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Deacons brace for ‘better’ Clemson team

October 6, 2017

Coming off a national championship and having two players picked in the first of the 2017 NFL Draft, one of three things was possible for Clemson football: it could drop off, it could be at the same level or, somehow, it could improve.

The third scenario appears to be the case for the Tigers.

Quarterback Deshaun Watson and wide receiver Mike Williams were first-round NFL picks. Running back Wayne Gallman, receiver Artavis Scott and tight end Jordan Leggett are all gone. On defense, four All-ACC players departed. Some serious firepower that beat Alabama on that Monday night in January wasn’t going to be a problem for the ACC anymore.

And yet, here are the Tigers, knocking off three top-15 teams in the past four weeks.

“Every year I look at depth charts, you look at Clemson last year and you think, ‘OK, Deshaun’s gonna graduate, Williams is going to graduate … ’ You think, ‘OK, maybe next year is the year maybe they take a little bit of a dip,’” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. “And somehow, someway, they lose all these really good players and then they come back the next year and they’re just as good, if not better.

“I think right now they’re probably playing better overall football than when we played them a year ago.”

The Tigers (5-0) might have had bigger talent drop-offs with other replacements, but no position was more crucial to find the next-man-up than at quarterback. That’s where Kelly Bryant has entered in Watson’s void, turning Clemson back into a true spread-option offense that features a running threat at quarterback.

Bryant leads the Tigers with 85 carries, 362 yards and seven touchdowns. Defending against designed quarterback runs brings a new element to the Clemson’s offense that it didn’t need a year ago.

“When it’s quarterback run game, it’s really hard to outnumber. And so that’s a huge challenge to have enough people around it while still being sound on other stuff,” Wake Forest defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel said. “You turn around and hand the ball off, the quarterback’s out of the play. If you just run a zone-read, you have a guy on the dive and the quarterback and it’s not a big deal.

“But when you’re talking quarterback run game with pullers and counters and all those things, this stuff becomes a challenge. So that’s — we’re working hard on it this week, but that’s the challenge that they present to everybody and that’s why the quarterback runs is that many times.”

The other factor to be considered about the Tigers’ offense is that the line is playing its best of recent years, Clawson said. He noted that two years ago, when Clemson lost in the title game, that the unit was spotted with inexperience.

Now, those players have grown up, led by junior left tackle Mitch Hyatt. Center Justin Falcinelli and right guard Tyrone Crowder are graduate students.

The strength of the Tigers’ defense is, like most ACC teams, on the defensive line. Defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence are the best interior combination in the league, perhaps the country.

And Wake Forest guard Phil Haynes can’t wait to face them.

“When we come into these games, we get the scouting report, ‘Oh, this guy’s one of the best players in the country.’ I’m like, ‘Wow, I get a chance to see where I’m at.’ I love it,” Haynes said. “I’m always up for it. I love playing against good players, I have all my life. … The better the player, I think the better I play, honestly. That’s how I am.”

And that’s how a lot of the Deacons (4-1) will have to be against Clemson.