Insider’s Preview: Clemson

Notre Dame’s biggest test of the season awaits at Clemson. Irish Illustrated caught up with radio host Roy Philpott for an inside look at the Tigers and the matchups to watch.

Pete Sampson: It seems like the narrative around Clemson is similar to the one up here. You know the Tigers are good. The question is how good. What did you learn from the first three games but what’s still unclear about this team?

Roy Philpott: I think probably the biggest thing is the starting defense really has had no drop from last year’s unit. And last year the defense ranked No. 1 in total defense. I don’t think this is the best defense in the nation, but I do like this group and it should finish in the top 15 nationally. The group really has not fallen off.

The question down here that everybody has is the offense and when it’s going to come out of its shell. The expectation was they would show more than they did at Louisville, but they kept it on the ground. The loss of receiver Mike Williams was definitely big as a downfield target. But still, people looked at this offense and thought it could be fun-and-gun, one of the most prolific in school history. We haven’t seen that.

PS: There are a couple matchups that jump off the page, starting with Will Fuller vs. cornerback Mackensie Alexander. I’d pay to see that one. What makes him unique for that position?

RP: He’s outstanding in coverage. Honestly, he doesn’t get tested very often, nobody throws at him. Opposing offensive coordinators, it seems they watch film, see how he’s up in everybody’s face, shows good recovery speed, shows good hips, and they stay away.

How much they match Alexander against Will Fuller, I think it will be a lot. They’ll use safety Jayron Kearse over the top. Physically, he’s one of the most impressive players that I’ve ever seen. He’s the nephew of Jevon Kearse. If you stumbled into Jayron, you’d think he was a defensive end. With him and Alexander, I’m curious how they match up against Fuller and Chris Brown. I think they’ll move Alexander around.

PS: The other one I’d pay to watch is Ronnie Stanley against defensive lineman Shaq Lawson. He’s been billed as the next great one down there. Has he played that way?

RP: He’s a completely different player than the guy he replaced, first round pick Vic Beasley. Beasley (12 sacks last year) got to the quarterback, Lawson isn’t fast-twitch like that but is much better in run support. Really their tackles for loss stats are similar. This is going to be a fascinating matchup. What success does Notre Dame’s line have against him? Does he just hold the point of attack? Does Clemson stack the line of scrimmage? One thing to watch here is how much Clemson drops linemen into coverage with zone drops. They’ve had some success with that this year.

PS: To me, the biggest concern for Notre Dame is keeping up with Clemson’s versatility in the passing game. How does Clemson use Artavis Scott and Ray Ray McCloud in terms of moving them around the formation to get advantages?

RP: They can move either one into the backfield at times. I expect to see more of that this season. The issue is that without Mike Williams they lost their deep threat. So what we’ve seen is more of a horizontal passing game with tunnel screens, making guys miss. McCloud can really do that. We’re still waiting for them to take those shots down the field. The first three games have been more about working the screen game five or six times, seeing if Scott can make somebody miss of McCloud can get loose.

PS: The strength of Notre Dame this year, by far, is the offensive line. But the defensive front with Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell might be more interesting this weekend with the inexperience Clemson has on its offensive line. What’s the feeling around that group?

RP: Against Louisville at one point they didn’t have a single guy in the same position that he played in training camp, or at least four of the five. They were down to their third and fourth tackles. The potential is really there with freshman left tackle Mitch Hyatt, who did early enrollment, but he’s not where he’s going to be in a year or two. The right tackle is banged up and he’s a fifth-year senior who hasn’t really played. His backup is a true freshman who is also banged up. Potential-wise, this is as good as Clemson has been on the offensive line in a decade. But they are young and they are banged up. So there’s some uncertainty there and they haven’t faced a big physical front like this.

PS: I’ve been reading that Clemson’s special teams units have struggled. It’s not a strength for Notre Dame, but CJ Sanders brought a punt back last week. What’s the issue in the kicking game?

RP: It’s really the kickoff coverage team. They gave up a 100-yard return against Louisville in the fourth quarter that really changed the complexion of that game. There was a long return against Appalachian State too. They’ve switched some personnel and feel good about it coming off the bye week.

The problem is people are used to CJ Spiller back there and Clemson returning one out of every five kickoffs for touchdowns. They expect more explosiveness. The coverage teams have been pedestrian. I believe that if they continue to play like they have in the past three games that it’s going to cost them at some point and it’s going to happen against one of these premier teams.

PS: What’s your evaluation of quarterback Deshaun Watson through three games? The Louisville game feels like the most relevant of those (21-of-30 for 199 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions). Brian Kelly called him a “game wrecker.”

RP: Losing Williams has been big for Watson. He was that guy you could throw it up to and he’s coming down with 7-of-10 jump balls.

People here are asking what’s wrong with Deshaun and he’s still completing 75 percent of his passes. I don’t think him hearing that is the worst thing. To me, the expectations are so huge that people think he’s going to not throw an incompletion and lead Clemson to a 72-0 record the next two-and-a-half years.

PS: If Watson isn’t playing well, what’s happening? How do teams defend him?

RP: When you blitz him he gets better. His numbers are phenomenal. I don’t think those full house blitzes from Brian VanGorder are going to be something Notre Dame does. He will force the issue sometimes and I think he pressed a little bit against Louisville. If you have a couple good corners with good recovery speed, sometimes his accuracy can be an issue. He can sometimes try to fit the ball into tight spots.

PS: This seemed like a tough ticket when I talked to you this summer. I can’t imagine that’s changed much. What kind of buzz does this game hold right now?

RP: Nothing’s really changed since the summer. I think some people were concerned Notre Dame would lose to Georgia Tech. Now you’ve got an undefeated Top 10 team coming here for the first time in almost 40 years. GameDay was here twice in 2013 (win over Georgia, loss to Florida State), but I think this will be one of the best atmospheres here ever if the game is close. It’s going to be crazy. Kids recognize these games, the noise is going to be crazy.

PS: What do people need to see around Clemson if they’re making a first trip there?

RP: Bowman Field is probably where GameDay will set up, it’s a huge field in front of the clock tower. Around town, there’s a bar called the Esso Club that’s been formed out of an old gas station and close to the stadium. It’s a hole in the wall place, sort of your classic college town bar. The Notre Dame alumni club rented a spot behind The Smokin’ Pig, which is the best barbecue I’ve ever had in my life.

Make sure you’re into the stadium before the Clemson team runs down the hill. That’s one of those things that you won’t see anywhere else in college football.

PS: We won’t hold you to a Tuesday prediction, but we’ll take it if you’ve got one. What happens on Saturday night?

RP: I would feel better about Clemson if I was seeing a bit more consistency in the passing game, but I think it’s a field goal game either way. My biggest question with Notre Dame is DeShone Kizer. It will be a lot different here than playing against Virginia. If he holds up and isn’t impacted by the crowd, Clemson is in trouble. If Clemson can get into his head a little bit, I think Clemson will find some things in the Notre Dame secondary on the other side. I don’t think Notre Dame’s secondary will match Clemson’s receivers.


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