Yes, yes, we’ll get to DeShaun Watson soon enough.
But the first thing that pops when you start analyzing Clemson on film: the defense.
The linebackers are solid, the safeties are better, but it’s a group built around the special skills of a pair of dynamic corners and a mean defensive line. Those groups inform everything about the way they play, especially the outside duo of Mackensie Alexander and Cordrea Tankersley.
Alexander is everything a team could want a five-star prospect to be, blossoming into one of the best cover corners in the country, while Tankersley is a dynamic athlete who was modestly ranked out of high school. Those two can press all day long and lock down outside receivers, which frees safeties to do other things.
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Specifically, safeties pack the box or cover to allow linebackers to blitz and press the quarterback.
Nearly every contributor off last year’s top-flight line departed, but the Tigers just reloaded off their strong recruiting. Christian Wilkins, Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson lead the way, and while there’s less depth than last year, the group remains effective.
That much talent means potential NFL first-rounder Jayron Kearse is almost an afterthought at safety with the set of playmakers they have (he often worked in the box or as the lone deep player in Cover-1). It allows defensive coordinator Brent Venables to send fifth and sixth rushers with little to no zone coverage behind them, and more than a third of Clemson’s sacks come from non-linemen.
On the other side, Watson presents a fascinating case.
For chunks of the game, he’ll look almost as if he’s going in second gear. There will be overthrows and bad passes he’d like back. There are runs that seem as if they should probably get a few more yards.
Then suddenly he throws an on-point dart 40 yards into the hands of a covered receiver or follows a block and races 30 yards untouched. His play isn’t 100 percent consistent, but he’s almost like a pitcher who can reach back and throw a fastball 98 miles an hour when that’s needed.
That, and his feel for the game, allow the Tigers to keep the offense diverse. The backs are only OK when Wayne Gallman isn’t available, and the receivers are solid to good all the way around. But Watson is the key, the special player who makes the difference.
▪ With Gallman probably out/resting for the ACC title game, the running back group of Zac Brooks, Tyshon Dye and C.J. Fuller is relatively unimpressive.
▪ The Tigers mix in an array of option looks and even some power blocking. They’ll move Watson often in the pocket and once broke out an all-cut blocking look for pass protection.
▪ The screen game was especially deadly against Florida State and takes advantage of an offensive line that didn’t look especially consistent but was extremely mobile.
▪ Clemson’s offense keeps things spread out, mostly operating in 3-receiver, 4-receiver or empty backfield sets. Tight end Jordan Leggett is a versatile piece who makes that work.
▪ The Tigers are not shy about letting strongside linebackers Travis Blanks and Dorian O’Daniel shift out to cover slot receivers in space. Most teams play a nickel cornerback or slide safeties over, but Clemson has such good coverage elsewhere and versatility at that spot, it frees up the safeties for other purposes.
▪ Venables will get creative in the looks he throws out. He will shift to three-man lines or let Lawson, a star defensive end, float back in coverage. On third down, he can deploy a “radar” look with every potential pass rusher standing up.
▪ On one play, he went pure zero-coverage with a seven-man blitz and all four outside receiver manned up and pressed.
▪ It remains to be seen if Clemson will shift one of its top corners into the slot to deal with Pharoh Cooper. They’re probably capable, but teams have been shy about doing that most of the season.