In this week's installment of Behind Enemy Lines, we garner some inside insight on Maryland's upcoming Clemson game, talking Terps-Tigers with the network's resident Clemson experts at Shakin' the Southland. I have to say, it's one of our more interesting Q/A sessions. Read on to get offensive coordinator envy, figure out who to watch out for Saturday, and learn what to expect out of Clemson's retooled offensive system.
Let's start out at QB, for both teams. For Clemson, Tajh Boyd's numbers have been incredibly good this year. What's made him so effective this season? How will his game be effected if his hip injury limits his mobility?
After spring ball there were a lot of questions that surrounded Tajh Boyd. OC Chad Morris let it be known that Boyd would need to step up his game. Boyd took Morris' challenge to heart, opting to stay at Clemson this summer instead of going home like most college kids. He stayed at school to weight train, work on his mechanics, and study the playbook. The hard work really paid off. He trimmed down to 222 lbs from close to 240 lbs last year. His mechanics, especially his footwork, are greatly improved. He throws a beautiful deep ball. He's been able to fit balls into tight windows. The receiving corps has also really helped him, as he can throw to a spot and trust that they will get there. He has also picked up the intricacies of this offense faster than any of us could've expected. The last thing that's made him so effective is his improved running ability. Earlier in the year he seemed hesitant to run and confused on when to slide. He seems more confident in his running ability and it has added another dimension to this offense. Whether or not he'll be the same running this threat is unknown because of his hip injury. Needless to say, Clemson fans are ecstatic about Boyd's play thus far.
Meanwhile, Maryland's in the middle of a QB controversy, choosing between Danny O'Brien's arm (likely in a pro-style set) and C.J. Brown's legs (in Gary Crowton's preferred spread). Which one does Clemson want out there on Saturday? (I guess the real question there is: what type of offense have they done well against this year, and what has caused them problems?)
Having seen what Danny O'Brien is capable of last year, I would rather go up against C.J. Brown. Clemson's defensive stats are not great against the run or the pass. But the DL has played a lot better the past 2 weeks against VT and BC. They are playing their assignments better and the DE's have done a better job of setting the edge. Our cornerbacks have some talent, but the most talented of those are young and inexperienced. They've gotten beat deep several times this year (well, while we are on the subject, our running game has give up big plays too) and I have less confidence in them than I do in our defensive line. They did a better job against VT of keeping the ball in front of them and coming up and making tackles short of the first down marker. However, I think if Danny O'Brien were given time (and a solid game plan) he'd be able to do some things in the passing game.
Both Maryland and Clemson changed offensive schemes in the offseason. What's Chad Morris' scheme in a nutshell, and how pleased are you with the way things have gone so far?
Chad Morris, who made his name as the head coach of national power Lake Travis High School, picked up his Hurry Up No Huddle (HUNH) spread offense from Auburn OC Gus Malzahn while he was still at Lake Travis High. The HUNH is designed to be fast paced and take advantage of a tired defense that isn't able to sub players in and out. Boyd will primarily be in the shotgun, and Clemson will run a lot of pre-snap motion with the tight end/half-back, wide receivers, and running backs. As far as running plays go, you'll basically see 3 plays: A zone read with Boyd and Andre Ellington, a power-O to Ellington, or a Jet Sweep to Sammy Watkins. Chad Morris takes what the defense gives him in the passing game. You'll see him throw some wide receiver screens, hoping to get the DBs to creep forward, and then he'll send Sammy Watkins or Nuk Hopkins deep trying to exploit the over-aggressiveness of the defense. He is a very aggressive play caller and will take a lot of shots down the field.
Clemson fans couldn't be happier with the hire of Chad Morris. Not only is he an innovative offensive mind that has done wonders with an offense coming off an anemic '10 season, but he's provided the hard-nosed, no BS culture that this team has needed for 20 years. He is both complimentary of his players when they deserve it and tough on them when they don't.
On the other side of the ball, Clemson's had back-to-back great defensive outings against Virginia Tech and Boston College. Still, they're 72nd nationally in yards per play - for comparison's sake, Maryland's much-criticized unit is actually 64th nationally in ypp. Besides being a good example of the effect a good offense can have on its defense, has Clemson's defensive performance concerned you at all early in the year? Are there any holes Kevin Steele needs to fix up ASAP?
Clemson's defense was going to be a work in progress this year after losing so many guys to the NFL. STS expected the defense to go through growing pains early in the year and get progressively better as the season went on. That's what's happened so far. The first four games were tough to watch if you are a fan of good defense. But since then things have started to slowly come around. As I've stated, the DL is the best group of the bunch. To me, the two biggest weaknesses on the defense are at MLB and cornerback (also previously discussed). Corico Hawkins is the MLB, and while he is the quarterback of the defense, he doesn't have the physical talent that one would hope to have in their MLB. Former 5-star recruit and stud true freshman Stephone Anthony had been getting more snaps before an injury kept him out of last game. I see him continuing to take more snaps from Hawkins this week, as his athletic ability is too good to keep off the field. That being said, in the middle of our defense you'll either be facing a physically limited MLB that struggles to get off blocks and make plays, or a highly athletic MLB that is learning the defense and learning to read his keys. Either way, this could be an exploitable area.
We know about Tajh Boyd, Andre Ellington, Sammy Watkins, and emerging sackmaster Andre Branch. Give us a different, perhaps under-the-radar Tiger who'll have a profound impact on Saturday's game.
I'll give you one on offense and one on defense.
Nuk Hopkins isn't necessarily and under-the-radar guy since he was the Tigers' leading receiver last year. But his name does get lost in the shuffle a little bit with all of the attention going to Boyd, Ellington, Watkins, and Dwayne Allen. Hopkins is only a Sophomore, but he has proven to be a big time playmaker. He isn't a burner, but possesses great ball skills and ability to make tough catches. If the Terps try to slide a safety over the top on Watkins, Hopkins could see a lot of action.
On defense, DT Brandon Thompson is an absolute beast. I'll consider him an under-the-radar guy since interior linemen not named Suh or Fairley are usually deprived of attention. Thompson constantly takes on double and triple teams, freeing up one-on-ones for his teammates. He is best against the run, but has also shown the ability to push the pocket into the QB's face. Maryland needs to keep him out of the backfield in order to run the ball up the middle.
Last one: prediction time. Who are you picking as the winner on Saturday?
I gotta go with my boys in this one. I think Maryland has too may questions surrounding the team, between the QB controversy and players calling out the coaches in the media. However, I am aware that Maryland has some talent on their squad. I think they keep it closer than most Clemson fans would like.
Clemson - 34
Maryland - 27