All the talk heading into third-ranked Clemson’s game against No. 4 Louisville this weekend is revolving around Deshaun Watson versus Lamar Jackson.
But Watson and Clemson’s offense versus Louisville’s defense deserves discussion, too.
“To this point, it will be the best defense that we’ve played this season,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said on Monday.
Entering the contest, Louisville’s defense ranks 13th nationally in yards allowed (278 per game), 16th in passing yards allowed (156.3 per game), seventh in sacks (15) and sixth in defensive efficiency (90.3).
This will be the fourth straight year Clemson has faced a defense led by Todd Grantham. Grantham, who is in his third year as Louisville’s defensive coordinator, has opposed Clemson in each of the last three seasons, and was also Georgia’s defense coordinator when the Tigers played the Bulldogs in 2013.
Having become familiar with Grantham’s 3-4 scheme and tendencies, Scott knows what to expect on Saturday night.
“Very disruptive,” Scott said. “They’re not just going to sit back and play base defense. They’re going to move a lot of guys around. You have to be prepared for the different blitzes and the different looks you’re going to get.
“His guys always play physical, and all those guys are very active — great effort, physical to the ball and really make you have to work the length of the field.”
The Cardinals return eight starters on defense, and have talent and experience on all three levels.
It starts with senior outside linebacker Keith Kelsey.
Kelsey, a first team All-ACC selection by the media in 2015, currently ranks second on the team with 27 total tackles.
“Keith Kelsey is the heart of the defense,” Scott said. “He has a lot of experience. Great player. Played a long time, and does a great job.”
Senior outside linebacker Devonte Fields and junior outside linebacker James Hearns form a terrific tandem around Kelsey.
Hearns leads Louisville with 4.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
“Very fast-twitch guys on the edge there,” Scott said. “Those guys do a really good job of getting to the quarterback. Great speed off the edge.”
As for Fields, Scott said he has developed into a different player than the one Clemson saw early last season.
After a slow start, Fields finished the season with a nation-best 22.5 tackles for loss. He also finished fourth on the team with 64 tackles and fourth in the ACC with 11 sacks.
“He looks like he’s a lot more confident in what he’s doing in the scheme,” Scott said. “He’s playing faster. We played him pretty early last year. I know he really got going as the season went last year. You could see towards the end of last year, and especially this year, he’s playing at an extremely high level.”
In the secondary, Louisville returned three of four starters from last season, including Georgia transfer Josh Harvey-Clemons. The senior safety leads Louisville in tackles.
Overall, Scott knows Louisville’s defense will be a big test, but he and his unit are feeling up to it.
“I’m really excited about the challenge this week,” Scott said. “It’s no doubt it will be a big challenge, but our guys are excited about the opportunity and excited about being able to go out and play Saturday night here at home.”