By Will Vandervort
CLEMSON — Next Monday and Tuesday, Clemson University will be on fall break, which usually means the first semester is halfway complete.
This is the time of year when colleges send out their mid-term reports to their students. So, if No. 13 Clemson was to get a mid-term report card halfway through the football season, what might it be? Well, here is what I think it should be.
Tajh Boyd is having another outstanding year. Through the first half of the season, he leads the ACC in total offense at 329.5 yards per game. He has thrown for 1,748 yards and has 14 touchdowns. He is also completing 68.2 percent of his passes, while also running for 224 yards, which ranks second on the team behind running back Andre Ellington. Boyd worked hard in the off-season to get in better shape and to make himself a lot faster. He also spent a lot of time working on how he can fit into the running game by watching film and studying what he did wrong last year. His ability to run late in the game and make the right decisions on knowing when to run played a big role in why Clemson was able to beat Auburn and Georgia Tech. It also gives the Clemson offense another element defenses have to worry about and it’s why the Tigers are so hard to stop right now. Boyd would have had an “A” but five interceptions and two lost fumbles mean he still has work to do when it comes to taking care of the football.
Is there anyone else who is quietly putting up the numbers that Andre Ellington is this year? The Clemson tailback leads the ACC with 597 yards and six touchdowns. He has caught seven passes for 137 yards and another touchdown. He also has another 153 yards in kickoff returns and leads the Tigers with 147.8 all-purpose yards per game, which ranks third in the ACC. Also, let’s not forget how valuable he is in pass protection. Ellington is proving to NFL scouts that he is an all-around back. Roderick McDowell has emerged as Clemson’s second back with 154 yards and five touchdowns. He is averaging 5.1 yards per carry and against Georgia Tech last week proved he can do even more when the ball is thrown to him out of the backfield.
Wide receivers/ Tight ends
DeAndre Hopkins leads the nation with 777 receiving yards, while his eight touchdowns rank second in the ACC. At this pace, Hopkins, who has 49 catches, is on pace to shatter Clemson’s single-season record for catches, yards and touchdowns. Tight end Brandon Ford has 20 catches for 234 yards and four touchdowns, which is on pace as the same numbers former tight end Dwayne Allen had a year ago when he won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end. Adam Humphries and Charone Peake have joined Jaron Brown as good go-to receivers, while you know it is just a matter of time before Sammy Watkins starts putting up Hopkins like numbers once he gets back in the flow of the game after missing three of them this season. Also, with the emergence of Hopkins as a serious playmaker, defenses are now going to be forced to try and figure out ways to stop him, which will open the door a little more for Watkins, who has been a great teammate in accepting his role as a decoy at times in this very explosive Clemson offense.
Though the offensive line had a setback in the win over Georgia Tech Saturday, for the most part it has exceeded expectations. Clemson is ranked third in the ACC in rushing offense, averaging 201.2 yards per game and is coming off back-to-back 200-yard performances. For the most part, Boyd is getting adequate enough time to throw the football. Though giving up 10 sacks is not good overall, the Tigers allowed only four from Week 2-Week 5 and that was with an O-line that was shuffling guys in and out because of injuries. Though this group is still young, they are getting much better and guys like Kalon Davis, Ryan Norton, Reid Webster and Shaq Anthony have proven there is quality depth that no one thought was the case heading into fall camp 10 weeks ago. By the way, Dalton Freeman, David Beasley, Tyler Shatley, Brandon Thomas and Gifford Timothy have also proven they can be as physical as any starting line in the ACC.
It was rough to start the year and Florida State was a setback, but Clemson has steadily improved along the front of the defense, especially up the middle. Josh Watson is becoming a playmaker and seems to be making at least one or two plays a week now. DeShawn Williams has also had his moments and Grady Jarrett is much improved. Even freshman D.J. Reader, minus the Georgia Tech game, has looked good and has been productive when he has been in games. The defensive ends have been a work in progress. Malliciah Goodman has not lived up to his billing thus far, and at times appeared unsure of himself and isn’t as aggressive as he needs to be. Corey Crawford played much better against Georgia Tech and proved he has the skills to be a dominant force if he applies himself to the task. Tavaris Barnes played well against the Yellow Jackets and might have earned a little more playing time as a result.
This unit has had an up and down performance so far this season. They looked much better against Auburn and Boston College, yet looked flat footed at times against Florida State and Georgia Tech. I think this is just a byproduct of learning a new scheme and being really young, too. Stephone Anthony has shown enough that he has the makings to be a top-notch linebacker in the ACC, while Tony Steward is slowly starting to live up the hype he came to Clemson with before another knee injury sidelined him last year. Tig Willard, Corico Wright, Spencer Shuey and Quandon Christian bring a lot of experience to the table, but at times have had their own issues learning things, which has hurt the Tigers and caused some of the inconsistency.
If I was to give this mid-term grade two weeks ago, I might have given the secondary an “F.” Against Auburn, Furman, Florida State and even the first half against Boston College, it seemed as if no one knew what they were doing. Guys were out of position, taking bad angles on tackles, peaking in the backfield or were not turning their heads around when the ball was in the air. But thanks to a couple of moves, things have been a little better the last couple of weeks. Garry Peters has replaced Darius Robinson on one side at cornerback and has done a good job thus far, while Travis Blanks has moved to safety where he did okay in limiting Georgia Tech’s big-play pass potential out of the triple option. I suspect Blanks will play there against Virginia Tech considering the Hokies play more of a traditional pro-style set. Rashard Hall does have three interceptions this year, which is tied for second in the ACC and Jonathan Meeks has been the most consistent player.
Chandler Catanzaro has made all 11 of his kicks this year, including a 50-yarder at Florida State to set the career-record for consecutive field goals which he now has extended to 19 straight dating back to last November. Spencer Benton made an ACC record 61-yard field goal against Furman and is one of the top punters in the ACC in terms of yards and net average. Kick coverage has improved the last couple of weeks after making a few personnel moves following the Florida State game, while punt coverage has been solid for much of the year. The Tigers have struggled in returning kicks and punts, though, and that could be due to the fact Watkins has only played in three games and is still trying to get into game shape.
Dabo Swinney and his staff deserve a lot of credit for the Tigers 5-1 start to the season. The Clemson coaches have been able to overcome their team’s shortcomings and have still had them in position to win every game. Since the Florida State game, Clemson has run a ton of trick plays which have had a high success rate to this point – the fake field goal against FSU, the Watkins to Ellington touchdown against FSU and the trick play on the two-point conversion against Georgia Tech. The only two that did not work, were not executed properly. The Clemson coaches on offense and defense have also shown the ability to make in-game adjustments. The biggest challenge was keeping the team focused after such an emotional loss at FSU on Sept. 22, but the coaches had the Tigers ready to play at Boston College and they have now won two straight games since then and are back in the ACC Atlantic Division race.