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Behind Enemy Lines: Clemson Tigers

What to expect from Clemson in Friday's night game at Syracuse.

Syracuse hosts Clemson in a Friday night tilt in the Carrier Dome. All Syracuse caught up with All Clemson's Brad Senkiw to find out more about the Tigers. 

Q: Clemson has struggled offensively this season compared to what we are used to seeing. What has been the biggest reason why?

Brad Senkiw: Like football at any level, it starts up front, and a lack of chemistry and continuity along the offensive line has meant the Tigers haven’t been able to run the ball well outside of that BC game. That’s allowed defenses to drop move defenders in coverage, and the receivers simply haven’t been able to get open, whether it’s poor route-running or bad scheme. It just isn’t working. The quarterback has not thrown the ball well in tight windows, and defenses are taking away the deep ball, leaving Clemson to fight and scrap for yards and points. Execution is what the coaches keep harping on, but a lack of explosive plays have strangely plagued this offense all year.

Q: What are the strengths and weaknesses of Clemson QB DJ Uiagalelei?

Senkiw: The sophomore is big, strong and can get tough yards with his legs. The problem is Clemson hasn’t really used him in that way much, and while he has a cannon for an arm, Uiagalelei hasn’t tested defenses at all. He’s struggled in the pocket and doesn’t seem to drop back very far so it looks like he’s constantly under duress. Last year, he displayed a small sample size of big plays, but this season he seems bogged down by bad mechanics and footwork. His confidence just hasn’t shown through, but running the football helps and if he does more of that this week, it might finally open the passing game up more.

Q: How has Clemson adjusted without Will Shipley at running back?

Senkiw: Pretty well so far. Kobe Pace stepped in with over 100 yards rushing against BC. He’s a straight-forward runner who can hit the hole and run over defenders. And now Clemson has a complimentary back in true freshman Phil Mafah, who had three 10-plus yard runs in his first four career carries. He’s the shifty, get to the outside kind of runner that Clemson’s really lacked this year. Shipley hasn’t developed into a home-run hitter like Travis Etienne was, but he’s still the best overall back on the team and Clemson needs him back for the final month of the season, but if Pace and Mafah keep developing, the run game should be the identity of the offense.

Q: Break down the Clemson offensive line so far this season. What are the strengths and weaknesses?

Senkiw: It’s been an underachieving group for the second consecutive season. Between starting true freshman Marcus Tate at left guard and moving veteran guard Matt Bockhorst to center, it just didn’t work the first four games. The line has struggled to get a push and missed assignments all over the front have kept big plays from happening. In the last game, though, the staff moved Bockhorst to right guard when starter Will Putnam was out with a toe injury against Boston College and things flowed much better with Hunter Rayburn handling snaps. Bockhorst is a natural guard and looked like it. Tate seems to be growing up a little more and there are signs that they can finally run block again. Protection hasn’t been bad outside of the opener against Georgia, which nobody can seem to block this year. One major weakness, though, is depth. The staff just doesn’t seem to trust enough guys.

Q: Clemson's defense has been very good so far this season. What has been the biggest key to that?

Senkiw: A ton of veteran leadership. Linebacker James Skalski is one of the best at his position in all of college football, and safety Nolan Turner has made big plays for years. Having two guys that successful defensive coordinator Brent Venables can trust to always do the right thing has allowed him to get creative and aggressive with other defenders. Defensive ends Myles Murphy and Xavier Thomas have been huge for this team. It’s finally come together for Thomas, an incredibly talented rusher. Andrew Booth Jr. is one of the best cornerbacks in the ACC and is as good a tackler as you’ll see anywhere. 

Q: How has Clemson adjusted without Bryan Breese?

Senkiw: It’s only been a game and a half but it’s been a challenge. Two veteran defensive tackles transferred out in the offseason, so with veteran Tyler Davis also missing from that inside spot, it’s forced Clemson to go deep into the roster. Ruke Orhorhoro has been very solid, but the man who’s held up really well is Tre Williams, who hardly played last year. He’s been banged up as well and playing through it, so it’s sort of spit and dirt holding things together in the middle of the front four. It helps to have linebackers Skalski and Trent Simpson play near the line of scrimmage.

Q: Have there been any areas where the Clemson defense has been vulnerable?

Senkiw: Without Bresee and Davis, Clemson doesn’t get quite the push to cause as much havoc in the backfield against the run, and maybe with other players having to make up for that it’s led to a few more breakdowns than Venables would like. They aren’t huge bust plays that are going for 50-yard touchdowns like last year, but it’s enough gains to allow teams to stay on the field longer. And with an offense that struggles to stay on the field itself, Clemson’s defense can wear down over 60 minutes.

Q: How do you see Clemson's defense attacking Syracuse's RPO, run based offensive attack?

Senkiw: That’s a great question and likely the key to the game. While the Orange have rushed for 200 yards or more in four of five games this season, Clemson has only allowed 200 or more just twice since 2017. Both came last year. Clemson hasn’t seen a QB this season who can really challenge them with the run like Garrett Shrader. Venables is notorious for taking away an offense’s strength and forcing it to do what it doesn’t want, but without Bresee and Davis, it’s going to be tough against Syracuse. Expect to see Simpson, a fast, instinctual linebacker, playing near the line of scrimmage and reading that RPO.

Q: How is Clemson on special teams?

Senkiw: The Tigers have been pretty consistent in this facet all season. The extra year of eligibility has greatly helped that. Punter Will Spiers is better than his 41.8-yard average, but he hasn’t hurt field position and has had a lot of short punts. B.T. Potter has missed just one of his six attempts and has a strong leg. If there’s an area of concern, it’s punt returning. Will Taylor handled much of that until he suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Q: How do you see this game playing out?

Senkiw: I expect Clemson’s offense to look better coming off an extra week of preparation, but it’s hard to think it’s a drastic step forward. The Tigers want to run the ball and not let Syracuse and that stellar pass rush force Uiagalelei into obvious passing situations, but that O-line has to clear running lanes. If Syracuse stays patient on offense and doesn’t get frustrated if Venables’ game plan has early success, the home underdog will stay in this game. Clemson’s yet to blow out an FBS team this year, and I don’t think it’ll happen at the Carrier Dome. The Tigers will win by a field goal in a close one down the stretch because their defense will bend but not break in the red zone.