Life after Deshaun: The reinvention of the Clemson offense

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CLEMSON, S.C. -- The first questions were all about Kelly Bryant's ankle, which was shielded by a protective boot -- the biggest one they had, he noted -- after the Clemson quarterback was hit by a Wake Forest defender midway through the third quarter of last Saturday's 28-14 win. Bryant shrugged off any major concerns, allowing the inquiry to move on to the next topic of discussion: What's wrong with Clemson's offense?

"We're 6-0," Bryant said. "How bad could it be?"

It's a good point, but it's not exactly enough to stifle the questions from a fan base that has gotten used to seeing 40-, 50-, 60-point outbursts. Never mind that, this time a year ago these same questions were being posed to Deshaun Watson.

Chalk it up to the cost of prosperity. Clemson has been so good for so long that any slight hiccup feels like a serious stumble, a piston misfiring in an otherwise finely tuned sports car. It's not a big deal, perhaps, but it's certainly noticed.

And for what it's worth, Bryant has noticed, too.

"We're always working," he said, "and we can get better in so many areas."

Set this point aside for a moment because, while it's worth investigating, it's also important to note that this year's Clemson offense isn't supposed to resemble the one that just wrapped up a national championship before riding off into the sunset. A slew of NFL talent departed, and to the credit of the coaching staff, it has been replaced by more talent. It's just that this group looks a good bit different than the one that left.

Through six games last year, Clemson called a pass play on 56 percent of its snaps. This year, it's less than 48 percent.

Through six games last year, the Tigers threw deep -- at least 10 yards downfield -- nearly half the time. This year, it's closer to a quarter of pass plays.

Through six games last year, Watson's offense was all tempo, and that kept the defense on the field a lot. This year, Clemson is averaging a more-than-3.5-minute advantage in time of possession, and the defense has responded by posting some of the best numbers in the country.

In other words, this is something close to a complete reinvention of Clemson's offense, and yet, despite all the differences from a year ago, the Tigers have had more explosive plays, fewer three-and-outs, scored at virtually the same rate, and, of course, are once again 6-0.

Oh, and the schedule, which featured stout defenses like Auburn, Boston College, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, didn't exactly do the Tigers any favors either.

"We haven't played a bunch of cupcakes," Dabo Swinney said.

Indeed, the Clemson offense is humming along just fine.

But that's not to say there aren't some issues to address, which brings us back to Bryant's talk of growth.

"It's a group that's only six games in," co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. "Last year, we had a group that had played 30-plus games together. They knew what it took. This group is still figuring it out."

Among Elliott's concerns: Converting third-and-short (Clemson ranks 62nd nationally), protecting Bryant (he has been hit 96 times, more than any other Power 5 QB), and finishing drives (Clemson has among the lowest rates of three-and-outs, but ranks 45th among Power 5 offenses in points per drive).

Last Saturday's game against Wake Forest was a great example. The Tigers scored easily on their first two drives -- perfectly scripted and executed. The third was a strong drive, too, but ended with a missed field goal. Then the momentum slowed to a crawl.

"It's a good thing, but it kind of bites us in the butt," receiver Hunter Renfrow said. "We come out hot, and we know we need to score -- before the half, the fourth quarter. But we've just got to be consistent, start to finish."

This sums up the dichotomy of critiquing the Clemson offense. There's a little bad, and a lot of good. Both matter.

Look at the running game, which has been terrific. Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne have ignited a ground attack that, through much of last season, was dormant.

On the other hand, Bryant has just four passing touchdowns this year. Star receiver Deon Cain caught the first one, then didn't have another scoring grab until last week. Bryant has yet to throw a TD in the red zone.

"I don't think we're a finished, polished, fully mature offense by any stretch of the imagination," Swinney said.

Still, it's not so much red flags planted all around the offensive meeting room. It's the details, and for a team aiming for another trip to the College Football Playoff -- this time with a bunch of new faces -- those details are incredibly important.

Swinney flips on the film, and while he has seen a lot he likes, he has also seen more than a few chances for Clemson to deliver a knockout blow only to let the moment slip away with a dropped ball or a missed block or a stupid penalty.

"Just daggers, man," Swinney said. "I want us to be more opportunistic. We've just missed a few big opportunities that would put teams away. That's where we need to mature a little bit."

Bryant's ankle injury certainly won't help that cause, but after Friday's game against Syracuse, the Tigers get their bye, and will get some time to regroup. It comes at an opportune time.

Yes, Clemson's offense has been every bit as productive through six games this year as it was through six games last season. But the Tigers also wrapped up last season by lambasting South Carolina and Ohio State, hanging 42 on Virginia Tech and 35 on Alabama.

The missed opportunities haven't loomed large yet, but there are bigger challenges ahead. The results have been good thus far, but Clemson's aiming for more.

"We won our fair share of battles, and we've gotten our nose bloodied a little bit," Swinney said. "We're still not where we need to be, but when it's all said and done, we're going to grow into something pretty special."

Placing blame

After Louisville fell to NC State last week, head coach Bobby Petrino laid a hefty portion of the blame at the feet of quarterback Lamar Jackson, who threw a costly pick-six in the fourth quarter. Many Cardinals fans, however, see Petrino's playcalling as the issue.

It's easy to see why. Against the Wolfpack, 33 of the Cardinals' 37 first-half plays were either a pass or run by Jackson. Running back Malik Williams, who is averaging better than 7 yards per carry this season, didn't see his first touch until midway through the second quarter -- a drive, by the way, that resulted in a Louisville touchdown, the only time the Cardinals reached the end zone in the half.

Indeed, Jackson has been responsible for 79.5 percent of Louisville's non-garbage time plays this year (i.e. when the score is within three touchdowns), easily the highest rate of any Power 5 QB.

And it's not just that the Cardinals' are utilizing Jackson's superior athleticism as a weapon. On first down this season, only UCLA has run a higher percentage of pass plays (passes, scrambles and sacks) than Louisville (68 percent). What's even more astonishing is that, when the Cardinals do run on first down, they're averaging 7.05 yards-per-carry, among the best rates in the nation. There are 19 other Power 5 teams that run pass plays on at least half their first downs, and they average less than 5 yards a carry. Just last season, with Jackson's Heisman campaign in full gear, Louisville ran on first down more than 51 percent of the time in its first six games of the year.

It's hard to fault Petrino for wanting to use his best weapon often, but more and more, it appears to be at the expense of other weapons and any sense of surprise for opposing defenses.

Spreading the Love

How good has Stanford running back Bryce Love been this season? The most telling number may be this: He has 57 carries this season against an eight-man front, and he's averaged 11.3 yards-per-carry on those runs.

That's utterly insane. Defenses are stacked to stop him, and Love has utterly dismantled them in those situations. There are only three other Power 5 backs with at least 20 carries against an eight-man box who've averaged even half of Love's production.

Overall, 97 of Love's 118 carries have come with seven or more defenders in the box - a whopping 82 percent. And yet, on those runs, only 16 have been stopped for a loss or no gain, while 26 have gone for at least 10 yards.

Nearly perfect

In the last decade, just two Power 5 quarterbacks have completed 70 percent of their throws, tossed at least 10 touchdowns and not thrown an interception in their team's first six games. West Virginia's Geno Smith did it in 2012, a year when he was the heavy favorite to win the Heisman in the early going. The other? NC State's Ryan Finley this year.

Of course, we could soon add a third name to that list. Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield hasn't reached game No. 6 yet, but his 15 touchdowns, zero picks and 74.6 percent completion rate puts him on track to do it.

QB concerns

  • To be sure, Michigan's QBs have struggled this year, but some of the blame has to fall on the offensive line. So far this season, Wolverines QBs have been pressured on 36.4 percent of their dropbacks when the defense didn't bring an extra pass rusher. That's the second-worst rate among Power 5 schools. Michigan has been sacked on 9.2 percent of those dropbacks, which is the sixth-worst rate.

  • USC's Sam Darnold, widely considered a potential first overall pick in the next NFL draft, is not off to a great start. On obvious passing downs - second-and-8, third/fourth-and-5 - he's thrown just one touchdown to go with six interceptions.

  • One big reason Tennessee needed to make a change at QB was the downfield passing game. On throws of at least 10 yards, Quinten Dormady had completed just 27.7 percent and averaged just 6.53 yards per attempt, both second worst among qualifying Power 5 QBs.

  • Red zone touchdown passes this year by Clemson quarterbacks: Hunter Johnson (1), Zerrick Cooper (1), Kelly Bryant (0).

Coach speak

All week Adam Rittenberg has been chatting with head and assistant coaches around the country. Here is the best of those conversations.

Despite the criticism for USC, its offense is performing ahead of last year's pace. The Trojans are averaging 10.5 more points and 51.6 more yards through six games this year versus 2016, including 30 more rush yards per game. "When you lose the amount of guys we lost and still average more yards and more points, I don't know what the expectations were, but it wasn't coming from in-house," offensive coordinator Tee Martin said. "We've seen increases in all of those stats that we like to say correlate to winning offensively. The only thing is we've got to do a better job taking care of the ball." USC's 13 giveaways in six games -- tied for 117th in the FBS -- have overshadowed progress made in other areas. Martin hasn't pinpointed a theme for the turnovers but knows it must be cleaned up soon. "There's not one thing you can say this is the reason why," he said. "[Quarterback] Sam [Darnold] is aware of it, we're aware of it, the skill players with the ball are aware of it. We're doing a good job as coaches of continuing to harp on it."

Texas knows having two young quarterbacks in a new offensive system will come with some growing pains. "Teaching them our stuff, they're both like newborns," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. "You have to have a lot of patience." Beck is pleased with the way sophomore Shane Buechele and freshman Sam Ehlinger support each other, no matter who is taking snaps. Both will be ready for Saturday's Red River Showdown against Oklahoma. Buechele threw three touchdowns in last year's game as Texas nearly rallied from a 15-point fourth quarter deficit. He won't be intimidated by the setting, and neither will Ehlinger, who brought a spark in a Week 3 loss at USC and again last week as Texas outlasted Kansas State in overtime. "He brings a lot of juice, a lot of energy," Beck said. "Our players feel him, our offense feels him. I don't know if our offense plays a little more confident, more energetic, with more resiliency. He seems to display that when he's on the field."

Michigan State co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett lists several reasons for the defense's improvement this season (16.4 PPG allowed, 258.6 YPG allowed). For starters, the coaches adjusted their vacation schedules, taking time off earlier to be with the players for part of July. It allowed scheme installation in training camp to take place "faster than we ever have," Barnett said. The assignments for defensive coaches also changed, as co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel took over the linebackers again, and Mark Snyder shifted from linebackers to defensive ends, splitting the line group with Ron Burton. Players are also doing a better job of diagnosing offensive habits in certain situations, which MSU calls "universals" because most offenses do them. "We made a universal film tape for our guys in the offseason," Barnett said. "We showed when it happened against our own offense, other college teams and then showed them [NFL] film. They go, 'Wow.' Our guys have bought in, man. They can call out stuff before it happens."

Washington State already has 15 takeaways this season, and, better yet, 13 different players have intercepted a pass, forced a fumble or recovered a fumble. While every defense stresses turnovers, the Cougars take things to another level. "That's the stat we circle, we star," defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. "We brainwashed the kids. That's our sole purpose in being on the field -- to get the ball back to the offense. It's how we finish the play in practice, we strip on every single play. When we first got here, the offensive players were getting pissed at the defensive guys, like, 'What's your problem?'" Grinch studied turnover correlation and found that FBS teams with at least 24 takeaways averaged nine wins during the past three seasons. In 2015, Washington State got its 24th takeaway in a Sun Bowl win over Miami that resulted in the team's ninth win. Last year, the Cougars had 23 takeaways and only eight wins. "The magic number's 24 to get to nine," Grinch said. "That takes into account no other stat: scoring offense, scoring defense, running defense, pass defense, and so on. It puts it on our shoulders as a defense. It's on us. It's controllable. And that's how you win games."

Miami's passing game must pick up the slack with top running back Mark Walton out for the rest of the season. Offensive coordinator Thomas Brown likes the receiving corps, currently led by Braxton Berrios, who has 10 catches for 142 yards and three touchdowns in Miami's last two games. "There's no surprise when he has that type of production because when you watch us practice, he's the same guy every day," Brown said. "The same effort, the same attention to detail." The big boost will come when Ahmmon Richards recovers from a nagging hamstring injury that has limited him to just two games. Richards is questionable for Saturday's game against Georgia Tech. "It opens up the vertical passing game," Brown said of Richards, who had 934 receiving yards in 2016. "It puts more stress on the defense because almost every single time he steps on the football field, he's the most explosive and dynamic guy out there."

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