Many football pundits believed the Clemson Tigers would take a step back this year. Not quite a rebuild for sure, but most weren’t expecting a seamless reload. Sure they’ve played in the title game each of the last two seasons, but they lost so much talent a drop off was inevitable. They weren’t supposed to be at the level of Alabama or Ohio State, where they just replace program changing talent overnight. The defending national champs appear to be proving all those people wrong through three weeks of the 2017 season.
What A Reload
Reload is exactly what the Tigers are doing. Clemson lost All-ACC performers Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, Wayne Gallman and Jordan Leggett from last year’s offense. Oh yeah, they also lost a guy named Deshaun Watson, he left as a school legend, arguably the best player in program history. In total, the Tigers lost 1762 yards rushing, 2863 yards receiving, 49 touchdowns and the best quarterback in school history. Yet here they stand, 3-0 with back to back dominant wins over ranked opponents. This team is still very good, and this program shows no signs of slowing down. Head coach Dabo Swinney has built a powerhouse in Clemson, SC.
“We had lot of guys make plays,” said Tigers coach Dabo Swinney, whose team won its 11th straight road game. “We got a lot of contributions from a lot of guys. That’s a happy locker room in there. We settled in and really played good football.”
There is an old sports adage that it is always tough to replace a legend. That is exactly what quarterback Kelly Bryant is attempting to do. So far, so good for the junior from Calhoun Falls, SC. In his first two career starts he was solid enough to get the job done, and showed a definite play making ability with his legs. This past Saturday in Louisville, KY, he outplayed the reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson. Bryant was 22-32 passing for 316 yards and had three total touchdowns. He struggled at times against a very stout Auburn defense in week two, but shined versus the Cardinal this weekend. Bryant has a bit more explosiveness when it comes to his running ability, tallying 162 yards and 5 scores on the ground.
While the Tigers lost an enormous amount of production in the pass catching ranks, the cupboard was not bare to start this season. Hunter Renfrow caught the game winning touchdown pass in the title game last year, and is back still making clutch plays. Deon Cain is off to a bit of a slow start this year, but still has big play ability. He has averaged 17.9 yards per catch on his 80 career receptions. Junior Ray-Ray McCloud has taken the biggest step forward through three games this year. Mostly a return man his first two seasons, he leads the Tigers with 16 catches and 220 yards so far in 2017.
Tavien Feaster was a prized five star recruit that saw limited action behind the aforementioned Gallman as a freshman. He is now the main ball carrier and is averaging 9.3 yards a carry. Freshman Travis Etienne has flashed his own big play ability by racking up almost 13 yards per carry through two games for Clemson. The two young running backs have combined for 355 yard rushing in three games. The reload of talent on offense is very impressive.
They have also shown early in the season an ability to win games in different ways. After disposing of a weaker Kent State team in their opener, all eyes turned to a week two match-up with SEC power Auburn. The Auburn defense came out and played very well, holding Clemson’s offense in check. Coach Swinney’s team still controlled the game thanks to its own stout defense and won 14-6. They then opened the offense up a bit more in their first road test against ACC foe Louisville. The tigers rolled to a 47-21 victory. They had four touchdowns of 35 yards or more, including a defensive score. One of the trademarks of great teams is finding different ways to win, and Clemson is showing that early in this season.
Defending Champs; Emphasis on Defending
While the offense is trying to reload after losing so much talent, the defense is continuing on its four year run of dominance. After pummeling Kent State and suffocating the Auburn Tigers, the trip to #14 Louisville was looked at as a measuring stick for this unit. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson would surely test the dominance of Clemson’s defense. Coordinator Brent Venables aggressive defense stymied the Cardinals. Jackson entered the game with 1010 yards of total offense through two games. He was essentially shut down for three quarters on Saturday night. He did manage to get over 300 yards passing and throw for 3 scores, but two of those were late in the game after the contest was decided.
Clemson’s defensive line is where they are the most dominant. After racking up 11 sacks of Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham in week two, the Tigers added four more sacks of Jackson. Defensive linemen Austin Bryant, Dexter Lawrence, and Christian Wilkins make a living in opponent’s backfields. The Tigers are regularly able to control the line of scrimmage, making things easier on the rest of the defense. Clemson has 26 tackles for loss in three games. They have led the country in this category the last four seasons. Linebacker Dorian O’Daniel backed up his 14 tackle, one and a half sack performance versus Auburn with 6 tackles and an interception returned for a score against the Cardinal.
The Tigers have two of their bigger test this season already behind them. With the way they dispatched of each it seems there is little left to slow them down. Tough match-ups at Virginia Tech and N.C. State and a home game with FSU still remain. The way this team has been able to reload its talent, knocking them from atop the ACC wont be easy.