CLEMSON — Dabo Swinney was watching Syracuse film earlier this week, taking a hard look at the Orange’s wide receivers.
He felt a sense of deja vu.
“When I got done watching the tape, I was like, ‘Dang, I thought Mike Williams was in San Diego!’” Swinney said. “That No. 8 catches everything. I mean guys hanging on him, falling out of bounds, 50-50 balls — he catches just about everything.
“And then No. 3, he’s all over the place. He’s in the slot. He’s a motion guy. He’s outside. Those two guys combined, they lead the country right now in receptions as a duo.”
“No. 8” is senior receiver Steve Ishmael. “No. 3” is senior Ervin Philips. No. 2 Clemson (6-0, 4-0 ACC) will see both when the Tigers kick off with Syracuse (3-3, 1-1 ACC) on Friday night at the Carrier Dome.
On the one hand, perhaps Swinney’s praise is a way for the coach to use the media as a means to deliver his No. 2 Clemson team a message again, like he did ahead of Wake Forest.
After all, Ishmael was just a fourth-team preseason selection by Athlon Sports, while Philips was third-team. Neither were voted to the preseason All-ACC offense and Syracuse’s receiving corps as a whole did not make Phil Steele’s list of top 15 wide receiver units around the country. Of the six teams Syracuse has played, LSU has the highest ranked passing defense at 35. Middle Tennessee is No. 82, Central Michigan is No. 88, N.C. State is No. 125 and Central Connecticut State is unranked.
But on the other hand, Swinney has merit when he dubs this unit the best wide receiver tandem Clemson has likely seen all year to this point. Ishmael leads the entire nation in receiving yards and is third in the nation for receiving yards per game. Philips comes in at 31 and 44 respectively.
Clemson’s pass defense is the best the Orange will see at No. 27 — but still, against LSU on the road, Ishmael managed 123 yards and a score, while Philips was not far behind with 93 yards and a touchdown. They each had 11 catches at one of the most imposing atmospheres in all of college football. This week they are home with nothing to lose.
“They have a clear identity ... (Syracuse coach) Dino (Babers) has got a plan. There’s a clear identity of who they are,” Swinney said. “They went to LSU and these guys compete with everything they’ve got. That was a tight ball game (35-26) in the end. N.C. State (33-25), that was a tight ball game at N.C. State.
“I can just tell by watching certain things if a team really believes in what they are doing and they do. It’s obvious.”
To Clemson’s benefit, the Tigers’ secondary is among the deepest positions on the team, one that has stepped up seamlessly as cornerback Marcus Edmond is expected to be out with a foot sprain for the fifth straight week. Trayvon Mullen, Ryan Carter and Mark Fields have spearheaded the charge in holding down the fort, along with the versatile K’Von Wallace and a deep string of more backups.
“We’ve build some depth there and have come along pretty good,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “(But) between Philips and Ishmael, the tight ends and the backs and a few other guys, they do a great job distributing the ball and getting the ball out fast and making a lot of big-time plays. It’ll be a huge challenge for us.”