By Will Vandervort
Jayron Kearse was embarrassed. Actually, the whole Clemson secondary was when Florida State quarterback Jameis Winton lit them up for 444 yards and three touchdowns on 22 of 34 passing on Oct. 18.
Several hours after the game, Kearse, along with fellow freshmen defensive backs Jadar Johnson and Adrian Baker, were seen in the Clemson IHOP going over coverages and schemes by using the salt and pepper shakers on the tables.
“That night I wanted to go through it and talk to the guys about what went wrong, what we did and what we could have done better,” the Clemson safety said. “Why did things happen like that and what do we have to do to keep them from happening again?”
Kearse says they talked well into early Sunday morning about everything they saw in the game and what they could have done better.
“It gives you a better understanding to talk things out because you know in your mind what you have to do and you know what you have to do in order to come back and be stronger in that next game,” he said.
The Tigers, who are off this Saturday and will host Georgia Tech on Nov. 14 in Death Valley, were timid at times and not playing the way they had been playing leading up to the Florida State game. Before that night, Clemson’s secondary had shown marked improvement from the year before and had allowed only one team—Georgia—to throw for more than 300 yards in a game.
In fact, only NC State threw for more than 200 yards—213—in the previous five games.
“We were thinking about it too much instead of just going out and playing ball,” Kearse said. “We just needed to be football players. We thought too much about the game. We let the game plan get to us, the big crowd and stuff like that get to us instead of just going out there and being football players.”
In the last two games, the Clemson defense has been playing football. Against Maryland, it recorded two interceptions and forced four turnovers. It forced two more interceptions in a 59-10 victory at Virginia last week and three turnovers overall.
The Tigers (8-1, 6-1 ACC) held the Terps and the Cavaliers to 38 of 91 passing (41.8 completion percentage) for 445 yards and four interceptions to go along with three touchdowns.
“I have great corners out there in (Bashaud) Breeland and (Darius) Robinson that will do what they are supposed to do and I have great linebackers that will fit their gaps and will be physical. I also have a D-line that will put pressure on that quarterback and make him get rid of that ball sooner than he wants to,” Kearse said.
Clemson currently ranks seventh in the nation in interceptions with 15 and ranks 17th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Kearse says the difference in all the other games and in the Florida State game was more about trusting what they were seeing and using their eyes.
“In high school, I was making the plays so when you get up here to the college level, you tend to want to do the same thing, but all these guys here came here because of the plays they made in high school. Just let them do their job and you take care of your responsibilities and your time to shine will come,” Kearse said.
Kearse’s time to shine came at Maryland when his first quarter interception in the end zone changed the tide of the game and got the momentum back on Clemson’s side. Against Virginia a week later, he noticed something on film that quarterback David Watford had been doing so he sat back in coverage and waited for the sophomore quarterback to make a mistake.
When Watford overthrew his intend receiver at the Clemson 30, Kearse was there to record the interception, which he returned 37 yards to the Cavaliers’ 33-yard line with 6:30 to go before halftime. That led to a Tajh Boyd to Roderick McDowell 10-yard scored that gave the Tigers a 21-7 lead.
“It has helped because I’m looking at things different. In going through my procedures, things like that, watching film, I’m noticing what the quarterback’s tendencies are and what the team’s tendencies are. Watching film really gives me an edge over my competitors.”
In watching film the week leading up to Virginia, Kearse noticed how Watford overthrew his receivers a lot.
“All I had to do was get back deep and wait for him to make a mistake and I’ll be there to capitalize,” the safety said. “We were in Cover two and I was supposed to make a play when the ball was in there and that is what I did.”
He was also were he was supposed to be on the Cavaliers’ next possession, when he stripped running back Khalek Shepherd of the ball, which defensive tackle DeShawn Williams recovered at midfield. Five plays later McDowell was streaking in for a 25-yard touchdown and the rout was on.
“On the running play, I closed my gap so he chose another gap and then bounced it outside and I was there to make a play,” Kearse said.
And since that impromptu meeting at the IHOP, Kearse and the rest of the Clemson secondary have been making nothing but plays.
“I don’t know what anybody else does. I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to do what I have to in order to get that edge and get an advantage over my competitors,” Kearse said.