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October 21, 2011
A Closer Look: Clemson
Larry Williams of TigerIllustrated.com is one of the foremost authorities on Clemson football.
A longtime beat writer of the Tigers, Williams was kind enough to provide Tar Heel Illustrated some answers to a few questions breaking down the undefeated and seventh-ranked Clemson squad that UNC will face Saturday afternoon in Death Valley.
Talk about Clemson's turnaround this season under Dabo Swinney. A lot of people thought Clemson could have a pretty good team this season, but realistically is this team really at a place where they should be in the BCS and/or national championship conversation?
Given Clemson's place at 7th in the BCS ratings, a lot would have to happen for the Tigers to get to the BCS title game. That aside, I do think it's realistic to talk about this team running the table.
Before the season, I said this team could finish anywhere from 10-2 to 5-7. Even though the 2010 team finished with an awful 6-7 record, a lot of those losses were close and this team still looked really talented to me. The key was Tajh Boyd -- he's certainly a gifted quarterback with a big arm, but no one knew how he'd react when he had to perform in games. This team was also thin at some spots, and that's why I thought another poor season was in play if injuries struck in the wrong places and if Boyd couldn't handle the big-game pressure.
Bottom line, you can get better in a hurry if you surround yourself with really good coaches and elite talent. Swinney deserves an enormous amount of credit for identifying Chad Morris, who was an obscure name not too long ago. And any team is going to be dramatically improved with Sammy Watkins in the mix.
Break down Clemson's dynamite tandem of Andre Ellington and Sammy Watkins. They do different things but come together to make an incredible tandem of speed and game-breaking ability.........
We knew Ellington was special in 2009 and 2010, when he had a number of explosive plays. He sat most of the offseason after undergoing toe surgery, so his conditioning was not ideal when this season began. And then injuries to his hamstring and quad further impaired him. He's not 100 percent yet, but he showed at Maryland that he's starting to look like the Ellington of the past two years. That has to be a scary notion for opposing defenses, because Morris' offense will open up even more if he gets consistent chunks from Ellington between the tackles.
Watkins is just a spectacular talent. On top of that, he is mature and humble beyond his years -- and also beyond the hype surrounding him late in his high school career. You just don't see many five-star guys who are this down to earth, and I think his willingness to work and learn has helped him make such an immediate splash.
When you see wide-angle looks at opposing defenses against Clemson, it's easy to see how much they flow to Watkins and key on him. That creates one-on-one opportunities for other guys, and a number of Clemson's "other guys" are pretty darned talented in their own right. Tight end Dwayne Allen and receiver Jaron Brown have capitalized on all the one-on-one coverage that comes as a result of the attention on Watkins.
Morris has found a lot of different ways to get Watkins the ball, but he's also effectively used Watkins as a decoy to create big-play opportunities elsewhere.
Cam Newton was the perfect weapon for Gus Malzahn's offense last year at Auburn, and I think the same dynamic is at work with Watkins because this offense does so much to stretch defenses horizontally and vertically. It just wouldn't have the same effect if Clemson were running basic I-formation looks.
How has Tajh Boyd coming along this season? What's he doing better now than perhaps earlier in the year? How has he been getting more support this season than recent past Clemson QBs?
As I said earlier, Boyd was a huge question mark entering the season. He didn't have a very good spring as he learned Morris' offense, but when he showed up in August he had made major advances in knowledge of the offense, footwork, etc. Morris was blown away by how far he had come, and the credit for that goes to Boyd for busting his tail on his own from April to August.
The exceptional thing about Boyd to date has been his accuracy on vertical throws. That's a huge part of this offense because Morris likes to take as many shots as possible. I can't think of many deep balls from Boyd that have not been dead on the money.
Boyd had some hiccups early in road games at Virginia Tech and Maryland, but he gathered his bearings and helped lead the Tigers to a victory in both of those games. That was impressive.
Boyd isn't a tremendous running threat, but he is capable of picking up some chunks off the zone-read. He's also been really adept at escaping pressure and avoiding sacks and negative-yardage plays.
Who have been the top performers on defense for Clemson this season? What are the areas that are vulnerable heading into Saturday's game against UNC?
Andre Branch has been really good at defensive end. Brandon Thompson is a major force on the interior, occupying frequent double-teams. I also like some of what I've seen from Malliciah Goodman on the other end.
This defense is mediocre statistically and has taken a big dip from last season. There have been some big issues with the secondary in pass coverage. There have also been some bad angles and poor tackling technique.
I think freshman Stephone Anthony is better than starting middle linebacker Corico Hawkins, but he has yet to take his spot. I wouldn't be surprised if that changed soon.
Clemson's defense did well against conventional approaches presented by Virginia Tech and Boston College. It's when the Tigers have faced more funky stuff that they've faltered the most often.
I think North Carolina can move the ball if they establish the running game and are able to create some unpredictability and get the hard play-action game going. That gave the Tigers some problems last year in Chapel Hill, and I suspect it could again Saturday.
But if the front four overwhelms North Carolina's offensive line and stuffs the run, I don't see how the Tar Heels have a chance in this one.
What are the biggest keys for Clemson to win this game? What in your opinion are the things North Carolina will have to do well against this team to give themselves a chance to win?
The matchup to watch is Clemson's offensive line against North Carolina's stout defensive front. The Tigers did well against Maryland's front, but this is a much bigger challenge because the Tar Heels are so imposing on the defensive line.
Morris prefers to establish the run, but I suspect he'll try to pass to set up the run in this one. North Carolina's secondary looked really susceptible to hard-play action and double moves in the deep passing game againstMiami, and that's right in Morris' wheelhouse.
As I said earlier, I think North Carolina has to establish the run if it hopes to keep this one close. The best defense against Morris' offense is playing keep-away and using long, time-consuming drives to keep the Tigers' offense off the field.