clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

A new year, but the same Clemson: Deshaun Watson and a frightening defense

New, 12 comments
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson seems to have reached a point now where no amount of attrition, be it to transfer or the draft or graduation, forces the program to take a step back. The Tigers lost nine players to the NFL Draft this spring and seem no worse for wear.

It always helps to have continuity at quarterback--especially when that quarterback is, y'know, really good. Deshaun Watson's presence ensured that the offense wasn't going to endure much of a slide, if any. The real feat was maintaining an outstanding defense despite losing a bunch of key contributors. The Tigers keep plugging in (very talented) new faces and making it work. That's pretty difficult to do.

Clemson S&P+ national rank Yds/Play
(national rank)
Yds/Rush
(national rank)
Yds/Pass Att.
(national rank)
2015 Offense 10 6.4 (26) 4.9 (30) 8.3 (26)
2016 Offense 18 6.3 (34) 4.9 (39) 7.7 (53)

Deshaun Watson's 2016 is well below the standard he set as a sophomore in 2015, but he and the offense seem to be trending upward lately. Against Louisville, Watson was turnover-prone but threw for 306 yards on 9.9 yards per attempt. Clemson scored 42 points. The next week, he threw for 270 on 10.8 per attempt at Boston College. He connected on a total of nine touchdown passes in those two games, half of his season total.

And it's a wonder where that had been, because Clemson is just totally unfairly loaded at receiver. The Tigers returned a group responsible for 26 of the team's 35 touchdown catches last season, and added Mike Williams, who missed a lot of time because of major injury. Williams was a 1,000-yard receiver in 2014.

They have like a half dozen players capable of making a big play in the passing game. Again, super not fair, dude.

I was surprised to see that while the Tigers' passing game has been efficient, it hasn't been particularly explosive. And they've been below average on passing downs, which seems a little odd. (Note: "Passing down" does not mean "every time they threw the ball." A passing down is measured by down and distance, not playcalling.)

Part of that may be the fact that Clemson's ground game has been a bit spotty in some ways, despite Wayne Gallman's obvious talents. The Tigers haven't been explosive running the ball this season, and their success rate on running plays is only a smidge above the national average.

The Tigers are running the ball only about 52% of the time on standard downs, well below the national average of 59.7%, so they're definitely leaning a little harder on Watson's arm this season. He's also running the ball less frequently this year and getting fewer yardage on his rushing attempts.

None of that is to suggest that Clemson's running game is bad--it isn't bad, just a relatively unremarkable piece to an otherwise very good offense. Gallman is averaging more than five yards per carry and nearly 80 yards per game and could easily finish the year with 1,000 yards rushing. They just aren't running the offense through him, for understandable reasons.

Clemson S&P+ national rank Yds/Play
(national rank)
Yds/Rush
(national rank)
Yds/Pass Att.
(national rank)
2015 Defense 4 4.9 (17) 3.5 (20) 6.4 (26)
2016 Defense 2 4.0 (6) 3.2 (22) 5.0 (4)

Clemson's defense had seven players taken in the 2016 NFL Draft. It lost five of its top six tacklers. That includes Shaq Lawson (1st round) and Kevin Dodd (2nd), who combined for 49 tackles for loss last season. Forty-stinkin'-nine. Georgia Tech finished 2015 with 47 TFLs as a team.

Clemson's defense has led FBS in TFLs in each of the last three seasons, and this year they're third. Brent Venables keeps plugging new guys into his system and they keep on producing. The Tigers' defense might even be better this year despite its losses. (It does help to add talents like Dexter Lawrence, who was considered by many the No. 1 prospect in the 2016 class.)

So far, Lamar Jackson is the only guy to make Clemson's defense look human, but I think we can forgive them for that one. And Louisville did only manage 5.7 yards per play in that contest, well below its season average of 8.2.

Bit of a challenge ahead for NC State's offense, is what I'm saying. The offensive line is going to have to play exceptionally well to keep the Wolfpack on schedule consistently. The Tigers have a bunch of potential difference-makers and they can create havoc in a lot of different ways. Head on a swivel, kids!