which Clemson receivers should instill the most fear in FSU fans’ hearts?

STS: Hunter Renfrow is an elite slot receiver who will pick up key third downs and flash some shiftiness you aren’t expecting, but the ones who will change a game are Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. With QB Trevor Lawrence at the helm they’re major deep threats. I expect Clemson to attack the Seminoles defense on the ground, horizontally in the screen game, over the middle to Hunter Renfrow, and deep to these two five-star talents.

TN: The expectations for the Clemson defensive line were astronomical coming into 2018, and rightfully so. How would you evaluate their play to date?

STS: They’ve certainly lived up to the hype as far as being a dominant run stuffing unit. Teams simply can’t run the ball against this line. Last week against NC State, they were forced to put the game on QB Ryan Finley’s back with little support on the ground and that proved impossible. They’ll likely do that to most teams they face.

They’re 5th nationally in sack rate, but because they played three triple-option teams that still only comes to 21 sacks (for reference, Oklahoma State ranks lower in sack rate but has 30 sacks). They also haven’t had a jaw-dropping pass rushing performance like they had last year against Auburn when they sacked Jarrett Stidham 11 times.

I think they’ve been fantastic and are meeting expectations, but it hasn’t been as flashy as the hype led us to expect.

TN: Are there any match-ups with FSU’s offense that concern you?

STS: Tre’ McKitty at TE gives the Seminoles an opportunity to attack Clemson’s linebackers in coverage. He’s been much more active in the passing game than Clemson’s TEs and may be needed if Clemson’s D-line shuts down the running game (likely) and doesn’t give Francois enough time to attack with deeper routes to Noonie Murray (possible).

TN: Finally, how do you see this one unfolding? If there’s any path to a Florida State victory, what do you think it is?

STS: Clemson has proven they can beat you on the ground. They proved last week that they’re just as deadly if you stack the box and make them attack you through the air. A blitz-heavy approach that challenges Lawrence’s pocket presence may be how the Seminoles try to get their edge, and it could work.

Sometimes you can feel when a team is ready to make a statement. It felt that way heading into last weekend’s game against the Wolfpack. In what seems like an upside down comment, this could be more of a letdown opportunity. The Tigers got off to a blazing hot start against NC State, but had been prone to slow starts before then. They need to avoid the early sloppiness they’ve had in several games.

This is only the second ever three game win streak Clemson has had over FSU (‘05, ’06, ’07). They’ve never had a four game win streak. I think the Florida State brand is simply too big and bold to be overlooked. The Tigers will see the opportunity and remain focused. If so, they should dominate defensively and do enough offensively to win by two scores.

Big thanks to Ryan for his time and insight! Be sure to head over to Shakin The Southland for Clemson coverage. You can find our answers to their questions here.