Louisville has started this season on pace for record numbers at the school, conference, and national levels and they will look to continue that trend against a defense that had to reload over the off season. Normally that would make you think that Clemson has no chance to stop the UofL offense but for the second straight year, it looks like Brent Venables has been able to put a very formidable group out there full of young talent and guys who have been sitting and waiting their turn. Clemson has been able to all but shut down UofL's offense over the last two years but this Saturday is a completely different situation.
The key to stopping Louisville's offense is getting penetration and setting the edge. Luckily for Clemson the strength of their defense is along the defensive line. Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence start at the two tackle spots and both are excellent against the run and the pass. Watkins is great at causing havoc with power moves and he can also make tackles behind the line of scrimmage by beating his man with speed. Those plays behind the line are big because he actually makes the play as opposed to just disrupting it. Louisville has made a living on zone reads in part because Lamar Jackson has no one near him to rush his decision or even influence his decision at all. Watkins is the type of player that can make him rush. Lawrence was the second ranked player in the country coming out of high school this year and he's quickly moved into the starting lineup. At 6-5/340, he's what every coach wants in an elite nose tackle. Lawrence demands double teams and he knows how to bet them. Lawrence is third on the team in tackles and he's a nose tackle that isn't on the field all the time. I think that shows just how talented he is.
On the outside, Clemson has been able to move their ultra-talented defensive tackle Christian Wilkins outside to defensive end and he's done extremely well with 5 tackles for loss and three passes batted down. Wilkins is massive as a defensive end at 310 pounds but he has had no issue getting outside the tackle and getting pressure off the corner. That will be key for Clemson with Jackson being so deadly as an outside runner and being a huge problem if he breaks contain on a scramble. On the opposite side, Clelin Ferrell has been very solid even though he hasn't shown up much in the stat sheet. Clemson is a pursuit defense and Ferrell is the fastest of the linemen. He's made plenty of plays forcing guys into the pursuit.
Venables has always enjoyed the luxury of having linebackers who can run and who can blitz well. He lost some of that ability to with the loss of B.J. Goodson but Ben Boulware returned as the leader of this defense and he's playing the weakside linebacker spot that has killed Louisville over the last few years. For whatever reason the Cards have had the worst time trying to block backside blockers and they've given up a ton of tackles for loss because of it. Boulware had 3 himself two years ago before he was a full time starter. Boulware is also a great blitzer because he has great short area speed which allows him to stay back and not show his hand. Marshall had some success early with their blitzes because the line didn't pick up the "late" guy. Boulware would be able to make some big plays if the same thing happens this week. He's also a guy that is heady enough to stay home and make some plays on Radcliff on these read option plays.
Dorian O'Daniel has made some big plays for the Clemson defense but we won't likely see too much of him Saturday with the Tigers being in the Nickel a lot. O'Daniel is extremely fast and he arrives to the ball angry. If UofL goes with their two tight end set or possibly their two back sets we could see him out there. I think he makes their defense much better so they might scheme to keep him on the sideline. The new middle linebacker for the Tigers is Kendall Joseph and he's stepped right into Goodson's shoes. Joseph has 6 tackles for loss already this year and he's averaging 6.5 tackles per game. He's actually somewhat faster than Goodson but I don't think he's learned to be as savvy as a blitzer yet.
Clemson had to replace all but one member of their secondary from last season and so far it's been a little shaky in the back end. Cordrea Tankersley is an all-conference level player and he's got the type of confidence that makes you kind of hope Louisville just stays away from him. He's a physical guy that can play press coverage and be left on an island. That gives Venables a lot of options as a play caller but it also throws off the timing for Lamar Jackson. Ryan Carter and Marcus Edmund have been going back and forth as the starters at the other corner spot. Though Carter and Edmund haven't made a lot of plays, Clemson's pass defense is one of the best in the country statistically and these guys are a big part of that.
The safety position is extremely important in Venable's scheme because he likes to blitz and he likes to keep his linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage. This means that his safeties have to be able to cover slot receivers and they have to be able to help set the edge and get downhill on running backs. Van Smith has already been able to show multiple times that he's up to both challenges and he has really been impressive in run support. Smith is a smaller guy and it has hurt him when he's had to get physical with receivers in coverage but it hasn't been an issue at all when it comes to squaring up with a runner and making a strong tackle. With a violent runner like Brandon Radcliff, Smith has a tough test. Jadar Johnson is the deep safety of the group and he's had a really good season so far but he does play pretty amped up and he's been beaten a couple of times on play action. Clemson hasn't given up much in the passing game but they've had some luck with the opposing quarterbacks they've faced. Troy was able to get some things going once they had some success with the pass rush. These guys in the back end are good but they also benefit from not having to cover for very long.
KEY PLAYERS: DE Christian Wilkins, NT Dexter Lawrence, WLB Ben Boulware, CB Cordrea Tankersley, DT Carlos Watkins