Tigers study long and short of first down

Defense hopes it won't be caught sleeping against Wake's wrinkles

pstrelow@thestate.comOctober 15, 2009 

CLEMSON - When it comes to sustaining drives, Clemson's running game is hunting for a happy median.

On 95 designed first-down runs this season, the Tigers have averaged 4.48 yards per carry, a figure coaches would accept in a heartbeat.

But it has been feast or famine for the Tigers, as 42 of those 95 carries (44 percent) have gone for 2 yards or less, forcing the offense into a high volume of undesirably long second- and third-down situations.

In its two consecutive losses to TCU and Maryland, 18 of Clemson's 32 first-down runs (56 per-ent) spanned 2 yards or fewer, exemplifying the team's difficulties in establishing a power run-ning game.

And its difficulties at Maryland came in light of an otherwise sufficient passing performance on first down that theoretically should have opened things up for the Tigers. After going 3-for-16 on first downs the previous two games, quarterback Kyle Parker went 11-of-14 for 107 yards, one interception and one sack against the Terps.

"We have to be a better first-down football team," coach Dabo Swinney said. "We've got other things, but if we're better on first down, that's going to fix a lot of those issues. And a lot of that comes from pre-snap penalties, a dropped ball, and now you're be-hind the chains, and that's a spiraling process.

"You have to mix it up and be a team that will run, pass, screen, play-action. But we have to be a team that can play on second-and-6, not second-and-10, second-and-12 and certainly not first-and-15."

Diverse portfolio. Based on its use in last year's loss to Wake Forest, Clemson's defense is preparing for the Wildcat formation, even though the Demon Deacons haven't shown it this year.

Nor has Wake Forest gone with an empty backfield. But defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said what separates the Demon Deacons is they can and will throw surprises at the defense - from option runs to bootleg passes to orbit motion, and then some.

"The big thing is, it must be good coaching and really attentive and accountable players, they have the ability to switch gears in personnel groupings and style of offense from game to game and even during the game, and execute it very well," Steele said. "So it's one of those deals where you're working on everything you've seen and then more.

"They kind of pick a lane and drive fast in it, game by game."

Extra hands will help. Offensive coordinator Billy Napier said the Tigers have shied away from using as many four-receiver sets as in the past because of their lack of established depth at receiver.

And even in three-receiver sets, perhaps the most attractive option right now appears to be flexing out a tight end, such as senior Michael Palmer or redshirt freshman tight end Dwayne Allen.

Napier has intimated that more two-tight end sets could be in the team's immediate future.

"As Dwayne grows up and be-comes more dependable, practices with a great attitude and effort, his role increases," Napier said.

Extra points. Clemson was limited to practicing indoors Wednesday, which Swinney said wasn't as big a deal because of the amount of prep time the Tigers have had because of last week's open date. ... Swinney said he "wouldn't be surprised" if redshirt freshman Dalton Freeman starts at center Saturday over redshirt sophomore Mason Cloy, although no decision has been announced and both will play.

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