With Clemson’s mammoth opener against Georgia less than two weeks away, The Clemson Insider is going to spend some time taking a closer look at some of the position matchups that could go a long way in determining the outcome of that Sept. 4 clash at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
Next up is Clemson’s defensive line against Georgia’s offensive line. TCI previously analyzed the matchup between the Tigers’ offensive line against the Bulldogs’ defensive front.
Note: If only one number is listed in parentheses beside a player’s name, that means that player hasn’t started a game. The number listed is how many career games he has played. If no numbers are listed for a player, he has yet to play a game.
Clemson’s projected starting defensive line
DE Myles Murphy, Soph (12 games played, 6 starts)
DT Tyler Davis, Jr (22, 20)
DT Bryan Bresee, Soph (12, 10)
DE Xavier Thomas, Sr (34, 9) or K.J. Henry, Jr (31, 6) or Justin Mascoll, Jr (28, 9) or Justin Foster, Sr (39, 13)
Simply put, when it comes to defensive lines in college football, there may not be a better collection of talent and depth than what Clemson has.
Murphy seems primed for a regular starting role on one end coming off his freshman All-America season. Meanwhile, Thomas has been praised for how he’s looked during camp after shedding 30 pounds during the offseason and could be honing in on a starting spot at the other. Thomas and Henry each had 3.5 sacks last season, trailing only Murphy for the most of any returning defensive lineman. But with five ends on the roster that have started multiple games, the Tigers have an abundance of riches at that position and could be virtually interchangeable there.
Davis is entering his third year as a starter and went through fall camp with a clean bill of health after playing through injury most of last season. Bresee, another freshman All-American, may be the most talented of the bunch after notching four sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss and 11 quarterback pressures on the interior last season.
And creating pressure is what this group does best. The Tigers ranked third nationally in tackles for loss (9.1 per game) and fifth in sacks (3.83) last season.
Some depth needs to be fortified behind Davis and Bresee inside — Ruke Orhorhoro, Tre Williams and Darnell Jefferies are some players to watch there — but with nearly every significant contributor back, there’s an expectation for Clemson’s defensive front of being one of the country’s elite.
Georgia’s projected starting offensive line
LT Jamaree Salyer, Sr (36, 11)
LG Justin Shaffer, Sr (36, 12)
C Warren Ericson, Jr. (18, 2) or Sedrick Van Pran, RFr (4)
RG Tate Ratledge, RFr (1)
RT Warren McClendon, RSoph (14, 10)
The strength of Georgia’s offensive line, at least on paper, lies on the left side in Salyer and Shaffer, a couple of veterans who’ve played a lot of football. Yet Salyer has had to fend off a couple of youngsters to hold on to his starting job. Redshirt freshman Broderick Jones and true freshman Amarius Mims, a couple of former five-star recruits, have pushed Salyer during camp.
TCI would be surprised if anybody other than Salyer runs out at left tackle against Clemson, but he could also slide inside to guard if needed. But Georgia seems pretty set on Shaffer and Ratledge at those spots even if Ratledge doesn’t have much game experience.
With McClendon returning for his second year as a starter at right tackle, the biggest question for Georgia up front — similar to Clemson’s situation — is who runs out first at center? This isn’t as much of a competition question as it is an availability question for the Bulldogs.
Ericson is the likely heir apparent to the departed Trey Hill if he’s healthy, but he’s been dealing with an injury to his snapping hand during camp. Van Pran, whom 247Sports Composite ranked as the nation’s No. 1 center recruit last year, could be in line for his first career start should Ericson not be able to go against Clemson, and even Slayer has gotten some first-team reps at center, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
The line helped Georgia average 4.62 yards per carry last season — fourth-best in the SEC — but the Bulldogs were middle of the pack in pass protection, allowing two sacks per game.
At some spots, this will be good on good in terms of individual matchups. But if TCI knows Georgia is particularly strong on the left side, you can bet Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables also knows the Bulldogs are almost certainly going to try to play to their strengths up front.
So if the natural assumption is the Bulldogs are likely to try to run to the left, you may see Clemson slant to that side and/or overload it, particularly on early downs. On passing downs, the Tigers could bring their best pass rushers off the right side more often.
And with Georgia seemingly most vulnerable in the middle of its offensive line, you can bet Venables will try to exploit that, too. Clemson would love for Bryan Bresee and company to be able to clog running lanes and push the interior of the pocket by themselves, but don’t be at all surprised to see James Skalski or any other linebackers frequently blitzing through the A and B gaps.
At the end of the day, it’s pretty simple: Georgia’s offense doesn’t want to go backward, and Clemson’s defense, through a variety of looks and packages, wants to make that happen as often as possible. If the front four (or three or five) can win its one-on-ones and create enough consistent pressure on its own to where Clemson can drop more defenders into coverage in passing situations, that would be best-case scenario for the Tigers.
And Clemson expects to win those individual matchups more often than not.