Offseason Q&A: Clemson

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When you look at Notre Dame’s 2015 schedule, it’s hard to skip past the Irish’s trip to Clemson. Returning to Death Valley for the first time since Joe Montana led a comeback victory in 1977, Brian Kelly’s squad will take on Dabo Swinney’s impressive team, the makings of a football game with College Football Playoff implications.

There’s a rising star at quarterback, but a new offensive brain trust. A year after putting together the finest statistical defense in the country, there’s a renovation taking place there as well.

To get us up to speed on the offseason comings and goings of the Tigers is Shakin the Southland‘s Brian Lewis.

Hope you enjoy.

 

 

Perhaps one best parts of the move into the ACC was the chance to play a program like Clemson. This will only be the third time the two programs have played, with Joe Montana pulling out a comeback victory in Death Valley during their 1977 national title season and the Tigers winning in South Bend two years later.

What should Notre Dame expect from the home crowd in early October? Is this game a special one on the schedule for Clemson fans as well?

While it isn’t an ACC game, this is easily one of the biggest games on Clemson’s schedule this year. Though there isn’t a lot of history between both schools, Clemson fans always enjoy playing the bigger names in college football, and this will be an excellent opportunity for a statement win. As for the crowd, Clemson fans will definitely be up for this one. Even if the Tigers are not undefeated they will be excited to get a victory against what could be a top 10 team by that point. If things fall right this will hopefully be a night game adding a special intensity to it like the Clemson – UGA game in 2013.

 

On paper, there seem to be two gigantic departures from the Clemson program. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris and… basically the majority of the nation’s top statistical defense.

Let’s start with Morris. Will the Clemson offense look any different? And how will a two-headed co-coordinator approach work in replacing a guy many think is one of the top minds in college football?

The assumption right now is the Clemson offense is going to be pretty similar under Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott. Both continued Morris’ HUNH offense in our Russell Athletic Bowl victory over Oklahoma, and spring practice indicates they will keep that HUNH approach as well. The one area I’m going to be interested in seeing is playcalling.

While we all love Morris and what he did here, his playcalling could be a little suspect at times. There were several games where Clemson got behind by 7-10 points and Morris stopped running the ball. This led to Tajh Boyd, in previous seasons, to press throws and feel like he had to make plays. Unsurprisingly this led to turnovers and the game falling further out of reach. Despite a lackluster OL I home both coordinators will stick with the running game to keep defenses honest.

 

Not watching a ton of Clemson last year, the stat that sticks out to me about the defense was the fact that six guys from the unit were invited to the NFL Combine. That’s a lot of talent. Brent Venables was pretty candid with SI.com when talking about rebuilding his defense, saying, “It wasn’t odd, it was depressing.”

How big of a step back do you expect this unit to take? And is it more of a reload than a rebuild?

Early on this is definitely going to be a rebuilding year for the defense. Clemson had the #1 ranked defense in the country last year and we lost too much talent. I’m not even sure an Alabama or LSU would be able to reload after what we lost. That said, there is definitely some potential. We have one of the top cornerbacks in college returning in Mackenzie Alexander, and enough pieces in spots to have a solid starting XI.

The problem is going to be depth. Last year on the DL we had 8 guys that would start at most schools, now we are down to a starting 4 that has potential but not a lot of experience. I think the defense gets better as the year goes on, but it might be frustrating for Clemson fans. The 2 early season cupcake games are going to be crucial here to build confidence and ability.

 

Let’s talk about Dabo Swinney. He didn’t get out to the quickest start after taking over the program, but Clemson has won at least 10 games in four straight seasons. He seems like a guy that players love and he certainly has recruited well.

Help Notre Dame fans understand who Swinney is as a coach, and why he’s had the success he’s had at Clemson.

I liken Dabo to the loveable but slightly nuts uncle every family has. He’s a lot of fun to be around despite some of the odd things he does. Dabo has done pretty well at Clemson because he is first and foremost a recruiter. Kids want to come play at Clemson and Dabo has done a tremendous job of selling Clemson as well as the family atmosphere around the team.

Coach Swinney is never going to be a big X’s and O’s nut like other coaches, but he’s done a good job of learning from his mistakes and bringing in talented coordinators. Clemson is experiencing its most successful stretch of results since the 1980’s and it is hard to argue with what Dabo’s done. But there are questions about if he can take the next step and deliver a national title to Clemson. If he does that he will easily be considered one of the two best coaches in Clemson history alongside Danny Ford.

 

Deshaun Watson sure seems like a star in the making. A tremendous freshman season seems to have been derailed by injuries, the most serious an ACL tear late in the year.

How is his recovery coming along? And with the supporting cast surrounding him, just how good do you expect him to be in 2015?

Everything points to Deshaun Watson being ready for the start of the season and hopefully the start of Fall Camp. It is not an exaggeration to say that Clemson’s season lives and dies based on the health of Watson. Behind Watson we have Nick Schuessler, originally a walk on, and two freshman in Tucker Israel and Kelly Bryant. Needless to say I’m not exactly excited about what happens if Watson gets hurt.

Around Watson there is a lot of talent at the skill positions. We have a nice group of RBs that while lacking a breakout star should provide some relief in the running game. At wide receiver Clemson is loaded once again with Mike Williams and Artavis Scott. Really almost all of Clemson’s top 6 receivers can play and do some damage to opposing defenses. The real problem comes on the OL. The unit can pass block to a decent level, but the run blocking is atrocious. If our OL can approach competent then this could be a special year for Clemson

As for Watson’s season, if he stays healthy I think he becomes a darkhorse Heisman candidate. He has excellent poise in the pocket and has shown an ability to make some beautiful throws. He is also a threat when he’s running the ball. There will definitely be some times he’ll struggle during the season, but I think he’s going to be fine and emerge as one of the top QBs in the nation. Of course all of this comes with the qualifier of staying healthy. He’s had 3 significant injuries in the past 12 months and durability is definitely a question.

 

News broke last week that Clemson’s starting left tackle Isaiah Battle would be leaving the program and going into the Supplemental Draft. What does that departure do to the offensive line? 

It definitely doesn’t help Clemson. While Battle has never reached the first round potential he showed his freshman year, he was an experienced OL that was at least average in the passing game. With his departure Clemson is likely to start freshman Mitch Hyatt at LT.

Thankfully Hyatt enrolled early and had an excellent spring, but it is always a big ask when you need a freshman to play a critical role on the OL, especially with the injury woes Deshaun Watson has. At this point any injury, suspension, or dismissal along the OL is going to be critical to Clemson.

 

What’s the best case / worst case scenario for Clemson in 2015? Is this a game that you expect the Tigers to win?

I think this year’s Clemson team is not as talented as last year’s team, but could have a better record. Clemson finished last year 9-3 and with how our schedule sets up the team could easily be 10-2. Games against Florida State, South Carolina, and Notre Dame are the big three and we should win at least 1 of those three if not 2. Helping us is the fact that we have Notre Dame and FSU at home this year, same with Georgia Tech who always gives us trouble.

A Thursday night visit to Louisville is also a concern, but Clemson should win that one and FSU-Clemson in Novemeber will likely determine the ACC Atlantic Division Champion once again. Of course if Deshaun Watson gets hurt I’m going to just sit in the corner and cry.

Notre Dame at Michigan State: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

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WHO? Notre Dame at Michigan State. Many years, this matchup would warrant anticipatory headlines. In this rendition, two teams coming off historically-disappointing seasons are looking to prove they are on the path back to top-flight competitiveness.

WHAT? As may become a theme this season, this will come down to how the Irish offensive line fares against the Spartans’ defensive front seven.

WHEN? 8:00 p.m. ET. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:12, though if the preceding game runs long, a five-minute contingency should be expected. At that point, though, the game will begin one way or another.

WHERE? Spartans Stadium, East Lansing, Mich. Years ago, a venture to this site is where I first learned a traveler’s rule of thumb: Never make a trip where the roundtrip travel is longer than the time spent at the destination. I have since violated the rule a total of once, when the New York Yankees visited the Detroit Tigers in the 2011 divisional round. The wrong team won. Speaking of baseball and apropos of nothing else aside from being reminded of it this week, Cy Young threw 749 complete games, a full 110 more than the next-most in history, Pud Galvin’s 639.

Fox has the broadcast this week. Aside from that meaning Gus Johnson will be providing the exhilarating play-by-play, not sure what else to share about that fact.

WHY? This will be the last game — unless a bowl situation were to arise — between Notre Dame and Michigan State until 2026. Whoever wins will get to display the vaunted megaphone trophy for nearly a decade without worry. If that doesn’t get everyone’s competitive juices flowing, well, then that is not much of an indicator of anything because it is actually a pretty absurd keepsake.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

BY HOW MUCH? This line moved as high as Notre Dame by five, never to this eye falling below three, and that is where it settled in as of this Friday evening typing. With a combined points total over/under of 54, the theoretical projected score would be an Irish 28-25 victory.

That might be a bit high-scoring, especially considering the performance of Notre Dame’s defense to date. If Georgia could not surpass 20 points, there is no reason to think the Spartans can.

Notre Dame 23, Michigan State 17. (2-1 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame should punt less, a Georgia ticket arrest & Bob Diaco’s fate
Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ready for a tough week for the dozen foes, but that could mean some promising upsets
MSU’s man-to-man pass D may allow Notre Dame & Wimbush to rush more; Kelly on resting Adams
Who among Notre Dame’s receivers might emerge?
And In That Corner … The Michigan State Spartans and a recovery from a 3-9 season
Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness
Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update
Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE BOSTON COLLEGE GAME
Notre Dame rushes past Boston College and record books
Notre Dame offense may trend toward run, partly thanks to Wimbush
Things We Learned: Notre Dame lacks an aerial attack and a punt return, has a defensive future
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Canteen out for the season, Javon McKinley probably sitting also; Kelly on blocking strategy

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Georgia ticket broker arrested for overselling Notre Dame vs. Bulldogs tickets
The NFL’s Crisis on Offense … may reflect a collegiate trend
At USC, Sundays and Mondays matter just as much as Saturdays
Remembering Michigan State’s epic “Little Giants” fake field goal against Notre Dame
Joe Thomas on measuring a running attack’s success
Nebraska fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst, putting the future employment of head coach Mike Riley, and by extension his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, in doubt
A long look at Bob Davie’s checkered past as controversy swirls in New Mexico
The Unforgettable, Inspirational CFB Gameday Inside Iowa’s Children’s Hospital
A five-by-five Pac-12 After Dark bingo card for anyone staying up late to watch UCLA at Stanford
10 years after Mike Gundy’s “I’m a man! I’m 40!” rant, the columnist it was aimed at reflects

Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

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For all the enjoyment football brings so many, it is a game predicated on one sense above all others: sight.

Sure, the atmosphere in Spartans Stadium this weekend will include the sounds of yelling fans, the smells of propane grills and the taste of cheap, domestic buds. Even the weather will trigger the feeling of sweat.

The game itself, however, needs only working eyes. There is a reason film is usually watched on mute, after all.

There are some things related to the game not seen, or not seen often, though.

Let’s start with an educational session from the NFL’s Cal Ripken — Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas

Yes, that is the same Thomas as the one drafted in the same year, in the same round, by the same team as former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Quinn has not seen NFL action since getting eight starts for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, throwing two touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.

Thomas, meanwhile, now blocks for his second former Irish passer while on his way to a likely 11th consecutive Pro Bowl. Note: This is Thomas’ 11th year in the NFL. Not only has he started all 162 games of his career, he has now played in more than 10,000 consecutive offensive snaps.

That’s, uhhh, a lot.

Thursday morning Thomas met with reporters and offered some insights to how he gauges a successful day at the office. (Fair warning: The following embedded video does include one four-letter word. Thomas’ point is quoted and summarized below, so the video may not be necessary to view.)

“You always hear a lot about 4.0 yards per carry, which is sort of everyone’s standard,” Thomas said. “… If you look at rushing in the NFL, you go alright, we went for 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 60. And then you go, we’re rushing really well, we have a seven-yard average. But really how are you going to get the offensive coordinator to call a run again if he’s getting one and two yards and facing a third-and-seven all the time?”

Well, you’re not.

Thomas prefers “rushing efficiency,” valuing runs of more than four yards, runs gaining first downs and runs finding the end zone. If those make up at least 60 percent of rush attempts, Thomas deems it a success.

“That’s what’s going to allow you to get 20, 25, 30 carries in a game,” he said. “Then you walk out of the game feeling good about getting your 100 yards at the end of the game versus saying you didn’t have four yards a carry, but you were really efficient so you did stay ahead of the sticks, and you were able to keep the offense on the field and be in manageable third downs.”

This space has previously argued the easiest way to learn if a rushing attack is potent or not is to simply note how many running attempts it has. This parallels Thomas’ argument: If the run game is not doing what it needs to do, the coaches will stop calling running plays. The run efficiency percentage is simply a more exact metric, albeit one you cannot see in a glimpse of a box score.

How has Notre Dame fared thus far this season?

Using Thomas’ standards, the Irish had a 61.90 percent rush efficiency in the season opener (42 rushes), a 32.35 percent rating in their one loss (34) and a 66.67 percent tally in last week’s record-setting rushing performance (51). (more…)

Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update

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In his last media availability before Notre Dame heads to face Michigan State this weekend (8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Fox), Irish coach Brian Kelly did not discuss his receiver corps at all.

Just kidding.

Of the eight topics Kelly was questioned about, five of them dealt with wideouts in some respect, perhaps spending the most time on C.J. Sanders. The junior has yet to be seen contributing on offense this season.

“It’s not that he’s really done anything from last year to this year wrong,” Kelly said. “He’s actually stronger. I think he’s a better football player. You’re going to see him on the field. … As the season progresses, he’s going to play.”

Kelly cited the blocking provided by fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cam Smith as the biggest impediment between Sanders and an immediate increase in playing time, describing Smith’s blocking as “just physically” better. With sophomore Chase Claypool also seeing time on the boundary, Sanders faces stiffer competition for playing time.

“Do you move him back into the slot?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “We’re pretty comfortable moving guys around at this point at that position because of our need to put bigger-bodied guys in the offense with the tight end at that position.”

In other words, Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long have moved receivers such as Sanders, and even Claypool, out to the boundary because they so often remove the slot receiver from the field in favor of an additional tight end.

Injury update

Speaking of Sanders, Kelly declared him “fine” in his recovery from a sprained ankle. For that matter, sophomore running back Tony Jones will be a “game-day decision” as to his availability due to a sprained ankle suffered against Boston College.

Kevin Stepherson update

There is no indication the sophomore receiver will join Notre Dame’s offense this week. Considering Stepherson did not even travel to face the Eagles, it is quite likely he watches this weekend on a television, as well. Yet, Kelly did speak positively of Stepherson’s return from something of an absence thus far this season.

“He’s had a good month,” Kelly said. “His last month has been pretty good. He’s been pretty consistent working to do the right things in the classroom and has exhibited the things that I’ve been looking for. He’s been working out with [the team] for the last week or so.”

But, to add some emphasis here again, Kelly did not imply Stepherson will play this weekend. In fact, the exact opposite.

“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s making progress.”

On punt returns and Chris Finke

To complete this week’s second (third? fourth?!) receiver recap, Kelly defended junior receiver Chris Finke’s work as a punt returner this season. Irish opponents have punted 22 times in three games. Finke has attempted to return eight of them. He has netted a total of two yards.

“We’re pleased with him,” Kelly said. “There won’t be a change there.”

Kelly did include a caveat for praising Finke’s return game.

“We’ve been in a number of fourth down situations where we’ve asked for a fair catch and he hasn’t fair caught it,” Kelly said. “We have to be better there. He has to fair catch those balls.”

On the moments when Finke returned a punt to absolutely no avail, Kelly cited missed blocks as the culprit, not Finke’s decision to make a move with the ball.

“One of our gunners has to do better on hold-up,” he said. “We think we’ve had an opportunity for a couple of good returns. … If there’s a change, it will be with one of the gunners.”

Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness

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It is a curious, frustrating time in the college football season. We think we know everything. We actually know nothing.

Notre Dame beat up on Boston College and Temple, but fell a play short against Georgia. If the Bulldogs are what they appear to be, then the Irish may be a very competitive team this year. If they aren’t, then that one-play-short speaks much louder. This weekend should do wonders in providing that context when Georgia hosts Mississippi State. On a more micro scale …

Who does Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko task with spying Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke?

Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke cruised to a 61-yard touchdown run two weeks ago against Western Michigan. Preventing such a jaunt willb ea high priority for the Notre Dame defense. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

The junior quarterback has already taken 15 carries for 171 yards (sacks adjusted) through two games this season. Notre Dame’s defensive success will not hinge entirely on limiting Lewerke’s ability to break from the pocket, but that will be a crucial part of it.

“He’s more than just a manager of the offense, he can throw it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Highly accurate. He has more than just escapability. He’s fast, he can run.”

To limit that running, Elko will possibly assign a linebacker to keeping his eyes on Lewerke at most, if not all, times. There are two obvious candidates for this duty: seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill.

Which one gets the gig more often will play a part in further understanding of Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle, the rover, manned by Tranquill. To date, Tranquill’s role has been to crash the line on any obvious running play while providing coverage of tight ends otherwise. This has fit his skill set quite well. Rather than worry about the speed of a receiver challenging a safety deep, Tranquill is facing more physical-based assignments. The one thing the captain has never needed to worry about on the football field is his physicality.

With that job description in mind, Morgan may seem the more obvious choice to have an eye on Lewerke, but that may limit Morgan’s naturally tendencies of always finding his way to the ballcarrier. Such is the dilemma presented by a dual-threat quarterback.

Notre Dame’s ability to contain Lewerke will portend how Wake Forest and, to a much lesser extent, North Carolina may fare against the Irish defense. Deacons quarterback John Wolford has rushed for 226 yards on 29 carries (sacks adjusted, as usual) this season, though 108 of those yards came against Boston College, a defense very clearly vulnerable to quarterback rushes. Tar Heels quarterback Chazz Surratt has already notched three rushing touchdowns this season, though that is not the same inherent quandary of a truly mobile quarterback.

Part of the Irish defense’s discipline this weekend will come down to the young defensive line. Can those linemen mind their assignments?

“If you fall asleep in zone option, [Lewerke is] going to pull it and is capable of running out,” Kelly said.

In other words, if sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes crashes too hard on a running back headed up the middle, Notre Dame could quickly be exposed to Lewerke racing up the sideline. It seems appropriate here to mention the two freshmen defensive tackles Kelly praised Tuesday, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

“We trust that they’re going to execute the techniques that we’ve asked them to,” Kelly said. “They’re not jumping out of their fits. There might be times where physically or technically there might be some mistakes, but they’re extremely coachable. … If we ask them to do something, they’re going to do it.”

If those two continue to successfully complement senior Jonathan Bonner and junior Jerry Tillery in the middle, that should offer Hayes the peace of mind to not over pursue a running back dive and instead man the outside lane. If he does not feel the need to make a play because he knows Hinish is capable of holding his own, that should help limit Lewerke’s chances, as well.

How will the Irish offensive line fare against a good, but not great, defensive front seven?
This plays into the introductory concept. Notre Dame’s offensive line protected junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush well against both Temple and Boston College, allowing a total of two sacks. As it pertains to the rushing attack, the offensive line opened hole after wide hole in those two contests. (more…)