Another season is upon us and thankfully so. All of the preseason talk has gotten a bit tiresome and watching games from seasons past can only do so much to satisfy that need for football.
Instead of doing a typical preview of Saturday night’s game, I am going to try a little something different this week. Honestly, I just do not feel comfortable previewing the first game of the year, at least not in this case. I have not really seen Alabama play much in the last few years and it is hard to judge Clemson without having made it to many of the spring or preseason practices.
I could just throw around a lot of technical terms and state the obvious, such as Clemson has a good backfield and Nick Saban is a good coach, like many of the so-called experts who have done little research do. Heck, I could even make stuff up like Cullen Harper is coming off an ankle injury, which Mark May did the other night.
By the way, how does May still have a job? Of course, I guess I better be wary of whom I criticize. All three of you reading this are probably wondering why I am still being asked to write.
Anyways, let us take a look at some of the factors for the offense and defense that should dictate just how successful Clemson is this year.
The redshirt freshman fullback was well on his way to quietly being the biggest surprise of the freshman class, if not the team, last year before suffering a season-ending injury. He is a devastating blocker who would have made a big difference, especially in the short-yardage situations.
He only played eight offensive snaps in three games, so it sounds a little ridiculous to make an argument that his loss was a big deal. However, many of the offensive coaches felt Diehl was the missing piece of the puzzle.
I feel safe in saying Clemson would have made the ACC Championship game had he made it through the season because they would have beaten either Georgia Tech or Boston College, possibly both.
The Tigers struggled mightily to run the ball in those two games. They probably would not have rushed for a pile of yards had he been in there, but they would have converted a few key third downs, which can make all the difference in the world in close games.
And let us not forget what he may have done on special teams. His aggressiveness and tackling ability is a perfect fit for the kickoff and punting units that have struggled in coverage, and the kickoff returners would love to have him blocking for them.
If he stays healthy this year, he will make a big, albeit somewhat unnoticed, contribution. He will not have his name called a lot by the public address announcer, but he will receive plenty of recognition from the coaches during film sessions.
Everyone who knows anything about Clemson football is familiar with the playmaking ability of Ford. His speed makes him a threat to score nearly every time he touches the ball, whether it is in the return game or on offense.
What a lot of people do not realize is how big of an effect he can have on the running game. He averaged over 16 yards every time he got the ball on a reverse or screen last year. I included the screens because most of the ones he gets are bubble screens, which are really nothing more than a toss sweep.
What does not show up in the stats is the attention he draws from the defense. He sometimes blocks defenders without ever laying a pad on them. Whether it is causing a safety to hold as he fakes a reverse, or running a corner out of a play when one of the backs gets it, those are the little things that can be a difference between an eight-yard gain and a big play. His speed also allows him to make blocks that defenders may otherwise outrun.
Clemson needs Ford this year because of his deep threat potential, but the running game will be better because of the little things he can do.
This is the most obvious question mark on the offense, if not the team.
Clemson is extremely young and inexperienced on the offensive front. They are replacing three starters (I include Barry Humphries as a returning starter), including the entire left side, which is Cullen Harper’s blind side.
The good thing is I do not consider two of the three to be huge losses in the long run. Chris Capote was a starter almost by default and Barry Richardson was a guy who never made full use of his potential. Although Chris McDuffie did not play the entire season because of an injury late in the year, he may be the one that will be the toughest to replace.
The staff feels really good about their starting five. In terms of potential, this is probably the best group during the Bowden era. Where the concern lies is with the backups.
It is going to be crucial for some guys to step up in order to provide some depth in the trenches. It is nearly impossible to go with the same five over the course of the season. They need breathers every few series, plus you always want to have depth in case of an injury.
Other than potential, the bright spot is camaraderie among the offensive linemen. They do everything together, and by together I mean all 15 or so of them. That is something last year’s unit, at least the starters, did not have. And in terms of offensive lines, that is the one intangible that can make or break a unit.
Da’Quan Bowers and Ricky Sapp may be the most highly touted pair of defensive ends ever. Their credentials coming out of high school were a defensive coordinator’s dream.
The problem is that what they look like in high school and on paper does not always mean they will produce at the next level.
I know, I know. Bowers came in early and had an amazing spring. People talk about him as if he were the subject of one of the old Chuck Norris e-mails. You know the ones I am talking about. He is such a bad man, his tears can cure cancer. He does not sleep at night, he waits.
All of that and more may be true, but the fact is he has yet to prove it in a game.
What is fact is Bowers, Sapp, Kevin Alexander and Kourtnei Brown have some very big shoes to fill. Gaines Adams and Phillip Merling have moved on to the NFL the last two years. It is hard to replace that kind of talent without having at least a short-term letdown.
Sapp has been good at times but has also struggled, especially against the run. He needs to elevate his game and Bowers needs to at least live up to half the hype if the defensive end position is going to continue to be a strong point for the defense.
Yes, I know that Clemson returns two very good seniors in Michael Hamlin and Chris Clemons. In terms of starters, the safety position may be the best on the defense.
The concern here is with depth. With DeAndre McDaniel making the move to linebacker, there really is no depth.
Sadat Chambers is back at safety after spending last season as a running back. He does have experience at the position and his versatility is a plus, but he has yet to prove how productive he can be in the defensive backfield.
Haydrian Lewis is the other backup. He has played safety in the past but has more experience as a cornerback. He is more than capable physically, although he is coming off of a knee injury. Sadly, he suffered the injury three snaps into the fifth game last year, which means he was three plays away from receiving a medical redshirt. He sat out the spring rehabbing, so he probably needs a few games to get back to where he needs to be.
As for the freshmen, the speed and instincts are there for Spencer Adams, but the staff has decided to redshirt him because he needs to put on some weight. One of his classmates, Rashard Hall, has been impressive so far but he is still a true freshman.
Much like the offensive line, everything appears to be good if things go as planned. Let Clemons and Hamlin make plays and bring the other guys along as the season progresses. Unfortunately, one injury could cause the safety position to go from being a strength to a question mark.
You are probably saying, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”
Everyone knows the linebacker corps is a huge question mark. There are a combined four starts among the seven players on the two-deep (Stanley Hunter and Josh Miller are both listed as second team in the middle). Kavell Conner and Scotty Cooper each have two starts.
At strong side you have two true sophomores, one of whom is a converted safety. In the middle you have a redshirt freshman starting with a senior and true freshman as the backups. And on the weak side, you have two juniors.
Linebackers coach David Blackwell loves the potential this group has, but you would be fooling yourself if you do not think he loses sleep at night wondering what they will actually do on Saturday night.
Cooper and McDaniel played a lot last year. McDaniel even logged some reps as a nickel back, which at times plays a lot like a linebacker in Vic Koenning’s defense. Of the three positions, this one is not much of a worry.
The middle is the spot that is a head-scratcher. Brandon Maye is aggressive, emotional, and very instinctive. Sometimes all of those traits work in his favor and sometimes they hurt him. How well he harnesses his aggressiveness and emotion will be the key to how he plays.
As for Hunter, he is already drawing comparisons to Keith Adams. The upside is he has great speed and a knack for always being around the ball. The downside is he is more than undersized to be in the middle. Will his instincts and speed outweigh his lack of size? Only time will tell.
As worrisome as the linebackers are, the good news is they have a good defensive backfield and good tackles in front of them. We will know a lot more about this unit late Saturday night.
There are a couple of new rules in college football this year.
For starters, the play clock will now start at the end of each play and it will be a 40-second clock. The 25-second clock will still be used after a change of possession or penalty.
There are no more five-yard facemask penalties. All facemask penalties will now be 15-yarders. In order for it to be a facemask, there has to be a grab, twist, or pull involved.
And finally, the horse collar rule has been enacted. A defender can no longer tackle a player by grabbing their shoulder pads around the back of the neck in the open field. If it is between the tackles, it is not a penalty. I think it is a good and bad rule.
It is meant to protect the ball carrier, but how effective will it be?
Jamie Harper hurt his ankle during the preseason when he was horse collared by Brandon Maye on a run. I would be willing to bet that Maye will make the same play time and again in game situations because it is purely instinctive.