In the College Football Playoff semifinals last season, Alabama never feared Clemson’s ability to launch the ball down the field or churn up big-yard plays.
The Tide used a simple game plan: demoralize Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant with its fierce front seven without much blitzing, while the secondary gives it plenty of time to get in the backfield.
In a 24-6 loss, the Tigers simply didn’t have the right ingredients to best a Crimson Tide defense that allowed the second-fewest explosive plays nationally.
Entering Saturday’s 2018 season opener against Furman, the No. 2 Tigers know they have to be better in that category.
“We were able to make critical plays when we needed to (in 2017), but we weren’t as explosive or precise as we were a couple years prior to that,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
I believe Dabo, because maybe the biggest reason behind the drop-off in Clemson’s offensive explosiveness was coaching. And that’s in his control.
Swinney and his staff relied heavily on a defense that ranked fourth nationally, and they often chose a more conservative offensive approach that would simply move the chains and control the clock, especially when they played three ranked opponents in the first month.
They didn’t take as many chances in 2017 and didn’t want Bryant making a ton of mistakes in his first year at the helm. From an explosiveness standpoint, Clemson resembled the 2014 season, when the Tigers were breaking in a banged-up Deshaun Watson slowly during his freshman season. Those two teams didn’t have the aggressive offenses that Chad Morris installed in 2011.
“We had a new center, new quarterback, new wideouts, new tight end, so we weren’t quite at that (2015-16) level, but I think we’ve got a chance to get back to being one of the best offenses in the country,” Swinney said.
If so, could Clemson be as explosive as it was during its first playoff run?
After developing into one of the most explosive offenses in the nation in 2015, and reaching the championship game against Alabama two consecutive years, 2017 was a major step back.
In 2015, the Tigers ran up 100 plays of 20-plus yards (second nationally) in 15 games behind Watson in their first playoff appearance.
A year later, Watson, receiver Mike Williams, tight end Jordan Leggett and running back Wayne Gallman helped lead the team to 88 explosive plays (ninth nationally). The drop-off from the previous season came because of the way defenses schemed Clemson early.
Opponents stacked and the box and forced the Tigers to take frequent deep shots down the field, and the success rate was low in the first half of the season. The Tigers adjusted, won more 50-50 balls and softened up defenses in the second half of the year.
Once Watson and Co. won a national title and left, Clemson totaled just 60 big plays (tied for 59th nationally) in 2017.
Bryant wasn’t as polished a passer as Watson. The receiving corps had too many drops. The running game filtered through four different running backs looking for consistency and relied too much on Bryant’s efficient, low-upside runs.
True freshman Travis Etienne did average 7.2 yards per carry as the top playmaker at the position, but he didn’t see double-digit carries until halfway through the season and wasn’t ready for the big stage of the Sugar Bowl.
While the coaches have challenged Bryant to be a better passer, and put him in a QB competition with five-star recruit Trevor Lawrence, stats paint a little bit different picture.
According to Pro Football Focus, Bryant had a passer rating of 115.4 on deep passes, the best mark in the ACC in 2017. Clemson just didn’t take enough shots; maybe the coaching staff picked its spots more carefully.
Bryant has shown the coaches enough to be the starter in Week 1, and even if he doesn’t hold off Lawrence throughout the season, the true freshman has the arm strength and natural ability to be a more explosive option.
The supporting cast is more talented, even with the loss of the top two receivers in Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud. Tee Higgins is a budding star who averaged 20.3 yards per catch as a true freshman, and he’ll certainly have more than 17 catches in 2018.
On the opposite side of the field, sophomore Amari Rodgers averaged just 6.5 yards per reception but is talented enough to surpass McCloud’s 49 catches, 503 yards and one touchdown from a year ago.
“With some of these guys, a Tee Higgins in particular, and now with Amari getting the opportunity to stretch the field, we’re hoping that getting the ball up in the air and making more of those 50/50 catches is an area where we’re trying to improve,” Clemson play-caller Tony Elliott said.
Hunter Renfrow returns to be “Mr. Reliable” in the slot, and the depth behind the receivers is made up of a mixture of highly rated veterans and youngsters, including four-star freshman Justyn Ross.
An older, heavier Etienne is more prepared to stay on the field with improved pass protection, and he’s primed to build upon his 766 rushing yards and 13 TDs as a freshman.
The coaches just need to let these guys fly, and they’ll be back to 2016 levels of explosiveness.
Brad Senkiw is a contributor to The Action Network and hosts The Press Box weekdays, 9 a.m.-noon ET on WCCP 105.5 The Roar.