A look at Clemson's spread offense attack

Offensively, Clemson runs a spread offense. The Tigers usually deploys three and sometimes four wide receivers. The staple of the Clemson spread, like the other spread offense schemes that the Gamecocks have faced in 2007, is the quarterback read option play. (See a diagram and description of the read option play in the Vanderbilt preview).

On offense, Clemson loves nothing better than to run the ball. Everyone knows about "Thunder and Lightning," Clemson's two great running backs, James Davis (1) and C.J. Spiller (28). Earlier in the year, Clemson's offensive line struggled somewhat with its zone blocking scheme. Of late, however, Clemson's offensive line has jelled. Clemson's zone-blocking rushing attack is clicking. This blog will primarily look at the dynamics of the zone blocking scheme to see its operational components.

The Clemson spread offense attack depends in part on reading the defense before the snap and calling audibles. On November 14, 2007, before the Boston College game, Clemson Coach Tommy Bowden stated that the Clemson offense will "communicate a whole bunch" before the ball is hiked.

Most often the play call is made by coaches upstairs in the Clemson coaching box. The coaches figure out the best play to attack the defense and radio it down to the Clemson sideline. The sideline communicates to the quarterback by hand-signals. The Clemson quarterback must then hollar an audible from the formation to other players call the play.

If the Gamecock crowd will get involved, the home field noise could play heavily to the Gamecocks' favor. Clemson's 2007 team has yet to play in a loud SEC-like environment this season. Clemson has only experienced the relatively smaller and quieter stadiums found in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The loudest stadium in which Clemson has played this year was Georgia Tech, which holds only 56,000 people. It is imperative that the Gamecock crowd help the Carolina defense by interfering with the critical verbal communications needed by the Clemson offense. The crowd should make it impossible to hear anything.

Clemson's spread attack is similar to the one used by Florida. However, Clemson uses the quarterback run option much less frequently than does Florida. Nonetheless, Clemson's quarterback, Cullen Harper (10) is an athletic quarterback, and he is a threat to run the ball if the defense gives him an opening. In the open field, Harper has decent moves and quickness. You can bet that Clemson coaches have noted the trouble Gamecock defenses have had against running quarterbacks. Thus, they will likely call Harper's number occasionally, especially if the Gamecock defense dedicates defensive ends to stuffing Spiller and Davis.

On the other hand, Clemson cannot afford to lose Harper. Thunder and Lightning get the press, but Harper is the real key to Clemson's offensive success. Harper has a quick release and a strong and accurate arm. His passes are thrown with good velocity. If given time, Harper can zip the ball between two defenders deep downfield easily. He is capable of throwing short, medium and deep balls. He zips bubble screen passes to his receivers. Harper is such an importan cog, that Clemson simply cannot afford to lose him. Therefore, Harper will run infrequently. If Harper does take off on a run, then the defense needs to take the opportunity to hammer him.

As mentioned above, Clemson's offensive line uses a zone blocking scheme for run blocking. Zone blocking is intended to allow the offensive linemen to both double team defensive linemen on the one hand, and to block the linebackers on the other. From a bird's eye perspective, zone blocking is characterized by a line that initially moves as a group (almost in tandem) one way or another depending on the play call. Inside the pretty flow of the line (as it is seen from an upper deck), a lot of quick decisions by offensive linemen are being made. Zone-blocking requires the individual offensive linemen involved in a double team to quickly decide the tendency of the defensive lineman they are double-team blocking and to slough off or hold the block. The diagrams below illustrate how these split-second decisions are made.

The illustration above diagrams the read option play. Zone blocking works the same for any kind of power running play. Clemson runs the read option play with both Davis or Spiller taking the handoff from Harper. In this diagram, the play is to the left. Notice the two double teams of the left defensive tackle and the left defensive end. In this diagram, this is where the offensive linemen will execute zone blocking reads. Let's zoom in.

In the diagram above, the initial double team block gets the defensive linemen going to the right. As soon as the rightward initiative is established by the double team, the offensive linemen to the left sloughs off and goes hunting for a linebacker. The cool thing about zone blocking (when it works) is that a decent offensive lineman (here on the right) should be able to maintain the initiative and carry through with his block on the defensive lineman due to the momentum created by the initial double-team block.

In the diagram above, the opposite tendency by the defensive lineman is shown. Here, the defensive lineman is pushed or moves to the left. If that happens, the right-side lineman sloughs off to get the linebacker while the guy on the left holds the block.

Backs running behind a zone blocking scheme must be patient. They loiter back there following the flow and looking for a hole. As soon as something opens up, the back cuts back into the hole and explodes up field. Cutting back against the flow is how the back springs into the secondary with running momentum. The running back then just follows the blocks against the linebackers and safeties and cuts appropriately.

Zone blocking works best when offensive linemen understand each other and can intuitively sense decisions needed for a play as it develops. Offensive linemen involved in zone blocking assignments must make split second choices and both offensive linemen must understand the proper choice. If both linemen slough off to block a linebacker, then the defensive lineman will be free. Alternatively, if both maintain the double-team, then a linebacker will be unblocked. Therefore, offensive linemen must communicate. This communication can be verbal. So, it is again imperative that noise level at Williams Brice be deafening, disrupting Clemson's verbal zone blocking communications.

The newfound effectiveness of Clemson's zone blocking schemes has really opened up their offense. Clemson still likes to run the ball. But behind Harper, they are throwing the ball effectively too. Teams can no longer just stuff the run because Clemson has a balanced offense.

The quarterback, Harper, has a live arm and is a very accurate passer. Harper loves to exploit teams that commit to stopping the Clemson running game. Clemson uses misdirection and rollouts to burn teams that sell out against the run. In one of Clemson's plays, Harper will fake a handoff to Davis or Spiller. He then rolls out in the opposite direction looking for a simple flip to the tight end or to zip the ball deep between the defensive safeties. Here is the play illustrated.

Another favorite play for Clemson is from the two back set. If an opponent is playing man to man defense, Clemson tries to manipulate the defense into using a linebacker to cover C.J. Spiller, a track star. Clemson loves to throw the wheel route when a linebacker is isolated one on one against Spiller.

The Gamecock defense will have its work cut out for it. This is especially obvious because of the last two games. Arkansas' and Florida's offensive linemen have succeeded in dominating the Gamecocks' defensive trenches. Will Clemson be able to triplicate that effort on November 24?

Florida and Arkansas are two of the best rushing offenses in the Southeastern Conference. Before the Arkansas game, the Gamecock defensive front held up adequately against Tennessee and Vanderbilt, both of which have strong offensive lines. Moreover, earlier in the year, the Gamecock defensive front dominated Georgia in the trenches.

Clemson will bring it hard early in the game to try and take the crowd out of the game. It remains to be seen whether the Clemson line will be as good as either Arkansas or Florida, or whether they can replicate the success those offenses had against the Gamecock defense. If the Gamecock defensive linemen can beat the Clemson zone blocking scheme and shut down Spiller and Davis, then Clemson will have to challenge the strength of the Gamecock defense, the pass defense.

One final note about the game. Earlier this year, Clemson had trouble with punt blocks and with defending punt returns. A few great special teams plays by the Gamecocks could ignite an exceedingly hungry Gamecock crowd. Will Gamecock special teams make some big plays and unleash a furious blanket of noise? I fervently hope so. Go Cocks!

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