Four games into the season, Clemson’s offense remains a work in progress.
Injury, illness and disciplinary issues required coach Dabo Swinney to tap into his talent pool, and the result might be encouraging for the long term. Playing in the Carrier Dome on Saturday can be disaffecting for the best teams, even a third-ranked and undefeated Clemson team favored by two touchdowns. Communication becomes an even more coveted resource.
Much of the responsibility falls on quarterback Tajh Boyd. He has yet to have the same starters in consecutive weeks. Only left tackle Brandon Thomas, center Ryan Norton, receiver Sammy Watkins and running back Rod McDowell have been with him all four games.
“There was one point in my career I didn’t know who was out there, maybe Nuke (DeAndre Hopkins) and one other guy, but you have to know your guys,” Boyd said. “I’m very comfortable with who’s out there.”
Last season, Boyd had symbiotic relationships with center Dalton Freeman and receiver Hopkins, who needed only a wink or tap to communicate. Watkins worked all spring and summer to replicate what Boyd had with Hopkins, and there were indications last week that it’s beginning to blossom. Swinney said Norton has been the team’s most valuable player through four games.
There are still continuity issues that might be resolved with time, not with a wink.
Clemson has averaged 179 rushing yards per game, down 20 from last season. And if you concede those little shovel flips are passes, there have been two runs of at least 20 yards. Additionally, Boyd has been sacked nine times, four by S.C. State.
“We have more guys who are ready to play than we ever have,” Boyd said. “It needs to come to a point soon where there’s a set five. We’ve got to continue to keep working, continue to keep building to figure out who’s going to be the best among those guys.”
Swinney wishes they were as interchangeable as Lego pieces.
“It seems like every game we’ve had something going on there,” he said. “We really haven’t had the continuity, but it’s good from my perspective because we’re developing a lot of guys and a lot of depth.”
David Beasley and Tyler Shatley opened the season at guard, but each missed a game with an injury, opening the door for Kalon Davis, the biggest and most enigmatic of the offensive linemen. When Giff Timothy, a fixture at right tackle last season, sustained a concussion in Raleigh, sophomore Shaq Anthony started.
Swinney said he believes center Jay Guillermo is more than capable of stepping in for Norton. Tackle Isaiah Battle took two steps forward and one back when he was suspended after punching a player in the N.C. State game. Eric Mac Lain and Joe Gore each played two dozen snaps against Wake, and Swinney wants to find a place for Patrick DeStefano, a guard disguised as a blocking tight end in the Georgia game.
“I think that it will pay off for us because it’s a long year and it’s really hard to keep five guys every play, every game in there,” Swinney said. “We got to do some things better.
“I don’t see any issues from a physical standpoint as far as the ability to do what we need to do, but we’ve got to be on the same page better. When you don’t have the continuity, sometimes that’s a bit of an issue in communication,” he said. “It’s nothing we can’t fix. It’s nothing that I’m sitting here going, ‘Well, we just don’t have an answer for that.’ I like the players that we have.”