cLEMSON — Finally, conjecture has given way to evidence. How sweet it is that the guessing game of the offseason is a mere speck in the rearview mirror, because we’ve got a pretty good idea on the identity of each team?
Who is Clemson? It’s not last year’s team. It’s not the one before that. Each squad takes on its own personality; think of it like getting a new cat of the same breed every year. Generally, each cat will be similar to its predecessor and successor, but there’s little wrinkles which set that cat apart from any other.
So, what kind of cat are the Tigers looking like in 2013? Three games is a sample size; not that large, but big enough to learn what to expect for the rest of the year.
We’ll go down every position with a key focal point for each, and how those players are shaping up in the early goings especially compared to last year’s 11-2 outfit. All national statistics are entering Saturday, mind you.
Quarterbacks: Hitting the target
Starting quarterback Tajh Boyd completed 10 in a row vs. Georgia. Backup Cole Stoudt went 19 for 20 against South Carolina State. Entering Saturday, Clemson had the most passing attempts in the country (118) without an interception. In 2012, the Tigers’ 67.1 completion percentage was tied for 10th.
Running backs: Efficiency
The total rushing numbers don’t really tell the story. Roderick McDowell leads the way with 243 yards and 5.5 per carry — Andre Ellington had 228 yards in the 2012 Auburn opener alone — but he has picked up tough yards and been a solid pass protector as well.
Receivers: Primetime playmakers
No more DeAndre Hopkins. No more Brandon Ford, no more Jaron Brown, and after he suffered a season-ending knee injury last week, no more Charone Peake.
That’s a lot of change to cope with. You already know about Sammy Watkins, who is off to a fine start in 2013 (19 catches, 242 yards and a 77-yard touchdown against Georgia). Martavis Bryant is a true X-factor, and he showed up Thursday with two crucial touchdown catches to pull away from N.C. State.
Who else is stepping in? Stanton Seckinger had the game-winning TD to beat Georgia, while Zac Brooks and Sam Cooper have also caught scores in key moments. Germone Hopper and Mike Williams proved they’re reliable enough targets in their freshman seasons. And don’t forget about Adam Humphries, somewhat of a security blanket to Boyd.
Offensive line: Don’t go backward
The offensive line’s job is simple: don’t make Boyd run for his life more than a couple of times a game, Clemson has done that 24 times so far, which is tied for the sixth worst in the country. In 2012, sustaining 75 tackles for loss and 31 sacks ranked in the bottom third of the country. So this is becoming, as they say, a “thing.” And it’d probably behoove the Tigers to figure out exactly who their top five guys are.
Defensive line: Push them backward
So far, so very good. The four sacks of Aaron Murray were a total game-changer, especially after a rough first quarter. Then three more vs. S.C. State. And five alive at N.C. State. It took Clemson until the second quarter of Game 4 to get its fourth sack, and the Tigers have never been adept at downing the quarterback since the turn of the century.
Linebackers: Cash in on money down
Big point of emphasis entering the season, and it’s hard to complain with sticking in that 33-34 percent range. It’s all about timing, for sure.
With a ferocious all-around effort in Raleigh on Thursday, the Tigers’ opponents are under the 30 percent ledger (29.2 percent) on converting third-down plays.
That ranks 23rd in the country, and actually just fifth in the ACC.
A note from 2012: In the Tigers’ 11 victories, opponents converted 29.6 percent of third downs. In defeats, Florida State and South Carolina sustained the drive 19-of-34 times (55.9 percent.)
Defensive backs: Win big plays battle
Weird way to look at it, but Clemson’s coaches are simply content if its offense busts out more big plays than its defense allows. (Which basically means, if a game’s meant to be a shootout, as the Beatles would croon, let it be.) So far, it’s an even 16-all for the season in terms of gains of 20-plus yards.
But after Georgia punked Clemson 9-4 in that department, the Tigers beat out S.C. State (5-2) and N.C. State (7-5), so you could say the Tigers’ secondary is on the right track.
Special teams: Field position
The Tigers have had the better start position in all three games, and it’s gotten better each time. While each set of Bulldogs (Georgia, S.C. State) were a couple of yards behind the Tigers on average, Clemson really exerted control Thursday, starting on its own 32 on average while N.C. State was pushed back to the 21. That’s a terrific set of hidden yards, and kickoff specialist/punter Bradley Pinion is to thank for that.