To open this week’s edition of What We Are Hearing, I’d like to pass on some sad news for those of you who didn’t read about it the other day. App State linebacker Devan Stringer’s 11-day-old baby, Noelle, died suddenly on Monday morning. Deshaun Watson and Stringer were high school teammates and are lifelong friends. Deshaun said he and Stringer are like brothers, and the Stringer family took Watson into their home for a period of time when his mom was going through cancer treatment. Needless to say, this tragedy is weighing heavily on the minds of Deshaun and all of those in the App State family, so please send your prayers to Devan Stringer and his family. You can read a short ESPN article on the story HERE. It was just announced, by the way, that Stringer intends to play in the game this Saturday.
Now on to some happier thoughts….
What an opener by the Tigers last week! It’s hard to imagine a better performance to start the season—especially considering the questions with inexperience coming into the season. The defense had been the subject of the most speculation due to the loss of 11 players to the NFL. All through camp, we heard Dabo and Venables talk about how talented we still were on that side of the ball and that they believed the starting unit was very comparable to last season’s from a talent standpoint. However, with the inexperience behind the starters, there was understandable incredulity from the media and the fans about whether the defense would come close to the caliber of last season.
Some of that uncertainty was laid to rest last week. Clemson allowed only 10 points on 213 yards, albeit against an inferior opponent athletically, but Wofford is still a difficult triple-option offense for which to prepare, and many of Clemson’s young players were defending it for the first time. We saw great things on the defensive interior from Scott Pagano, Christian Wilkins and Jabril Robinson, who were in the backfield consistently. They did a great job moving the line of scrimmage back and stuffing the run. There was only one sack on the day, but it is difficult to get sacks against an offense like Wofford, which rarely drops back to throw the ball. Hopefully, those numbers will go up some on Saturday! I expect Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd are licking their chops this week. It would also be nice to see the defense generate some turnovers, as they didn’t produce any last week. Still, the effort from the defense was phenomenal for the entire game despite an early lopsided score. Attention to detail was also very high, with only a few missed assignments.
Offensively, things also went about as smoothly as Dabo could have hoped, the injury to Mike Williams notwithstanding. Watson was 18-22 for 194 yards, with 2 TD passes and 0 INT’s. To put that into perspective, Malik Zaire was 19-22 in Notre Dame’s game against Texas last week, and that was the second-best completion percentage by an Irish quarterback in history! Higher than Joe Montana ever had with the Golden Domers. Watson’s QB rating for the game was 185.9, which is just below last season’s average of 188.6. By the way, Watson’s QBR last season led the nation for QB’s with at least 125 attempts. So I would say Deshaun was as sharp as we all expected him to be, if not more so. The offensive line also answered some of the doubters with their performance. Their run blocking and pass protection was outstanding all day, and consequently Clemson had great offensive balance—passing for 311 yards and 2 TD’s; rushing for 222 yards and 5 TD’s.
On the subject of rushing, Clemson’s running back committee had a productive session—3 different backs found the end zone. It was great to see Zac Brooks back in the saddle and scoring on a 25-yard run—his first TD since his preseason injury last year. Tyshon Dye gave us a glimpse that he might be the short-yardage back we have been lacking for several years.
As for special teams, the muffed punt by Renfrow was disappointing—that led to Wofford’s only touchdown—and Ray-Ray made a poor decision on catching a punt, but for the most part special teams were sound. Freshman kicker Greg Huegel was 6-6 on PAT’s, Alex Spence was 1-1 and all the snaps and holds were good. That is one area in which you will often see some opening-game rust, but everything went smoothly on Saturday. Andy Teasdall also did a commendable job in his first game replacing NFL punter Bradley Pinion. Artavis Scott showed how electric he is in space, with a 16-yard punt return and a 39-yard kick return. Ray-Ray is only going to get better on returns as he gains experience. I know touchdowns are always preferable to field goals, but I would like to see Huegel get at least one FG opportunity against App State. He seems very poised and confident in his abilities, but having your first FG opportunity come on the road in a hostile environment on national television would be rough on anyone—especially if he misses, and it is a tight game. Huegel did pretty well on kickoffs, recording 3 touchbacks last week.
On to this week’s opponent….
This will be the first meeting between Clemson and App State since 1997, and Clemson is 4-0 in the all-time series that dates back to 1984. Of course, we all remember what many proclaim to be the greatest upset in college football history—when App State went into the Big House and knocked off a top-5 Michigan team. That was one of those seminal moments in sports in which most fans remember where they were when it happened—I know I do. You could argue that it was that game that began the downfall of Michigan to its current predicament. Of course, App State was an FCS program at the time (which made the upset all the more remarkable), but they are now in the FBS. For those of us who are superstitious, that is probably a good thing since Clemson has never lost to an FCS team.
App State rolls into Death Valley on a hot streak. They have won 7 straight games, which is the fifth-longest winning streak in the nation, and winning breeds confidence. They also return 19 starters and have a whole lot more who have played a bunch of football, so like last week Clemson’s young team will be juxtaposed against a veteran one. Incidentally, Clemson’s 4-game win streak is tied for ninth-longest in the nation, so that gives you some perspective on how hard it is to string several wins together, regardless of the opposition.
The Mountaineers’ QB is Taylor Lamb, son of former Furman QB and Head Coach Bobby Lamb (now head coach at Mercer). As one would expect from the son of a coach, Taylor is a very cerebral quarterback. He is an excellent decision-maker and has just enough athleticism to extend plays and move the chains with his feet. Lamb was 16-21 for 209 yards, 3 TD’s and 0 INT’s in their 49-0 win over Howard last week. As a freshman last season, Lamb broke Armanti Edwards’s 2006 freshman records for passing yards and touchdowns—and he only started 10 games.
On offense, the Mountaineers like to go fast, but fortunately Clemson sees that every day in practice. The App State offensive line returns 4 out of 5 from last year and is a very physical, scrappy bunch that will get after you. The lone new starter in that group is the left tackle, Davante Harris (73), who is replacing a player that just made the Texans’ roster. The Mountaineers rushed for 390 yards last week against Howard. Their wide receivers aren’t nearly what Clemson is accustomed to, but they are technically sound. Their best speed guy is Shaedon Meadors (6), a South Carolina native who played at Byrnes High School, so many of you may remember watching him. He had a 50-yard touchdown catch last week. Slot receiver Jaquil Capel (88) is also a potential star.
The DB’s are talented and athletic—particularly sophomore Latrell Gibbs (5). That is one unit that will probably look a little different than Wofford’s. They were ranked 24th in the nation in total defense last season, allowing 348 yards per game and 27.3 points. Inside Linebacker John Law (88), Safety Doug Middleton (21) and Defensive End Ronald Blair (49) were All-Sun Belt last season. The Mountaineers play a three-man front, which Clemson saw a lot of last week from Wofford.
INJURIES: Mike Williams and Korrin Wiggins are obviously out, but otherwise everyone else should be playing. Stanton Seckinger will be back this week at tight end.
The attendance at Death Valley versus Wofford was the fifth-highest attendance in the nation. In his press conference, Dabo expressed how proud and grateful he was to the fans for showing such a presence. He said that the bus ride to the top of the Hill felt like it was ESPN Gameday versus Georgia, not Wofford….Clemson remained #12 in both polls this week, which makes 62 out of the last 68 weeks that Clemson has been ranked in both polls….Clemson’s 49-10 victory was the largest for an opening game since Florida Atlantic in 2006…..Players of the week for the Wofford game were Watson on offense, T.J. Green on defense and Artavis Scott on special teams. It was T.J. Green who ran down the Wofford TE at the pylon, preventing a TD and setting up a near goal line stand….True freshman Mitch Hyatt was the first left tackle to start the opening game at Clemson since 1944 and only the second offensive lineman to start any Clemson game since 1946. He graded out at a remarkable 92%....Backup Center Jay Guillermo’s step-dad is an App State grad. He attended several App State games over the years, including their national championship games in the FCS….OG Eric Mac Lain is from the state of NC and visited the App State campus in high school….I asked Deshaun Watson if he has ever played against his former teammate and good friend Devan Stringer. They faced each other twice, way back in pee-wee football. They split the two meetings, so I guess this makes Saturday the rubber match….Former Tigers Justin Watts and Scot Sloan are on the App State coaching staff. Watts, a former Clemson WR, is in his first year coaching WR’s. Sloan, a former Clemson DB, has been on the App State staff since 2010. Watts is the only Clemson player in history to receive 5 letters….QB Taylor Lamb’s great-grandfather played baseball at Clemson before entering WWII. The 94-year-old is planning to attend the game….Lamb’s father, Bobby Lamb, coaches Dan Radakovich’s son, a TE for Mercer.
On to the prediction…….
App State will be more athletic than the Wofford team we saw last week, and they come in as an experienced, confident bunch. They are well-coached and Taylor Lamb will not make many mistakes. Expect them to run a fast tempo and try to get the ball out fast, respecting our speed on defense. That notwithstanding, the coverage by our secondary should provide enough time for our pass rush to get to Lamb several times. Dabo and Venables would like to create havoc and force Lamb into some hasty decisions. I have a feeling that creating turnovers is a point of emphasis this week, and you know Shaq and Dodd are just itching to rack up some sacks. Offensively, I expect Watson and company to pick up right where they left off. It will be nice to see our WR’s go up against a secondary that is a little more athletic, and I think they will be equal to the task. I also hope to see a breakout game for TE Jordan Leggett. Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud are going to get better each week. I expect at least one of them to get in the end zone this week!
Once again, Clemson’s talent is at another level this week, and the Tigers will take care of business without stepping off the gas.
Clemson’s prowl toward the CFP continues……
PREDICTION: Clemson 38 App State 13