Welcome to the 2018 Season Opener edition of What We Are Hearing!
It’s hard to believe college football is here again already, but it’s been a long wait for the Tigers, who had a fantastic 2017 season but finished it with a bad taste in their mouths. We have heard that sentiment from several players throughout August camp, and now they are on a mission of unfinished business: to win another national championship. Just as they were at the start of the 2016 national championship season, the Tigers are coming off a loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff, and just like that year, the Tigers are ranked #2 in both polls behind Alabama. They return an embarrassment of riches across the board, including potentially the best defensive line in the history of college football! The entire front four for the Tigers—Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant—all could be drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft next year. That would make history. It’s almost a lock that the first three will go in the first round, and Austin Bryant projects as a late first-rounder by many—but he could improve his draft stock with a big season. This is such a rare and special group that I have decided to anoint them the “ORANGE RUSH.” Hopefully it will have the staying power of the Four Horsemen, the Steel Curtain and the Fearsome Foursome. Just remember when you hear the nickname used on ESPN that you heard it here first!
The Clemson "Orange Rush"
One footnote before I dive into Saturday’s season opener against Furman. The Tigers’ fabled Hill entrance might look a little off this season. In case you missed it last month, the school announced that it would no longer release balloons during the entrance, as has been the tradition for over 30 years. The Most Exciting 25 Seconds in College Football will still be just that on Saturday, but it will lose some of its luster in my opinion, which is a shame. The balloons have been omni-present as long since I was an undergrad and nearly my entire life, and it simply will not look the same without them. But I’m not going to get on my political soap box at this time. I just wanted to prepare those of you who were in the dark and would undoubtedly be confused at about 12:15 on Saturday. Clemson has said it would use more fireworks as an alternative, but I'm not sure how that's going to work for day games. They've used fireworks in the past, of course, over the West Zone and the Oculus.
Now, on to Saturday's game…
If you watched Dabo’s Tuesday press conference, the biggest thing he emphasized about Furman is that their offense puts a lot of stress on you. They run a mixed bag of sorts, including a lot of option principles. This will not be the ideal offense for a debut of the “Orange Rush” because you typically don’t see many tackles for loss and especially sacks against the option. I asked Clelin Ferrell about that this week, and he said it’s definitely frustrating for a defensive end any time you go against that type of offense. Everyone knows how big, strong and fast the Tigers’ defense is, but they will need to be disciplined more than anything else in this game. Fortunately, the Tigers are used to facing a myriad of offenses in the diverse ACC, and they face Georgia Tech’s triple option every season. In fact, the Tigers actually prepare for Tech’s offense to an extent every spring and August, so this will be nothing new for them. Actually, it might be a blessing to have a test like this before going into Atlanta to play the Yellow Jackets in a few weeks—certainly for the younger players on defense like Xavier Thomas, Justin Foster and others.
Furman, of course, is an FCS team playing in the SoCon along with schools like Wofford, The Citadel and Mercer. After starting the season 0-3, including a one-point loss to SoCon champ Wofford and a 49-16 loss at NC State, the Paladins won 8 of their next 10 and finished 2017 with an 8-5 record overall. They tied for 2nd in their conference behind Wofford and ranked #19 in the FCS, making the FCS Playoff. Clemson has a long history with the local school in nearby Greenville—in fact, the Tigers’ first football game in 1896 was against Furman.
The starting QB for Furman will be Clemson student Harris Roberts. Yes, you read that correctly. Through an unusual quirk of circumstance, the senior is attending both schools in a dual-degree program. As a result, NCAA rules allow him to play football at Furman while also enrolled at Clemson. On top of that, he will be making his very first start in Death Valley, so it’s hard to imagine what will be going on in his head. The 6’4, 209-pound Roberts only saw action in 4 games last season and was 9-13 for 110 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. He also had 5 rushes for 71 yards, with a long of 44.
The Paladins lost their leading rusher from last season but return senior Kealand Dirks, who is a wrecking ball at 6’0 and 250 pounds. He rushed for 726 yards and 9 touchdowns last season, averaging 4.7 yards per. They also return their third-leading rusher, Darius Morehead—a 5’9, 185-pound sophomore who rushed for 588 yards and 5 touchdowns at 6.2 yards per carry. The Paladins don’t throw the ball too often, but they return their leading receiver, Thomas Gordon. The 6’0, 174-pound junior had 39 catches for 717 yards and just one touchdown last year. They lost their next two leading receivers, who accounted for 14 of their 19 touchdowns through the air last season.
Defensively, the Paladins play a 4-3 defense with a hybrid or “bandit” defensive end. They return their sack leader from last season, DE Chinedu Okonya, a 6’2, 245-pound senior who had 4.5 sacks last year. He also had 6 tackles-for-loss and a forced fumble. The Paladins also return their next two leading sack men on the defensive line in juniors Jonah Tibbs and Chris Washington, each of whom had 3.5 sacks last year. Their fourth defensive lineman, 5’11, 278-pound senior Jaylan Reid, led the team with 8.5 tackles-for-loss last season. So it’s an experienced group up front for the Paladins just like the Tigers. Incidentally, you may recognize the Paladins starting corner, Amir Trapp, who played 10 games for the Tigers last year as a redshirt sophomore and decided to transfer.
The Paladins scored 32.6 points per game last season and allowed 23.9. For a team that runs the option, they were fairly balanced with 2,936 yards rushing and 2,571 yards passing. They scored 36 touchdowns on the ground, averaging 4.7 yards per rush, and 19 through the air. They averaged about 68 plays per game. They averaged just over 3 penalties per game, which is outstanding, but lost 10 fumbles in 13 games. Both sides were respectable on 3rd down, converting 49% on offense and allowing 39% on defense. They allowed just 7 sacks all season. The Paladins were good in the red zone last season, scoring touchdowns in 71% of their trips. They return their place kicker, Grayson Atkins, who was 9-13 on field goals last season with a long of 46 yards.
The biggest news of the week for the Tigers came on Monday when Dabo released the depth chart on Monday, thus unceremoniously ending the long-pondered quarterback query. Returning starter Kelly Bryant, who led the Tigers to their 3rd consecutive ACC Title and College Football Playoff, would retain the starting spot he held onto after the spring. This came as no surprise to me, as I wrote that I expected as much last April and again last Sunday (READ HERE). Dabo has always been loyal to the incumbent, and I thought that Trevor Lawrence would have to be significantly better than Kelly Bryant in August to supplant him as starter. However, the competition is still very close and could be ongoing all season long. Naturally, most would expect to see Trevor Lawrence make his debut either way, with a lopsided score against Furman, but even if the game were close, I believe we would see time split between the two quarterbacks in an audition of sorts. With a dangerous trip to College Station to play Texas A&M next week, the performance of Bryant and Lawrence on Saturday could very well dictate who starts against the Aggies. If their play mimics what it we saw in the Orange and White Game last April, for example, Dabo might feel compelled to start Trevor Lawrence next week. However, if it is still too close to call with both playing well—as I completely expect—then it will likely remain the status quo. As cool of a customer as Trevor Lawrence is, I think Dabo would much prefer to see Kelly Bryant play well on Saturday and remain the starter for the primetime nationally televised game in front of 115,000 fans! But that is a discussion for next week. For now, let’s just see how they do in the opener. And don’t head to your tailgate or change the channel when Chase Brice comes into the game. He has had a great camp by all accounts and should be fun to watch as well!
The other interesting revelation from the depth chart was the listing of Adam Choice as first backup, ahead of Tavien Feaster. It just goes to show how much progress Choice has made and what a good camp he had. Dabo told us a few weeks ago that Choice had really separated himself from the other backs from a physical standpoint, and I think he will be a nice complement to Etienne’s speed and explosiveness. Expect to see Choice quite a bit on short yardage and goal line situations, and he is also better than Etienne in pass protection. Don’t count Feaster out, though. He will get his fair share of touches and make plenty of plays as well. He missed the beginning of camp with an injury, so that had a little to do with his placement on the depth chart. Fans should be excited about seeing true freshman RB Lyn-J Dixon on Saturday. He was probably the surprise of camp from what Dabo has told us. Dixon is actually ahead of where Etienne was at this time last year—especially in pass protection—and that is a scary thought for the ACC.
In addition to the backs, which Dabo said could be the best group in the nation, he is also very excited about the wide receivers and tight ends. He told us a few weeks ago that the receivers were way ahead of where they were at the same time last year, and the same goes for the tight ends. I asked Dabo if this was the deepest the tight end group has been in quite some time, and he concurred. Garrett Williams had one of the best camps of anyone on offense according to Tony Elliott this week, and he was listed as co-starter with returning starter Milan Richard. In addition, freshman Brayden Galloway is a special talent and will just get better and better as he learns the position. He is a former basketball player who hardly played any football in high school, for those who don’t know. The staff thinks he could be the next Jordan Leggett, and he actually looks better than Leggett did as a freshman. Then you also have Cannon Smith, who caught a TD last year, and JC Chalk, who had a very strong camp.
Meanwhile, the Tigers once again have the best WR corps in the nation in my opinion. They lost Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud early to the NFL, but WRU just continues to recruit and reload. Hunter Renfrow is back, of course, and you can expect Tee Higgins to have a monster season if he stays healthy. I also expect Diondre Overton to have a great season and more contribution from sophomore Amari Rodgers. As if that weren’t enough, TJ Chase will make plays, and true freshman Justyn Ross, the #1 player in the state of Alabama last year, is Tee Higgins 2.0. Actually, the coaches have described him as a stronger version of Mike Williams as a freshman. Ross reported to camp at 207 pounds! Finally, don’t sleep on Trevion Thompson, the elder statesman of the group along with Renfrow. Thompson has made a few big plays over the last couple years that went largely unsung, but he has lacked consistency. Thompson had a tremendous spring and was actually listed as co-starter at its conclusion. Dabo told me in July that Thompson was the unquestioned leader of the wide receiver group. Unfortunately, he missed the latter part of camp with an knee injury, but he should have a good season as well. I don’t know how Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott are going to distribute the ball to all of these weapons, but it’s going to be fun to watch! It’s funny that most in the national media only think about defense when Clemson comes up, but this should be a top-10 offense as well with deep talent across the board—even at quarterback. Remember, last season the Tigers were replacing all those great players on offense—Watson, Gallman, Williams, Scott and Leggett. Though they had plenty of talent coming back, it was very inexperienced. Well, now the Tigers are both talented and experienced at every skill position. And the crazy part is they won’t need to score much with arguably the best defense in the land.
Speaking of defense, everyone will naturally have their eyes on the “Orange Rush,” but they won’t be doing it all on their own. The Tigers’ front seven is extremely deep, and I expect Albert Huggins to have a great season at DT. In fact, Venables said he is just about on an even plane with Wilkins and Lawrence, which is quite something. Nyles Pinckney should also be a big contributor inside. DE Richard Yeargin decided to retire after suffering a stinger in camp and missing all of last season with a neck injury he suffered in a car accident. The staff also moved Xavier Kelly from DE to DT, but don’t think they are thin on the outside—just less experienced. But it means more snaps for talented freshmen Xavier Thomas and Justin Foster. Finally, I think Jordan Williams is going to have a big year. I saw him walking beside Christian Wilkins the other day, and he looks huge. Williams is another guy, like Wilkins and Huggins, who made the move from end to tackle.
At linebacker, Dabo confirmed the suspicions I wrote about (READ HERE) on Wednesday when he announced that they attend to redshirt Jamie Skalski. He missed all of camp, battling a toe injury, and that gives you an idea of the Tigers’ depth at linebacker. I was expecting Skalski to have a big year, but Dabo feels that they will be fine without him, and that will allow Skalski to heal completely and save a year of eligibility. Moreover, due to the new redshirt rule, they can play Skalski 4 games at the end of the season and still count him as a redshirt! Think about that. Skalski could come back stronger than ever to add reinforcement to the LB corps for the South Carolina game, the ACC Championship and both playoff games. I knew that redshirt rule would be a game-changer for everyone, and we’re already seeing it pay off! Of course, all bets are off if the Tigers suffer an injury or two at linebacker, but they look very good there with Tre Lamar, Kendall Joseph, the Davis brothers and Chad Smith. By the way, Venables said a few weeks ago that Chad Smith was right there, pushing starters Lamar and Joseph. Shaq Smith has also come a long way and will hopefully have his best season.
On the back end, the Tigers’ starters are about as good as they come, but they are thin at corner—so much so that true freshmen Mario Good rich and Kyler McMichael will both be relied upon this season. The good news is that Dabo and Venables have been pleased with the camp they both had. McMichael can flat out fly. Venables told us that he would probably be their first backup at running back if they played him there.
As for special teams, Huegel won the PK competition after missing most of last season with a torn ACL, and Dabo said it wasn’t very close. That is great news for Clemson fans—especially with that road game at A&M looming. Huegel can save his energy on kickoffs, though. True freshman BT Potter won that job, and Dabo said that wasn’t close either. Potter can boom ‘em deep, and that’s something the Tigers have lacked for years. Consider that they would have won back-to-back national championships if they kicked the ball out of the end zone against Alabama instead of allowing a touchdown on the return! With arguably the best defense in the nation, the Tigers will that much harder to beat if they can force offenses to go 75 yards every time. It also means great starting field position for the offense. Who says kickers aren’t important?
As usual, Dabo propped Furman up and talked about how the Paladins have beaten the Tigers 10 times in the series. While that is true, the last time was 1936, and the playing field is a lot less even than it was back then. If the Tigers somehow found a way to lose this game, it would replace Michigan’s home loss to FCS App State as the biggest upset in the history of major college sports. The talent disparity is that great. Besides, no staff in the nation does a better job of getting its players ready to play to a standard of excellence than this Clemson staff has done over the past several years. Moreover, there is so much competition across the board on this team that no player can afford to rest on his laurels, or he’ll likely find himself on the sideline next week during a nationally televised game. From quarterback to running back to wide receiver to cornerback, there is strong competition everywhere. Dabo loves to talk about “competitive depth,” and he probably has it in more abundance than he ever has before.
Having said that, the only questions that remain are: how lopsided the score will be, whether the defense will pitch a shutout, who will lead in sacks, which receivers will score touchdowns and which quarterback will shine. Whatever the answers are, I can guarantee unequivocally that Clemson fans will leave Death Valley happy. The Tigers put on a show on both sides of the ball and begin a new win streak.
The Prowl toward a 4th consecutive ACC Championship, 4th consecutive College Football Playoff and 3rd National Championship begins…..
CLEMSON 62 Furman 6
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