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What To Watch For: Clemson

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#W2W4 this week spends a lot of time on how the defenses will impact this game.

CFP National Championship Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

KELLY BRYANT IN THE OPEN FIELD

Lamar Jackson is obviously the most dynamic quarterback in the country and really in college football history. I think that Jackson has naturally overshadowed the talents of other quarterbacks. In a non-Jackson season, Kelly Bryant’s running ability would probably get more notice especially since he has shown that he’s a better runner than Deshaun Watson. Bryant has made people miss, run through tackles, and run away from people.

Bryant’s legs can be a big factor in this game because the Clemson running backs didn’t play all that well last week against a good run defense. Louisville has defended the run well but they haven’t faced a quarterback that can run the ball like Bryant. They also haven’t faced the read option this year or the inverted veer that Lamar Jackson kills everyone with. So, even thought they’ve been good against the run, there’s a lot left to learn about them.

My big concern is how Louisville handles Bryant if he gets around the corner. Bryant is 220 pounds and he runs like a receiver. He ran through a couple tacklers on a touchdown run against Auburn and took Trey Matthews for a ride to ice the game when they needed a first down. Louisville is not the fastest defense and Bryant adds a speed dynamic that Watson didn’t have and Watson had success running the ball against Louisville.

HOW DOES LOUISVILLE HANDLE CLEMSON’S PASSING ATTACK

Statistically, UofL’s pass defense is one of the worst in the country. They’re allowing 65% of opponents passes to be completed and are second to last in touchdowns given up. The one area that they aren’t doing so poorly is yards per attempt. But that’s somewhat misleading. Louisville isn’t giving up a lot of big plays or chunk plays but they are allowing a lot of short passes to be completed.

Peter Sirmon seems to like giving a cushion to receivers and Purdue and UNC exploited that. Clemson has the athletes to turn those short pasees into much bigger plays, however. Ray-Ray McCloud is a burner with good quickness and Deon Cain has the size to break a tackle and take off. Hunter Renfrow isn’t known for his ability after the catch, but he does a good job of picking his way for extra yardage on screens and quick ins.

I don’t know that Sirmon is comfortable putting his secondary in press coverage like Auburn did last week. Auburn only gave up a handful of open passes and contested nearly every throw past 10 yards. Their aggression helped slow down the running game as well which put Clemson in longer third downs. That, in turn, allowed Auburn to blitz Bryant and throw off the timing routes Clemson likes. Louisville hasn’t shown that they will press outside or blitz often. I don’t know that they can slow down this passing attack if they don’t do so.

WILL BRENT VENABLES SUB MORE THIS YEAR?

Louisville ran 102 plays last year and Clemson’s starters played the vast majority of those snaps. Ben Boulware, Van Smith, and Kendall Joseph all played 100-plus plays and three of the four starting defensive linemen played over 76 snaps. The secondary was able to rotate some guys in and it showed late in the game. While Joseph and Boulware allowed Cole Hikutini and others to get open, Outside weren’t as much of an option down the field. Lamar Jackson was also able to take advantage of lazy tackle attempts and undisciplined play, which wasn’t the case as often in the first half.

The pass rush suffered more than anything for Clemson. Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins couldn’t get around the edge and Carlos Watkins went from wreaking havoc to just being there late in the game. Venables also stopped blitzing as often which let Lamar Jackson do Lamar Jackson things with ease.

Clemson has more depth at linebacker this year and have already played 5 cornerbacks and 4 safeties. But, they don’t have that depth along the line. Scott Pagano left for more playing time and Richard Yeager is out for the season with an injury. That leaves a few young guys, including, freshmen to back up the starters up front. Venables might just have to bite the bullet and throw them out there to keep the starters fresh.

LOUISVILLE IS FACING AN AGGRESSIVE DEFENSE FOR THE FIRST TIME

Nick Holt tried to bring an aggressive mindset to the season opener but didn’t really have the athletes to do it. North Carolina played what was practically a prevent defense for most of the game last week. Clemson will bring true aggression, blitzes, speed, and NFL talent to the game this weekend. Everything will move faster this week for Lamar Jackson and everyone around him.

Clemson trusts that their players are better than yours and that shows with the way that they defend in the secondary and the second level. They close on short passes to limit them to short gains. They blitz nonstop to confuse your line and kill the timing for your quarterback. They also gang tackle better than almost anyone and they bring that mentality everywhere on the field. It stood out in last year’s game early on that Lamar had to get away from more than one guy in the backfield routinely. You just don’t see that very often. Clemson’s talent is matched by their great effort on defense.

ADDITIONAL THINGS TO KEEP AN EYE ON

  • Dorian O’Daniel leads Clemson in tackles so far this year. He only played 26 snaps last season because he came of the field for a fifth defensive back. Not sure how they get him on the field more this year.
  • Clemson hasn’t always been great on special teams and they gave up a pretty long punt return last week.
  • Clemson will likely try to use 5-star freshman Tee Higgins in the red zone.
  • Clemson defensive backs literally wore boxing gloves during practice to help them stop holding receivers in coverage.
  • I’m 92.3% sure that Lamar Jackson has not completed a pass outside of the numbers from the pocket so far.