The No. 12 Virginia Tech Hokies host defending national champion—and No. 2 Clemson on Saturday night in Blacksburg. ESPN’s College GameDay will be in town for the rematch of last season’s ACC championship game. We are previewing this game from all angles this week, so I reached out to Ryan Kantor of SB Nation’s Clemson site, Shakin the Southland, and we did a Q&A on the Tigers.
Ryan gives us some great perspective on quarterback Kelly Bryant, some current Tigers from the state of Virginia and, perhaps, a way to move the ball on Clemson’s stifling defense.
Obviously, you lost a great quarterback in Deshaun Watson, but Kelly Bryant appears equally as capable. What is the biggest difference between the two?
Aside from a poor performance against Boston College, Kelly Bryant has exceeded expectations. He absolutely lit up weak Kent State and Louisville defenses and made a couple of big conversions to clinch a win over Auburn. He is faster than Deshaun Watson and coaches are more willing to rely on his legs. You’ll likely see some QB Power, Inverted Veer, and Read Option on Saturday. He also has a solid deep ball. When the offense was really stalling against Boston College, a deep ball to Diondre Overton broke the game open and allowed Clemson to take over.
That said, Kelly Bryant isn’t on Deshaun Watson’s level – at least not yet. Watson was masterful at reading defenses (pre-snap and as the play develops). His vision is excellent and while he may not be as fast as Bryant, his pocket presence was unmatched in college football. He rarely took a sack. Clemson has already allowed 10 sacks so far this season.
Overall, Clemson lost a lot of talent to the NFL last year. How have the Tigers managed to not skip a beat this year and look like the nation’s premier team once again?
The most obvious but correct answer is recruiting. It’s why programs like Alabama and Ohio State avoid serious down years while programs like TCU and Georgia Tech tend to experience them after key players leave.
The other factor that helps Clemson is what I believe to be elite coaching. If Bud Foster isn’t the best defensive coordinator in the country, then it's Brent Venables. His unit was the top defense in the country in 2014. They saw LB Stephone Anthony, DL Grady Jarrett, and DE Vic Beasley head to the NFL at the year’s conclusion, but didn’t skip a beat in 2015 as they made a National Championship run. That unit, in turn, lost DE Shaw Lawson, DE Kevin Dodd, and CB Mackensie Alexander only to win the National Championship the next year.
What’s your biggest strength on offense?
Skill position depth at RB and WR. Although losing RB Wayne Gallman hurts, sophomore Tavien Feaster has seized the first string job after a good performance last week. True freshman Travis Etienne was a late steal (from LSU) out of Louisiana and has made a big impression with Clemson fans. His acceleration is something we haven’t seen since Sammy Watkins. It’s fun to watch. Adam Choice is a little banged up and may not play much against VT, but has gotten a fair amount of snaps this year and has done well. He doesn’t have top-end speed but is shifty and patient. All that and CJ Fuller is a fine RB who was expected to be the starter at the beginning of the year.
At WR, we lost Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, but are struggling to get five-star freshman Tee Higgins snaps. Diondre Overton and Deon Cain are doing a good job filling the “tall receiver void” left by Mike Williams. Ray-Ray McCloud has really stepped up and been the explosive, speedy receiver opposite them, and you can’t forget about the sure-handed route-running artist that is Hunter Renfrow. These guys make life a lot easier for Kelly Bryant.
Defensively, which area, in your opinion, should the Hokies’ offense look to attack?
Clemson employs a very aggressive 4-3 defense. Their four starting defensive linemen are the strength of the unit. You have to negate them through kick passes, screens, and fatigue. I like what Boston College did with a few bootleg throws to get them chasing the QB. Last year, NC State made a little progress with quick horizontal passing early until they tired and then hit them with a strong rushing attack.
Much like when facing Alabama, you can’t play a standard offense with drop back passes and simple RB handoffs and expect to do much against Clemson’s front. An up-tempo attack that gets them moving horizontally gets the ball out quickly, and then attacks their depth late in the game is the way to go. Typically, we’ve seen that not be enough though. Rather what’s gotten Clemson is when the Tigers’ offense commits turnovers and causes the defense to fatigue. That’s why NC State and Louisville nearly beat Clemson last season and why Pittsburgh did!
Clelin Ferrell is a player once thought to be a lock to go to Virginia Tech. How is he doing? He appears to be the next first-round pick for the Tigers along the defensive line. How about Jordan Williams? Virginia Tech fans loved the Virginia Beach product and many considered him the top player in the state last year.
Clelin Ferrell is the starter at weakside defensive end and has become an elite player at the position. He only has one sack this season but has been in on many disruptive plays.
Jordan Williams is not in the two-deep yet and shouldn’t be expected to make an impact in this game. He is still expected to be an excellent player in due time though.