CLEMSON — At 6-5 and 240 pounds, Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel will not be hard to find in the Seminoles’ backfield at 8 p.m. on Saturday.
But will Clemson be able to get to him?
A key question for No. 10 Tigers is whether their pass rush can reach, sack and otherwise disrupt the imposing figure leading No. 4 Florida State’s potent pass offense.
Through three games against a relatively weak schedule, Clemson’s pass rush has become a suspect component. Clemson ranks 99th in the country in creating sacks. The Tigers rank 74th in the country in tackles for loss.
Clemson’s defensive line is mostly comprised of freshmen and sophomores. The lone experienced player, senior defensive end Malliciah Goodman, has not registered a sack through three games and has just five sacks in 1,477 career snaps.
Clemson had one sack in the 60 pass attempts by Ball State and Furman.
“We have to do a better job of pressuring the quarterback,” coach Dabo Swinney said. “Part of it is some of the teams we’ve played are not back there holding the ball.”
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables knows Clemson cannot give Florida State time to throw.
The rifle-armed Manuel is completing 71 percent of his passes. He’s thrown six touchdowns, just one interception, and is and averaging nine yards per pass attempt.
Manuel didn’t play against Clemson last year due to injury.
“He’s gotten better each year,” Venables said. “He has a big arm, he can throw with great velocity, he can throw it forever. He throws short and intermediate balls with great accuracy.
“We have to be able to do (pressure), no question ... (Furman) did a lot of seven-man protection, a lot of slide protection and were going to get rid of it quick so (the pass rush) is hard to assess.”
Manuel targets a stable of speedy threats at receiver like Rodney Smith, Rashard Greene and 6-6, 240-pound freshman target Kelvin Benjamin.
“As a coach, you try to recruit the biggest, strongest, fastest players at every position, and they have them all,” Venables said. “They have a monopoly on most of them. The margin for error is very little.”
On obvious passing situations, Venables has switched from even to odd fronts, but it has produced largely the same results, save for Victor Beasley’s late sack in the opener.
Despite the slow start, Swinney isn’t concerned about his defensive front in the long term.
“I remember when Da’Quan (Bowers) was a sophomore, he wasn’t very good, just average,” Swinney said. “We have no juniors — we are all sophomores and freshmen up front. Do we have talent? Yes. Are we dominant yet? No. Can we be? Yes. ... Ask me that question two years from now when all those boys are full grown men.”
But in two years Sammy Watkins will likely be gone, as will quarterback Tajh Boyd.
The timetable places the front under pressure to create pressure.