When asked earlier this week how No. 3 Clemson will try to simulate in practice what it will see in Virginia Tech tight end Bucky Hodges, defensive coordinator Brent Venables just laughed and said, “We can’t.”
The reason the Tigers, who play Virginia Tech on Saturday in the ACC Championship Game in Orlando’s Camping World Stadium, cannot is because they have no one on the team that stands at 6-foot-7, 245 pounds and can jump out of a gym.
“We need to go get one of those basketball guys, I guess, and bring them out here,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “He is a big, long, long guy. You just do the best you can.”
That is the problem. Everyone has done the best they can and no one can figure out a way to stop Hodges. On third-and-long situations, Hokies’ quarterback Jerod Evans just throws the football up in the air and hopes for two outcomes. Hodges highpoints the ball, like he does on most occasions, or he draws a pass interference call, which he does at least once or twice a game.
“At the end of the day, the ball goes up and you still have to play with good technique and attack the ball at the highest point. Those are 50-50 type plays, when you have those one-on-one matchups and the ball is put up in the air,” Swinney said. “You just have to win your share of them. A little bit more of your share.”
That is the other problem the Tigers (11-1) will have. Hodges is winning the majority of those 50-50 balls this season. The Virginia Tech tight end is third on the team with 42 receptions for 598 yards. He is also tied for the team lead with seven touchdown receptions.
Obviously, he is also Evans favorite go-to target in the red zone. Let’s not forget tight ends have been Clemson’s kryptonite the last two seasons.
Tiger fans still have images in their head of Alabama’s D.J. Howard running wide open in last year’s National Championship Game, while Louisville’s Cole Hikutini and Pitt’s Scott Orndoff gave Clemson fits as well this season.
It is no coincidence the Tigers lost two of those three games, and came within a yard of losing the third game. NC State’s Jaylen Samuels also had a big day against Clemson this year.
Hodges will be Clemson’s biggest challenge to date at the tight end position.
“You just have to play with great technique, and hopefully, you can win at the line of scrimmage,” Swinney said. “You cannot allow him to get in rhythm and get comfortable … get clean, free releases and things like that to where he can get down the field.
“He is really good. He has made one-handed catches. He has had a little bit of everything all year long.”
Like Clemson, Swinney says the Hokies like to get their receivers and tight ends in one-on-one matchups, saying they will have plenty of opportunities to get those based on the way the Tigers play on defense.
“There will be opportunities that will be presented, just like we will have opportunities that will be presented,” he said. “That is what football comes down to ultimately. Who wins those matchups? Who wins those competitive plays when they present themselves.
“We just practice hard. We work on our technique and things like that because that’s the main thing. When you are playing normal route running and things like that, then it is being where you are supposed to be, timing things up front and disrupting rhythm. But when it is those 50-50 balls on the outside that just go up, you just have to do the best job that you can and play good technique.”
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