Scouting Report: Clemson’s Defense in College Station

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.

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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.

Screens!

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

By |2018-12-24T21:39:48+00:00December 24th, 2018|Film Room|20 Comments

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hooks orpiktlndmaMikeyBMore NoiseMrTgon Recent comment authors
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kiwifan
kiwifan

Best article I’ve read so far on this game. Thanks Eric, and Merry Christmas.

Orlok
Orlok

Thanks for the delightful Christmas present, Eric!

MrTgon
MrTgon

Great article. Thanks Eric.

The Lawrence thing is crazy. Possibly a false positive. But if not, it’s a huge deal, because it means he definitely tried to cheat. Swinney’s table-banging that regular products and such all could contain Ostarine and that we could all be walking around with trace amounts in us is ridiculous and fairly slimy. True, some legal “supplements” probably illegally contain it and don’t disclose it, but the ones that do are products that you KNOW you’re taking a risk with from the start. It’s not like if you grab a multi vitamin from Whole Foods you’re going to accidentally test positive for Ostarine. If you have it in your system, you either took it on purpose or you were trying to find one of those products like Androstene back in the day (looking at you Mark McGuire) that you could buy at GNC but that everyone KNEW was shady.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

I agree with you on that, but I feel like if you’re Dabo you have to cry bloody murder and paint a picture the best way possible to try and proclaim innocence.

The fact it was 3 players from 3 different position groups makes it weird. One a star. One a seldom used reserve and one a young non-factor. I’m cynical and skeptical but it leads me to believe something possibly wide-spread through the program could be going on, as probably surely it is almost everywhere as S&C folks try to get their guys as big, fast, strong as possible in every program. That’s a very wide swath of the roster that just popped on the test…

But I mean if they’re clean I’d want nothing more for the B-sample to come back fine and clear them. (Though I hear the odds are low for it to be different). Like you say though, I’m just very weary of anyone that tests positive in this day and age for a substance that ends up in their system with no reason besides boosting performance. Popping 3 guys at the same time for the same thing leads me to suppose that’s no accident or mistake, unless there was some huge error in the test process.

tlndma
tlndma

It could easily be a mistake by the training staff bringing something into the program that they shouldn’t have. There’s tainted stuff out there that’s supposed to be clean but isn’t. Though by rule, that’s no excuse.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

I doubt that we’re dealing with a common, innocent training staff error. Any professional would know this is way out of bounds, as I’m sure would be providing less than fool-proof supplements. Per USADA,

“Ostarine is the trademarked name for a Selective Androgen Receptor Modulator (SARM) that is not approved for human use or consumption in the U.S., or in any other country”

“Do everyday products contain ostarine?

There are in fact products that contain ostarine, but only illegal ones. Given that ostarine is not approved for human use or consumption in the U.S., or in any other country, there are no legal medications that contain ostarine.”

https://www.usada.org/substance-profile-ostarine/

Despite Dabo’s decries, I highly doubt this illegal common compound just accidentally slips into someone’s system and could be found in practically anyone. I’ll give some benefit of the doubt that there could have been a testing/contamination type error at some point, but in this day and age my outlook on positive tests is one of extreme high suspicion.

tlndma
tlndma

“There are in fact products that contain ostarine, but only illegal ones.”
This means that any product with ostarine is illegal. It does not mean that some products that claim to be legal don’t contain ostarine. There have been many cases of athletes taking what were sold as legal products only to find out later that they contained ingredients not listed. .
Do I know what happened? No but, I am willing to believe that the players and coaches at Clemson don’t either. The players will be suspended, regardless. I do think Sweeney should just say “they don’t know” rather than come up with wild guess theories.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

Fair enough, I don’t think you’re totally off the money. Though how many trainers are giving products to which they can’t verify the ingredients? I get that products can be the weak link, but at the same time 82+ players on the team and no one else in NCAAF tested hot on it at this point. So it doesn’t really reek to me like a product gone wrong, and the trainers ought to know which brands/companies to trust to stay above board.

tlndma
tlndma

Like I said”I don’t know”. But, my 1st inclination is not to think that the players did something on purpose.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

I respect that point of view but I don’t agree on a positive test in this day and age. Obviously I don’t know either how it got there, but it got there. What exactly that means on how is beyond us but I’m reluctant to give a total benefit of the doubt that it’s not insignificant..

tlndma
tlndma

From the FDA…FDA has identified an emerging trend where over-the-counter products, frequently represented as dietary supplements, contain hidden active ingredients that could be harmful. Consumers may unknowingly take products laced with varying quantities of approved prescription drug ingredients, controlled substances, and untested and unstudied pharmaceutically active ingredients. These deceptive products can harm you! Hidden ingredients are increasingly becoming a problem in products promoted for bodybuilding.

Proof of nothing I know but, it’s not unreasonable to think it was an accidental situation….even if the players, or maybe the staff, should have been more careful.

MrTgon
MrTgon

Nobody reputable is lacing their products with illegal substances, though. So, if they got something that was laced, they took a knowing gamble on a shady product.

There is an entire section of the supplement market with products that push the PED bounds (generally they’re online, but if you’re in a store they’re behind the counter). Various products quickly cycle in and out of this section of the market – things get banned, new products are made to get around the ban and are repackaged and relabeled, etc. In this category of “supplements,” it’s fairly common knowledge that even the legal stuff is always risky – risky because it could be banned soon and/or risky because it could contain something illegal and not disclose it.

So, again, anybody who ends up with Ostarine in their urine from a laced supplement was fishing in some risky supplement waters to begin with.

More Noise
More Noise

Super and thanks. Great insights and a well-chosen analytical focus. Given that Chip Long does try to run and to set things up, I am wondering if there are any more or less up the middle running plays that might yield 2 or 3 yards as opposed to -1 stuffs. Traps I doubt, those guys are so big and good.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

To me, I think they’re fine with the -1, 0, 1 yard gains because there’s always the chance the blocking and timing comes together to spring Dex to the second level to get to the next levels and get 20-touchdown runs.

I’ll definitely defer to this great article that if you’re right about taking marginal but sure short gains, maybe they run their stretch plays to the outside more and are happy with 3-5 yards, maybe better risk but lesser reward of hitting the home run.

Based on the previous plays, seems they’re willing to trade the median gain in exchange for the huge run, but to your point going up against such a strong d-line (and big LBs) perhaps that element is going to get eliminated based on personnel.

MikeyB
MikeyB

Book’s strengths really do feel like the perfect antidote to this Clemson defense. Those quick hitters to WRs on screens and out routes are the perfect way to counter a defense that sags coverage while getting pressure. Of course, Clemson will be well aware of this, with nearly a month to prepare. I’d actually feel much better about our chances in this one if it was being played in the middle of the season on a normal schedule. With this much time to prepare, I’m concerned that the elite talent will win out.

It’s possible that the most important player in this game ends up being someone like Mack or Claypool, as noted in the article. While I don’t feel great about needing to rely on Mack in a big spot, I would have 100% confidence in a gameplan built around Claypool exploiting matchups.

If we can find a way to get Dex/Jafar to the edge (much easier said than done) with any sort of consistency, I’ll also feel much better about our chances. I hope Long uses presnap motion on 90% of the plays in this one, because we obviously can’t just line up and beat them man on man. Misdirection could be key, as long as it isn’t slow-developing misdirection (again, much easier said than done).

Lastly, my biggest disappointment with this offense this year has always been that we haven’t developed a burner on the outside who can take the top off a defense. Oddly enough, that’s the least of my concerns in this matchup. There’s no way we’ll be able to consistently give Book the 3 to 4 seconds needed to beat a defense deep. But with our big bodies (Boykin/Mack/Claypool), it gives us some short to medium yardage matchups that Book can win with. I don’t know how this one will play out, but we’ve got some opportunities to put together some sustained drives if Book is feeling it.

kiwifan
kiwifan

I think we may see a lot of our #10

MikeyB
MikeyB

It’s funny, most of the things that have frustrated me about our offense this year happen to be the things I think we’ll need to lean on. Our large but slow receivers. Our inability to run up the middle, but penchant for hitting a few big runs to the outside. Our overreliance on short passes. And yes, our slot guy being a 5’10” former walkon without burner speed.

I completely agree that Finke might be the guy who gets the most targets in this game, and for once, I think that could be our best strategy.

tlndma
tlndma

I think you might see Dex, Jafar, Alize and Cole K. get about 4- 5 touches each in the pass game. Then if those large slow receivers you talk of, block like madmen, maybe we get some big plays vs.this defense.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

I’d love for that too. Especially Kmet, word is the high ankle sprain might be getting back to 100%.

One thing with Book, and maybe my perception, is he keeps the ball to the outside for the most part. And sometimes gets in trouble with dropping a lineman or LB into the middle of the field. Which I can get why that’s tough to read and pickup on a guy in a space he’s “not supposed” to be from pre-snap expectation.

So with that in mind, I think it’s going to be a big Boykin, Finke day, as well as the HBs.

tlndma
tlndma

I think we may pick on their LBs. They gave up some BIg plays vs. S. Car. TE’s from opposing teams have had big chunk plays.