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.