The Clemson Offense
The Clemson offense offers no new tricks, per se, than it did in 2012 under coordinator Chad Morris. Morris attacks the opposition with the same tendencies and formations as he did to this point last year, but it is in the freedoms granted to Tajh Boyd that defensive players have to remain completely honed in on their keys and assignments. Much like Jimbo Fisher, Morris does not waste plays. Every play he calls is calculated and intended to set up the defense for another play call later in the game.
Before breaking down this year's Clemson personnel, let's take a look at the tenets of the Morris offense.
Whether the preferred term is "window dressing" or "bells and whistles", there is a ton of movement going on for the Tigers before the snap. This can range from player to player within the same formation throughout a given game. Or it could also be movement that is unique to just one play, designed for a specific situation, in a game.
As we've noted in the past, the Clemson brand of football relies (in its most important moments) on the pistol formation with backs, tight ends and receivers lining up in multiple places.
What Clemson primarily likes to do with its movement is to test the defense's eye discipline. This key to successful coverage, talked about at length by coach Jimbo Fisher following the Boston College game, will not only be tested by physical ability to align correctly and quickly pre-snap, but also by a defender's ability to fight off any greedy instincts to do too much after the ball is live. Movement in many offenses is designed to find out a bit more about what scheme a defense is running (movement can help a quarterback diagnose man versus zone versus some hybrid variation), but Clemson's bigger goal is to simply put a defense on its heels or force its key members to think/hesitate for a split second. With athletes like the Tigers have, that extra instant can mean all the difference.
Related to this concept is deception.
The implementation with Clemson's personnel will be addressed a bit later, but in general terms, the Morris offense's movement is designed to deceive. As stated above, when the Tigers are in a groove, they will usually run out of a very similar pistol look. Against Georgia, this look featured one back behind Boyd at traditional depth, with three receivers spread out (in a two-one split on either side of the ball), plus the tight end or H-back lined up behind a guard/tackle combo.
From this formation, Clemson can go seemingly an infinite number of places. It can attack the perimeter with a wide receiver screen. It can use the veer option principles discussed in the Nevada breakdown feature. It can go with a traditional run, or a traditional pass. And, as is shown in this play below, it can create what should be considered a "quadruple option" like this one wrinkle.
Note receiver Sammy Watkins' movement across the formation, a traditional jet motion for a quick handoff. This movement, combined with the veer option out of the pistol, creates a potential triple-option for defenses to consider. But combine that with a bubble screen look to the perimeter and the potential is taken one step further.
To be sure, the Tigers will call designed plays out of many formations and pre-snap looks that are destined to be run or pass only. But being a fifth-year senior, Boyd also will be given leeway at points in the game to attack the defense with run/pass freedom, much like the concept reviewed coming out of the Nevada game.
When all of these ideas are stacked on top of one another and with several formations/personnel groupings to react to, it might seem a bit overbearing for a defense to handle. But the key point is the one stated at the top: Clemson is attempting to test the defense's eye discipline. If the entire defensive unit sticks to its scheme, the chances for big plays are as small as they would be out of traditional offense. Florida State did a superb job of working as a completely in-sync team in its win over Maryland. This test, however, is on another level.
Boyd has an exceptional career to this point in the ACC, putting up huge numbers and improving every year. He operates well in the pocket and can read defenses, but perhaps is most effective when the play breaks down. Specifically against Georgia, Boyd routinely escaped the pass rush allowing him to make a throw for a first down or get it done with his legs. Boyd is difficult to bring down at 225 pounds and can make defenders miss with his agility in the open field. With Boyd, the defense never wants to be in a position where it's guessing.
If there's a weakness to Boyd's game, it's the obvious one for all quarterbacks: When he faces pressure and is forced to make a rushed decision. But there's a reason that the fifth-year senior is near the top of many Heisman watch lists.
No matter the formation, defenses also need to be aware of the explosive and dynamic Watkins. While he only has 3 rushes for 5 yards so far this season, Watkins has rushed for 50 yards on eight carries in two games against Florida State. Very similar to Maryland's Stefon Diggs, Watkins is often used as a decoy in order to create better matchups for some of Clemson's less-known playmakers. Even with a mere 3 rushes on the season, the amount of times he is used in the backfield cannot go overestimated.
Clemson throws a bevy of screens to Watkins out on the perimeter where he is lined up sometimes as a slot receiver or wingback. This is essentially Morris extending his running game out to the perimeter of the field with a short, efficient pass. It gets the ball into the hands of his best playmaker and defenses must honor and respect it.
Knowing just how much teams are going to try to take Watkins away by rolling extra defenders over in coverage or bringing in a safety, Morris waits for the perfect time to throw in some "shenanigans". Let's take a look at a big play Clemson was able to make against Syracuse while using Watkins as a decoy.
Watkins motions to the strong side of the formation and looks to be in prime position to receive another screen pass.
Notice how the receivers sell the screen by pretending to block and it brings the safeties up. Even Boyd will bait defenders by staring down Watkins just long enough.
Now, notice receiver Adam Humphries release from his position as a blocker just in time to break down the sideline to catch a 42-yard pass from Boyd for the touchdown.
This play is just one of the many examples of Morris' gadget plays. Defenses must stay disciplined against Clemson or big plays are going to be given up often. Don't forget last season Watkins threw the ball downfield to Humphries out of a similar formation, except instead of a screen, Watkins was handed the ball. While only one of the two attempts was completed, both should have gone for touchdowns.
Replacing lost stars
Clemson's 2012 offensive roster, when its looked back upon in a few years, will be regarded as one of the more impressive skill rosters in recent NCAA history. With holdovers Watkins and Boyd combined with stars in DeAndre Hopkins, Andre Ellington and Brandon Ford, scheming for that many weapons must have been a severe, Aleve-proof headache.
How has this roster accounted for lost pieces at receiver, running back and tight end? Let's take a look.
While Adam Humphries is certainly not fooling anybody into believing he is Hopkins reincarnated, Clemson does have some attention-worthy pieces in its receiving core other than Watkins. Martavis Bryant at 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, is a matchup nightmare for any secondary. Bryant is not just a big target, but is very athletic and has a knack for getting his body into position to make plays. Bryant's biggest issue is simply catching the ball, as he has dropped several key passes that would have gone for big gains this season.
Germone Hopper is another receiver for the Tigers that the Seminole defense is going to want to be aware of when he cracks the rotation. Though he has not put up big numbers this season, Hopper's 4.4 speed could pose issues for the Florida State defense, especially if it's busy keeping track of Watkins.
The aforementioned Humphries is second (behind Watkins) on the team in receptions. Humphries, however, does not have the athletic ability to beat any of the Seminole defenders deep without any help from gadgets or tricks. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound junior does have value for the Tigers in that Boyd will bore defenses by targeting him to death with short passes, hoping to bring defenses up for a chance to hit Watkins or Bryant deep.
With Ellington's next level shiftiness and burst now playing in Arizona, the Tigers have turned primarily to Roderick McDowell. No questions about it, McDowell does not possess the flash of his predecessor. But McDowell does bring experience, with 129 carries and 674 yards under his belt before this season started. McDowell is Clemson's between-the-tackles runner, used most often in the veer looks out of the Tigers' customary pistol. The senior has 78 carries in six games this season (more than twice as many as the next tailback) for 385 yards.
What McDowell does not provide in speed, sophomore Zac Brooks brings to the table. Brooks is listed at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds and features speed that has to be accounted for as a receiver out of the backfield and in combo-back sets. Though he only has 34 carries this season for 180 yards, Brooks is the type that Morris will try to isolate on a linebacker in space. The sophomore has put it out there on film - with a 31-yard touchdown catch against Georgia - that he must be watched as a big-play target.
Though C.J. Davidson and D.J. Howard have also been in the mix for Clemson (they've combined for 57 carries), it's McDowell and Brooks atop this group.
With past NCAA stars Dwayne Allen and Brandon Ford, Clemson spent a healthy amount of time using its odd formations to free up the tight end for high amounts of targets. Ford - for example - caught 40 passes and eight touchdowns last season. This season, the Tigers can't rely quite as heavily on the tight end to make those types of plays.
Clemson uses Stanton Seckinger, who wears No. 81, as its primary pass receiving tight end. Seckinger has caught 12 passes and two touchdowns this season so far, but has no catches of 20 yards or longer.
Fullback/tight end Darrell Smith provides the blocking element to the tight end position, and he can often be found in short-yardage situations leading the way for Boyd or McDowell on the way to a conversion.
One thing that is really noticeable about Clemson in short-yardage and goal-to-go situations is how often it uses Boyd as a designed runner. When the Tiger quarterback is lined up as the deepest back - that is to say there is no tailback either directly behind or flanking behind Boyd - that is almost always a sign that the Tigers will be running the football with the quarterback. Whether or not this is a tendency that's on film for Morris to buck this week is anyone's guess. But consider this a random, but clear, trend in the Tiger offense.
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