I spoke with Shakin’ The Southland contributor Tom Dianora this week about what’s been ailing Clemson and its offense, and what to expect from the Tigers this weekend and moving forward. His answers to my questions are below. My answers to Tom’s questions are over at STS.
BTP: The biggest topic around Clemson has been the performance of its offense against its two FBS opponents. I think everybody understands the UGA game can be forgiven, but that Georgia Tech performance was an eye-opener. Do you feel like this is more a blip in the season, or are there structural problems you expect will linger all year?
STS: I think there are some structural issues and growing pains that are going to take some time for Clemson to sort out. That being said, this group is too talented to be putting up a mere 14 points at home against Georgia Tech, so I expect a few more reasonable point totals in the coming weeks, even if the offense isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders.
Pretty much every part of the offense has contributed to the struggles to some degree, but my biggest concern, as it was last year and going into this season, is the offensive line—especially in run blocking. The Tigers have some talented guys in that unit, but there is some inexperience (e.g., Marcus Tate is a freshman starting at left guard), a more experienced player (Matt Bockhorst) playing a new and vital position for him (center), and overall a lack of cohesion. I think we’ll see bumps in the road on the offensive line all season, but hopefully some gradual improvement.
BTP: Related to that, what do you make of DJ Uiagalelei’s early struggles? How much of it is on him, and how much is it issues elsewhere?
STS: Similar to my answer above, the issues on offense are rooted in numerous factors that are all adding up to create an ugly product. The offensive line is the biggest issue in my opinion, but at other times, we’ve seen notable deficiencies in play-calling. There has been a general lack of creativity in offensive coordinator Tony Elliott’s calls, which is disconcerting to say the least. He and the Clemson staff have seemed reluctant to utilize Uiagalelei’s unique talents—i.e., when you have a 6-foot-4, 250-pound quarterback with a cannon of an arm, maybe you should use him in a power-run game in addition to taking some deep shots down the field. The Tigers did start to do the former with regularity in the second half of the Georgia Tech game, with positive results, so that was encouraging to see.
At times though, to your point, Uiagalelei himself has been the source of the issues. His pocket presence against Georgia was abysmal, as he did not seem to have the confidence and awareness to step up in the pocket and throw with authority. He sometimes holds the ball too long and hesitates if his first read isn’t open. Then he’ll sometimes miss throws to open receivers. Again though, at times it’s on him, but at other times he makes the right throw while the receiver runs the wrong route. So overall, players just aren’t on the same page. The offense is out of sync, and just about everyone involved is partially to blame.
BTP: Clemson’s defense, on the other hand, has been lights out. What’s made that group so good, aside from the whole they-have-a-bunch-of-talent thing? What weaknesses do they have, if any?
STS: The strength of Clemson’s defense is the front seven, with a front line consisting of Bryan Bresee, Myles Murphy, Xavier Thomas, and Tyler Davis (who is out long-term; more on that below). Then they have good depth in that unit with Justin Foster, Ruke Orhorhoro, and Tré Williams. Behind them, sophomore linebacker Trenton Simpson seems to have taken a big step after an uneven freshman campaign where he often looked like...well, a freshman. Baylon Spector is a strong veteran presence in the linebacking core, and then of course 17th-year-senior James Skalski is the leader of the defense. Reserve linebackers LaVonta Bentley and Malcolm Greene (who also plays some safety at times) have also shown promise.
The Tigers have less depth in the secondary, but freshman safety Andrew Mukuba has emerged as an excellent player immediately, which is great news for Clemson. They still also have another 17th-year-senior in Nolan Turner back there, as well as a star at cornerback in Andrew Booth.
Beyond the talent, I think defensive coordinator Brent Venables and the returning players had something to prove after Ohio State torched them in the playoff semifinal last season. So far, it seems the standard Venables has set during his time at Clemson has been restored.
As far as weaknesses, there is nothing glaring, but as I mentioned, the depth in the secondary is not great, so if teams play with tempo and can run a lot of plays on the Tigers, fatigue could become an issue for that unit. We also saw Ohio State use tempo last year and get plays off before Venables had his final call set, which led to major issues for Clemson. I have to think Venables and co. have worked to guard against that, but it’s one way teams might try to attack this defense.
BTP: Do you expect Tyler Davis’ absence to be noticeable at all? Are there any other injuries we should know about?
STS: Losing Davis for 7-8 weeks (he needs surgery to repair a torn bicep) is a big blow, but if there’s one unit where the Tigers can sustain a loss, it’s on the defensive line because of the aforementioned depth. Ruke Orhorhoro will step into a starting role. He has been very disruptive throughout the season, so hopefully that drop-off will not be too noticeable. Expect Tré Williams to spell him when necessary.
Linebacker Baylon Spector is a question mark for this game, as his knee flared up prior to the Georgia Tech game, which forced him out of that one. Dabo Swinney is hopeful he’ll be ready. If he can’t go, expect to see a lot of LaVonta Bentley. Star defensive tackle Bryan Bresee has been nursing a shoulder injury, but to this point he has not missed any games.
Lastly, while not an injury, running back Lyn-J Dixon has entered the transfer portal, so the Tigers’ depth at RB takes a hit. Still, Clemson should be OK there. Freshman five-star recruit Will Shipley is the new starter and should get the majority of the carries, with Kobe Pace serving as a capable backup.
BTP: Which matchups do you think will matter the most for Clemson on Saturday?
STS: As you might have surmised from my answers so far, I don’t think defense is the concern for Clemson. So my main focus will be on the offense. I am interested to see if NC State mimics the game plan Georgia Tech had, where they usually played eight people back and forced Clemson to put together slow, methodical drives with a lot of running plays. If that’s the case, the Tigers’ struggling offensive line against NC State’s defensive line will be the key matchup. I would also expect for the Tigers to build on the second half of last week’s game, and use Uiagalelei heavily in the running game.
Conversely, if NC State tries to play to its apparent strength of a good run defense, they could also force a struggling Uiagalelei to hit his throws down field, which also means the receivers have to do a better job of creating separation than they have so far this season. But until The Tigers prove they can handle a defense like the one the Yellow Jackets threw at them, I’d expect that the smart teams would copy that approach.