Merry Christmas to all of our readers! Note, news broke Monday afternoon that 3 players, including Dexter Lawrence, failed drug tests due to the presence of the banned substance ostarine. It’s unclear whether they will be playing in the Cotton Bowl as Clemson is appealing and hired representation for the athletes.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock you know that Clemson’s defensive line is the foundation for their entire team and possibly the best unit in college football, even the best unit over the last several years. In today’s main picture from left to right we have redshirt junior defensive end #99 Clelin Ferrell, junior defensive tackle #90 tackle Dexter Lawrence, senior defensive tackle #42 Christian Wilkins, and senior defensive end #7 Austin Bryant. This year alone, they’ve combined for 48.5 tackles for loss and 23 sacks.
Ferrell, Lawrence, and Wilkins are all projected to go in the 1st round of this spring’s NFL Draft, possibly all in the Top 15 or 20. Bryant is a little less regarded but some have him projected in the 2nd or 3rd round. The Tigers will sprinkle in 5 other linemen who each played over 100 snaps in 2018, and played 5-star freshman K.J. Henry in 4 games but can afford to redshirt him during the playoffs.
The back 7 cannot be as talented by any objective measure but there is plenty of skill. Junior linebacker Tre Lamar is an All-ACC thumper and 5th-year senior Kendall Joseph is a solid inside linebacker next to Lamar. Redshirt sophomore Isaiah Simmons is a really active safety/nickel hybrid and junior corner Trayvon Mullen could be one of the top corners in the NFL Draft in 2019.
I decided to look at Clemson’s defense from the Texas A&M game for a few reasons. One, it was a close game, two A&M’s offense performed pretty well, three the Aggies run a spread offense for a solid comparison to Notre Dame, and four it was a tough road environment to test Clemson’s defense.
If you watched this game, you know the Aggies were squarely in it until the end. They out-gained Clemson by 88 yards, totaled 11 more first downs, and averaged 7.0 yards per play. The one thing that jumped out to me was how up and down the whole A&M offense was from start to finish. The Aggies missed a field goal, had another field goal blocked, had a perfectly blocked screen lost to a dropped pass, another screen called back on holding, one of the dumbest sacks I’ve ever seen, and when quarterback Kellen Mond briefly left the game with a leg cramp the backup quarterback promptly lost a fumble on the very next snap.
Mond was also quite wild in this game with a lot of careless throws, oddly enough, several of them paid off including a pair of touchdown passes. Hopefully, Book will be more precise but Mond did end up with 430 yards through the air while letting it fly on occasion and taking some chances.
Run to the Outside
At times, Clemson has the look and feel of a beefy 3-4 defense. The Aggies did not have much success on the ground in this game as their main running back had merely 31 yards on 19 carries with a long of just 9 yards.
I do think there will be opportunities to pick up solid yardage running to the outside, though. Both of the Tigers’ inside linebackers are heavy (255 and 235 pounds, respectively) and Simmons is a little heavier version of Notre Dame’s Asmar Bilal despite being a defensive back. I wouldn’t expect a great deal of success but just enough to stay on track offensively. Running away from these large defenders is a good idea.
Running Up the Middle, Not Suggested
Forcing the ball up the middle on the ground against this Clemson defense is not recommended. Ferrell might be the most coveted pro prospect at defensive end, however, the combination of Lawrence (350 lbs.) and Wilkins (315 lbs.) on the interior with those big linebackers is a problem. If Lawrence doesn’t play his backups are 310 and 300 pounds, respectively. The Tigers defensive line might have the flashy statistics but they are really good at eating blocks, holding the point of attack, and allowing their linebackers to come down-hill and make plays.
This is going to be tricky for the Irish. They have to try to run up the middle at times if only to keep Clemson honest and be able to work off play-action on 1st and 2nd down. The good thing is that Chip Long has proven over his 2 seasons at Notre Dame that he will stick with something that isn’t working well if it helps open up something in another area later in the game.
No doubt, at times Clemson’s front is going to be super aggressive and try to get up field quickly. Therefore, some nicely timed screens should work well and it’s a good thing that Notre Dame has really improved this part of their game this year.
I have a feeling we may see Jafar Armstrong make a couple big plays on screens in the Cotton Bowl.
As mentioned above, A&M completely muffed a couple of screens but this was one that worked really well. This play was on a drive that would lead to an Aggie touchdown and close the gap to 28-20 allowing A&M to get right back into the contest in the 4th quarter.
Behind the Linebackers
Brent Venables uses a lot of mixed coverages (zone for one player, man for another player) but a staple of his defense in recent years has been Cover-2 and Cover-3 with a lot of “fire zone” blitzes which entails blitzes from a linebacker or nickel while a lineman drops in coverage.
Clemson is typically very aggressive with at least one safety coming down in the box to stop the run but seems to be less aggressive this year for two reasons. One, they likely trust their front seven to stop the run, especially while playing a 230-pound nickel in their base defense. Two, they likely don’t trust their safeties as much as they are the clear weakness on their defense and their linebackers/nickel aren’t built to excel in pass coverage.
Therefore, expect to see Clemson’s safeties dropping deep and for space to be found behind the linebackers in the passing game.
This does present a tricky set of decisions for the Irish, though. For one, these types of throws are not Book’s strength. Additionally, I don’t think this will be the type of game to play a ton of 11 and certainly 12 personnel. Clemson is unlikely to load the box a ton and Notre Dame adding more bodies into the box on offense shouldn’t be necessary.
Therefore, I think the Irish will have to depend on Book hitting Finke (possibly covered by Simmons, that’s an obvious mismatch for Notre Dame) in these intermediate throws over the middle or take advantage of a split-out tight end Alize Mack.
A Few Scrambles
Of course, Ian Book is going to have to make some plays with his feet. With sacks removed Kellen Mond had 6 carries for 52 yards against Clemson and took advantage of his athleticism when there weren’t quality throwing lanes.
This feels like a game where Notre Dame will need at least 50 rushing yards from Book with 10 to 12 attempts being a part of the gameplan if you include scrambles.
Funnily enough, this huge 3rd down scramble by Mond left him with a leg cramp and it was the next play in which backup Nick Starkel fumbled while getting hit in the backfield. Coordinators automatically throwing the ball on the first play when a cold backup comes in is one of the strangest decisions in football.
Find the Holes
One of the shocking things I noticed in this game was how much time Mond had to throw the ball the vast majority of the time. It could’ve been Clemson not being in perfect game-shape in week two although it did seem like they played a little conservatively at times. All the statistics say Clemson is aggressive, blitzes a lot, and disrupts quarterback but I thought Mond was well protected for the most part.
Here’s an obvious passing down where the Tigers drop 8 into coverage:
I’ll be fascinated to see how Clemson plays this because they seem entirely comfortable flooding passing lanes with defenders and betting on their linemen to get pressure on their own. That didn’t really work great against A&M and the Tigers seem aware that Pitt’s aggressive pressure bothered Ian Book a lot earlier in the season.
I can see Book improvising and finding someone like Chase Claypool on a crossing route for several big gains in this game if Clemson only rushes 3 or 4 defenders on a consistent basis.
The weird thing about this Clemson defense is that they are ranked #1 in the country and yet I feel like their offense is much more well-rounded and complete. It’s just, this defensive line is so good that they dominate games even without elite help scattered all over the rest of the defense.
I’m speaking in the most obvious terms that if the Irish can handle Clemson’s defensive line and scheme around them there are plays to be made. It will take some patience, timely play-calling, and high-level execution from Book and Notre Dame’s offensive players.