Roy Martin: Clemson - Maryland Preview


by - Correspondent -
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What is the toughest aspect of success? The answer has to be learning how to handle it.


That difficulty affects individuals, teams, groups, etc. and we see it nearly every day. Maybe it is the unknown actor who finally makes it big only to ruin it all with addictions he claims are “outlets” for all the pressure. Maybe it is the startup company whose stock soars overnight only to watch it crash six months later because they cannot live up to the over inflated expectations of analysts.

More importantly for a case such as this, it is the team that seemingly has many of the tools in place that cannot cash in on the momentum after a big win. That is the scenario facing Clemson just one game into the season.

Coming off a thrilling victory over nationally ranked Texas A&M, the Tigers begin conference play against a Maryland team that has given them fits since Ralph Friedgen’s arrival. A victory here would put them well on their way to a 3-1 start. A loss and they are staring a 1-3 start dead in the face.


Because of the tough September schedule the Tigers face, many predicted they would either start off really hot after a big win or two or they would dig themselves a hole that may be too deep for a recovery, hence the thought that this may be the toughest first month of action for Clemson in the modern era.


The Terrapin staff is as seasoned as any around. Friedgen, offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe, and defensive coordinator Gary Blackney have a combined 97 years of experience on the collegiate or pro level. Only their counterparts at Penn State (117 years) and Florida State (101) have more. The staff as a whole has a combined 212 years of experience.

Along with that experience comes the knowledge of how to deal with success as well as how to be successful. Regardless of how the two teams may match up on paper, one cannot overlook the intangibles that a veteran staff brings to the table.

It is safe to say the Terps will be motivated and ready for a fight. Add to the equation the fact that they are playing at home and that may be the reason they have been favored to win since the early lines were released.

OFFENSE


Clemson has scored a mere 29 points in their last three contests against Maryland. Two of those games came against teams that finished with 10 wins. The third, last year’s 10-7 Clemson victory, required a last minute touchdown at home to beat a team that finished with a losing record.


It is not as if Clemson is the only team that has struggled offensively against Maryland. Georgia is the only school in the country that has finished higher in scoring defense each of the last four years. Only 15 of Maryland’s last 51 opponents (30%) have scored more than 20 points since 2001.

The good news for the Tigers is Maryland is young on defense. Their defensive line consists of juniors, sophomores, and freshmen. One defensive end position is manned by true freshman Jeremy Navarre and redshirt freshman Mack Frost. The two tackles are both second year players. Starter Jack Griffin (6’7”, 276) is making the move inside after playing defensive end last year. At the other end is Jermaine Lemons and Trey Covington, neither of which had any game experience coming into the season.

Although slightly bigger than the Tigers, Maryland is still undersized by today’s standards on the inside. Missing are the prototypical 300 lb. run stuffing studs.


Despite breaking in three new starters, the secondary is actually much more experienced than many think. Senior Gerrick McPhearson split time with last year’s starter. He is the fastest player in school history and an All-ACC track performer that can run with any receiver in the country. He is the by far the most experienced player in the secondary.

The lack of experience ends with the linebackers. Senior D’Qwell Jackson is on everyone’s preseason All-American lists after finishing behind Leroy Hill in voting for ACC Defensive Player of the Year and leading the league in tackles. He was the only player in the ACC to average more than 10 tackles per game. NFL scouts love his size, speed, and instincts. He is a player that can change the flow of a game with his play making ability.

Junior David Holloway and senior William Kershaw man the strong and weak sides. Holloway more than met expectations during his sophomore season and Kershaw is a senior that is finally tapping into the potential coaches saw when he was recruited. All three players are very good at getting off of blocks and stopping the run.


Although slightly bigger than Clemson, the Maryland defensive line is somewhat undersized. The lack of size and experience on the defensive front should be a focus of Clemson’s new commitment to the run. On paper the match ups are definitely much more in favor of Clemson than was the case against A&M.


If Clemson can get the running game going like they hope, it should force the secondary and linebackers to provide more run support than normal. This should open up the play action passing game by taking advantage of a young secondary that is biting on the fakes.

The Tigers’ offensive line had a good showing against the Aggies. The running game became more successful as the game progressed if for no other reason than A&M’s defensive line began to tire. Maryland may not be able to substitute as freely as A&M because of a lack of tested depth, which should provide another advantage as the game wears on.

Clemson’s young receivers and Maryland’s three new starters in the secondary should be a wash. The advantages for Clemson come with a seasoned offensive line, quarterback, and backfield. James Davis is a true freshman but the position is the easiest spot for a freshman to contribute other than kicker and punter. The Tigers should finally end their offensive drought against Maryland.


DEFENSE


Ralph Friedgen and Charlie Taaffe have reputations as great offensive minds. Both like to run well-balanced offenses that mix in a little of everything. They may run the option out of the I-formation one play and come back with a four receiver set the next. They always seem to have very productive running backs and quarterbacks that are versatile.

The running game took a hit late last season when Josh Allen went down with a knee injury that has him out for the entire season. He has been replaced by senior Mario Merrills. He had 30 carries for 149 yards and 1 touchdown in last week’s opener against Navy. He was a workhorse in the second half as the Terps turned to their ground game to overcome an early 11-point deficit.


The offensive line lost their best player and awards candidate Stephon Heyer early in the preseason when he tore an ACL. He was one of the leaders on offense after having started 24 consecutive games. Former starting tight end Derek Miller has replaced him.

Miller and center Ryan McDonald are the only seniors on the offensive line. The others are sophomores. Everyone except for Miller has earned only one letter. Much like their defense they are very young up front.


Derrick Fenner and Jo Jo Walker are both three-year letter winners at receiver. Neither player is blessed with great size or speed, but they are extremely proficient at running their routes and catching the ball.


Their quarterbacks may be the most experienced group in the conference, if not the country. Starter Sam Hollenbach and backups Joel Statham and Jordan Steffy have logged time throughout their careers. Hollenbach and Statham have both started at some point last season. Steffy is the most athletic of the bunch, but is stuck in the third spot on the depth chart.


Tight end Vernon Davis has become a threat a tight end because of his athleticism. He led the team in receiving last year as an H-back with 441 yards on 27 catches. He was the most impressive athlete on the team during their spring strength testing session with a 460 lb. bench press, 685 lb. squat, 40-inch vertical, and a 4.41 time in the forty.

Vic Koenning was “ fightin’ mad” after last week’s performance. He liked what he saw from an effort standpoint, but the execution left a lot to be desired. There were only 5 out of 51 plays in which the defense was perfect on their alignments and assignments. The result of the miscues was the Aggies gaining 270 of their 386 yards on 10 plays.


The ultimate key to how well Clemson performs this week will be how well they execute. This means having all eleven guys sticking to their assignments and correcting the poor tackling that led to big plays. A perfect example of the latter was Reggie McNeil picking up eight yards after making Tramaine Billie miss a tackle on what should have been a three-yard loss.

Friedgen’s offenses have thrived when they have had solid quarterbacks like George Godsey and Joe Hamilton. Having players such as those has added another dimension to the offense that has kept defenses from loading up against the run.

Hollenbach has yet to prove he is such a quarterback. Although a good quarterback that can execute the offense, it is going to take a breakthrough performance from him this week for their offense to take the next step. Until that happens one has to like the chances the Clemson defense has heading into Saturday. They should be able to focus on making him beat the Tigers with his arm and feet by shutting out the running game.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Maryland has traditionally been a very good team in this phase of the game. Their staff firmly believes it’s just as important as the defense and offense and it shows in the number of starters they employ on these units.

Their return game took a hit when Steve Suter, who was arguably the best return man in school history, graduated. Although not in the same league as Justin Miller, his presence was very similar in that he was always a threat to unleash a big return and he will be nearly impossible to replace.

Punter Adam Podlesh should surely be a first-team all conference selection as long as he does not have a down year. He led the conference in punting and net punting with a 44.8 and 39.4 yard average. He was also tenth and seventh in the country in those respective categories.


Much like the loss of Suter, the graduation of kicker Nick Novak has left a huge void. He finished his career as the conference’s all-time leading scorer. Walk-on Dan Ennis and earned the starting position with his performance in the spring and preseason. He made good on that selection last week by going 3-for-3 with a long of 40 yards.

Clemson’s return game did not miss much of a beat last week as Chansi Stuckey returned a punt for the Tigers’ only TD of the game. The kickoff return team also average just over 30 yards on 3 returns. Duane Coleman was named a starter at one of the two return spots this week and will be joined by C.J. Gaddis.

Nic Riddle had a shaky start to his career as a long snapper last week. Two of his snaps on punts were high and the snap on the final field goal was low. He needs to have a better week because the Terps will undoubtedly bring a lot of pressure.


Cole Chason was great on his holds, but needs a lot of improvement on his punts. His average was not helped by the bad snaps, but that’s no excuse for a veteran. He has to trust his protection and get off good punts to help with the field position battle.

The expectations for Jad Dean after just one game may be higher than for any other player in the country. He was perfect on his attempts and even made a seventh that was called back due to penalty. As he said earlier in the week, getting more shots at PATs is what he wants more than anything.

SUMMARY


It is the best match up on paper Clemson has had against Maryland in some time. The Terps have a lot of youth that creates some good match ups for Clemson.

Still, it is no easy task facing Tommy Bowden and his crew. Maryland is 23-3 at home under Ralph Friedgen. Byrd Stadium has become a hostile environment during that time and this Saturday looks to be no different.

The mistakes on Clemson’s part were rampant last week. As noted earlier, the defense struggled with the basics they had been practicing since this spring. Reggie McNeil had a 49-yard gain when Clemson had only ten men on the field and Jad Dean had a kick waived off because the absence of a lineman caused the Tigers to only have six men on the line. The Tigers also came out of a change of possession not prepared to go on offense.

Wins against good teams do not come very often when those types of mistakes are repeated. Fixing the little things is the biggest issue facing Clemson right now. If they can make the necessary changes this week while continuing to build upon the foundation laid against A&M, their chances of winning will drastically increase.


The good news for Clemson fans is many of those mistakes are easily corrected. Not having enough men on the field and missing assignments can be corrected rather easily through repetitions and film study. Others such as poor tackling will come with time and lots of work.


All of those are on-the-field issues. Handling the success is an off-the-field issue. That task will fall mostly on the shoulders of the senior leaders. In many ways it’s the toughest task facing the team heading into Saturday because you can’t practice such an intangible. It also does not help that there are so many young guys contributing.

This is the best staff that has been in Tigertown in some time and there are a number of quality senior leaders on both sides of the ball, many of which lead more by example than through words. Something tells me both groups will do what is necessary this week to make it all come together. Clemson survives a tough battle 30-23.

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