Jeff Scott didn’t need to turn on the film of Ohio State to realize how talented its secondary is.
Clemson’s co-offensive coordinator caught glimpses of the No. 3 Buckeyes while watching football during the regular season, and he knows exactly the type of challenge second-ranked Clemson will face against that group in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 31.
“Those guys, the corners and the safeties, they’ve got outstanding ball skills,” Scott said on Friday after Clemson’s practice. “A lot of the biggest times when you’re watching video where you go, ‘Wow. Look at that,’ it’s a guy making an unbelievable interception, one-hand grab, something like that.”
Entering the season, Ohio State’s inexperienced secondary was considered a question mark after the departures of several defensive backs to the NFL. Now, the secondary is viewed as the strength of a defense that is second nationally in yards allowed per game at 281.6.
Led by sophomore safety Malik Hooker, sophomore cornerback Marshon Lattimore and junior corner Gareon Conley, Ohio State’s secondary ranks sixth in the nation in passing defense, allowing 164.5 yards per game through the air, and fourth in the nation with 19 interceptions.
Hooker, Lattimore and Conley have combined for 13 of those interceptions, and Hooker stands out to Scott in particular.
“I think No. 24 is as good a secondary guy as I’ve seen in a long time,” Scott said. “He just plays at a different speed than everybody else — very fast, covers a lot of ground.”
The ball-hawking ability that Hooker and his unit possesses is something Scott has brought to the attention of Clemson’s receiving corps.
“That’s something that we have to talk to our guys about as well is you’re not always in the exact perfect position for that ball,” Scott said. “But hey, these guys are going to compete for balls, and you have to be sure that you’re physical and you’re able to box them out and be where you need to be.
“Because if you give any soft shoulder, those guys are going to go up there and intercept it.”
Fortunately for Clemson, its receivers are every bit as talented as Ohio State’s defensive backs, and the matchup between the two could be what decides a close game.
The week of the ACC championship game against Virginia Tech, Scott told his receivers that several plays involving them and the Hokies’ secondary would be the difference in the outcome.
It proved true when in the fourth quarter of the contest, critical catches by Hunter Renfrow and Deon Cain kept a late Clemson drive alive and led to points the Tigers needed in the end.
Ahead of the playoff game against Ohio State, Scott’s message to his guys has been the same.
“Playing Virginia Tech, those guys are talented, and I told our guys early in the week that this game is going to come down to our matchup, wide receivers versus DBs,” Scott said. “There’s going to be several plays in the game that are going to decide the game, and if we win our matchup, we win, and if we don’t, we lose.
“The message this week is exactly the same. We’ve got to win our matchup to have a chance to move the ball against this type of defense, so our guys are excited about that challenge. It’s a challenge, but when you have great players, they look forward to those types of challenges.”