It’s Clemson Week. The Eagles head to Death Valley on Saturday, and we needed as much information as possible. The Q&A this week was done with Tom Dianora (@tom_dianora) of SBN’s Clemson site, Shakin The Southland.
Note: This interview was conducted before news broke that Trevor Lawrence tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss the game. However, Tom followed up to give us a little insight on Clemson’s next man up, freshman DJ Uiagalelei and an updated prediction. You should still find most of the other insights helpful.
BCI: How should we expect the offense to function with DJ Uiagalelei at the helm? Any update to your thoughts on how the game will turn out?
STS: I’m obviously very bummed that Lawrence is out, and really hope his bout with the virus does not end up being serious. I’m also more nervous about the game now. At the same time, though, I am excited and intrigued to see what Uiagalelei (I’ll just call him DJ from here on out) can do over the course of a full game when the stakes are higher and when he gets to play with the first-team offense.
I think Clemson will largely run the same offense as they would with Lawrence. Maybe Travis Etienne will get a few more carries than he otherwise would, and perhaps DJ himself will be part of a few designed power QB run plays, but I think that would be about it. DJ has all the tools to be an elite quarterback, including an elite arm and absurd size (6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, hence the possibility of designed power QB runs), especially for a freshman. He was a five-star recruit per 247Sports, and was the No. 1-ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2020 class and the No. 10 overall player. So he certainly has the talent, but just not the experience quite yet. In addition, DJ enrolled in the spring, so he’s had more time than most freshmen normally would to learn Clemson’s system.
He’s looked a bit raw and inconsistent in his very limited playing time so far this season, but most of that has come in garbage time with other backups in the game, and with little on the line, so I would not read too much into that. He’s also been dealing with a sore shoulder the past couple of weeks, but that seems to be cleared up now.
Besides how DJ handles the spotlight and added pressure of his first collegiate start, I’m still also anxious to see how the Tigers hold up in run blocking, and how consistently their receivers can gain separation to make things easier for DJ. I think the offense will naturally have some ups and downs, and that BC will have more opportunities with decent field position against the banged-up Clemson defense, so I expect this one will be a bit closer now. My revised prediction: Clemson 38, BC 21
1. Trevor Lawrence has been spectacular to start the season, as expected. With the Big Ten kicking off last weekend, the focus shifted toward Justin Fields. These two have been forever linked for years. Between the Heisman and the draft, can Fields’ sharp play be another motivating factor for Trevor Lawrence?
I am not sure how much attention Lawrence is giving to Fields, as I think his focus is on being the best player he can be. I know that sounds boring, but I think it’s true. That being said, he’s not oblivious to the chatter surrounding him and Fields, so I think it can only help him.
I think the bigger motivating factor for Lawrence, though, is to be better following a poor performance in last year’s national championship game against LSU. And who knows? Maybe he’ll come back next year if the New York Jets land the first overall pick. I say that mostly in jest and as wishful thinking, but it would probably be a smart career move given how inept of an organization the Jets are.
On a more micro level, while Lawrence’s surface-level stats from last week’s win over Syracuse do not look bad, they don’t tell the story of the degree to which he was off. I think he and the rest of the Clemson offense will be looking for a bounce-back performance against Boston College.
2. The Tiger defense has dealt with a number of injuries this season, most recently losing linebacker James Skalski. These losses have forced some very green players into the lineup. How has and will that affect a defense that came into the season already having to replace some key contributors?
Linebacker has been a strong position group for Clemson so far this season, but we already know that Skalksi will be out for a few more games, as he’s dealing with a fairly serious groin injury. (He was still, however, able to participate in a fantastic parody of The Office for Halloween—see below. Let’s just hope that pumpkin comes off soon, otherwise he might miss even more games.) Linebacker Mike Jones, Jr., who has looked great with more snaps this season, might also miss the BC game, as might star defensive tackle Tyler Davis.
The good news is that Clemson always seems to have enough depth to keep these types of injuries from hurting them too much. Sophomore Jake Venables (yes, he’s Brent Venables’ son) has flashed as a reserve linebacker, and senior Baylon Spector has been one of the Tigers’ best defensive players all year after being given a much heavier role than in previous seasons.
On the defensive line, I expect highly-touted freshmen Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy to create havoc all afternoon. In the secondary, top cornerback Derion Kendrick should be back after missing the Syracuse game, so he and sophomore Andrew Booth—who has begun to play to his five-star recruit designation—can hopefully help limit BC’s downfield attack.
So, in summary, Clemson might be more vulnerable than usual, particularly at the first and second levels, but I expect they will still perform at a high level.
3. The Eagles have become a high-flying, pass-heavy offense under Coach Jeff Hafley. Where can the Eagles put the most pressure on this Clemson defense?
While the Eagles have been throwing the ball around quite a bit this season, I would expect them to test the Tigers’ first and second defensive levels because of the aforementioned injuries. From a passing standpoint, I would also look for crossing routes over the middle, and quick hitters in the flats, to really test Clemson’s hindered linebacking corps.
As far as a more downfield attack is concerned, while Kendrick and Booth should take away a lot, there’s more of a chance that BC could expose Clemson’s relatively inexperienced safeties on a few plays where they’re required to cover receivers over the top. After senior Nolan Turner, the group is fairly young with players like Lannden Zanders, Joseph Charleston, and Jalyn Phillips. While they have flashed at times, they’ve been a bit uneven overall as they become acclimated to their bigger roles.
4. Travis Etienne has had two dominant performances in his three games against BC. I expect he’ll have another one this weekend, but which of the plethora of offensive weapons do you see causing the most problems for the Eagles on Saturday?
Clemson has weirdly had trouble with run blocking this season. I expected their rushing game to break out last week against an awful Syracuse run defense, but that did not really happen. So I think (and hope) they will look to improve in that area on Saturday, and pound the ball a bit more. At the same time, I will look for Lawrence and the receivers to be sharper than last week, and attack a BC secondary that really struggled a year ago and, presumably, is still growing under the new staff’s leadership.
I do think that Etienne will have a big day, even if it’s not with respect to running the ball. The Tigers have been using him more and more as a receiver out of the backfield to get him into open space, where he is lethal. I would look for a steady diet of that on Saturday. In addition, I’d look for Clemson to use versatile receiver Amari Rodgers in a variety of situations. While he doesn’t have the height to be a consistent boundary threat, he is the Tigers’ best overall receiver, and the best in terms of creating separation. Lastly, I would like to see the Tigers get tight ends Braden Galloway and Davis Allen more consistently involved with plays over the middle of the field, but I’m not holding my breath on that.
5. Last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal game between Clemson and Ohio State was a great chess match. Now Jeff Hafley gets his rematch. Obviously, that Ohio State defense was loaded, but was there anything schematically that Hafley was able to install that troubled Trevor Lawrence?
Hafley seemed to mix things up a lot last year, which was effective given how much flexibility Ohio State’s talented players afforded him. It was difficult for Clemson’s receivers to consistently get separation against the Buckeyes’ strong coverage, and they also had to contend with neutralizing their strong pass rush, led by Chase Young. They were more effective once they got Etienne out into space in the passing game, as he had two long catch-and-run plays for touchdowns in that game. As I mentioned before, I think Clemson will look to that in this game against BC.
Otherwise, I think that a lean towards man coverage would be a prudent way for Hafley and staff to go against the Tigers. Clemson’s receivers have had some trouble creating consistent separation all season, with Tee Higgins off to the NFL and Justyn Ross out for the year with an injury. Besides Rodgers, sophomores Joseph Ngata (who is hopefully fully healthy now after easing his way back from an abdominal injury) and Frank Ladson will be X-factors, and guys Clemson will need to get open more consistently (and, for Ladson, to cut back on the drops).
6. Clemson has a big game against Notre Dame after getting BC. Thinking about the past few years, any chance the Tigers are looking ahead?
I don’t think so. Clemson has been excellent at maintaining focus from game to game during this dynastic run under Dabo Swinney. Sure, they are prone to the occasional letdown game like anyone, but they had one last week against Syracuse (as they inexplicably seem to every year), so that should have them fired up for this one against BC. Playing Notre Dame on the road is definitely a marquee game, but I expect the Tigers to be fully focused on the Eagles first.
7. Clemson is now a 31.5-point favorite, with an over/under of 61.5. Any leaning on this one? No holds barred. Do you think BC can put points on the board, or will Clemson look to lock it in after a shakier defensive performance against Syracuse?
I actually had no real qualms with the defensive performance against Syracuse. Only one of the Orange’s three touchdowns was truly because of a defensive issue, and it was because of one long pass play on a bust. One of the touchdowns was a pick-six, and the only other one came on a very short field after Clemson had a punt blocked (yes, it was an annoying game).
I think BC can manage to sustain a couple of drives to put scores on the board against a banged-up Clemson defense, but that the Tigers will otherwise have a solid afternoon on that side of the ball. I am more anxious to see some consistency, variety, and balance from the offense following last week.
As for the spread and over/under, I would lean toward the over, but the spread is really more of a toss-up. I’ll go ahead and predict that Clemson just does cover, with a 52-17 win. But I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if BC makes the final margin a little closer than that.
8. In the spirit of Halloween, what or who scares Clemson the most about the rest of the season?
Injuries are always a looming threat, and the Tigers have been hit by that bug a little bit so far this season. Then, in 2020, of course, there is the fear of COVID-19.
Other than those things, at this point the things that scare me the most are Clemson’s inconsistent run blocking, and the receivers’ trouble with getting major separation from defenders. I am less concerned about opponents down the road than I am about the Tigers losing to themselves. If they clean up these areas and play to their potential, they can and should beat anyone in the country.
Thanks again to Tom for sharing his thoughts on all things Clemson. Be sure to check out what they’re saying about BC on their site STS, and look out for our end of the Q&A that will be out soon as well.