Out-of-town Q&A: Clemson

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This week’s Q&A brings a return of the guy who started the idea here on the blog a little more than a year ago: Larry Williams of TigerIllustrated.com.

You can check out Larry’s blog here, and he’ll have an extensive Q&A with me later in the week.

For now, here’s his take on Clemson’s lack of offense, the progression of quarterback Kyle Parker and whether anyone other than C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford should scare the Terps defensively:

1. Clemson sure looks like it’s modeling itself after Virginia Tech – good defense and special teams, not-so-spectacular offense. Whether that’s conscious or not, is that either a surprise or welcome at this stage?

LW: There was actually some Dabo-ball talk last week … no, not really. But there was a lot of talk about the special teams excellence, and then Richard Jackson went out and missed a 34-yard field goal that ended up costing Clemson dearly in the loss to TCU.

The offense is struggling, and that’s no real surprise. The defense is really good, and that’s no surprise. The only real shock, until the big miss Saturday, was that Jackson was simply sizzling. He boomed a 53-yarder against Georgia Tech and a 52-yarder against Boston College (both would’ve been good from 65), and he was 12-for-14 before the miss late against the Frogs. No one anticipated that before the season.

The Tigers’ glory years in the 1980s were built on defense and special teams (and maybe a little cheating sprinkled in there somewhere), so that’s certainly a formula (sans cheating) that resonates in these parts. But there is some apprehension about the offense, because the running game hasn’t been consistent enough to sustain drives and cash in upon reaching the dead, er, red zone.

The Tigers have scored two touchdowns in 13 trips inside opponents’ 20-yard line. Their offense has mustered one touchdown in the last nine quarters.

Not much fun in those numbers.

2. This time last year, Tommy Bowden was twisting in the wind, and a couple weeks later he was gone. Almost a year into his tenure (including his time in an interim capacity), what is the assessment of new coach Dabo Swinney?

LW: Swinney has done a lot of good things. One of the most important has been reaching out to a fan base that grew tired of Bowden’s lack of warmth and sincerity. Just days into his role as interim coach, Swinney seemed to have a great feel for what was missing from the figurehead position. He took a lot of measures to galvanize and energize the fan base.

But Swinney can be the most lovable and embraceable guy in the world, and it won’t matter one bit if he doesn’t win. He is starting to draw some criticism for his decision to retain several assistants hired by Bowden (OL coach Brad Scott, OC Billy Napier, RB coach Andre Powell, WR coach Jeff Scott).

I think Swinney can succeed at Clemson, because this program is not that far away from where it wants to be. If he manages to bring the Tigers their first ACC title since 1991, he’ll be the savior. Heck, just winning the Atlantic Division (the Tigers haven’t done it yet) would represent a big step. Clemson fans still can’t figure out how their team, with all that talent, sat home three straight years and watched others traipse to the ACC title game (Wake in ‘06, and BC the last two years).

There has been some evidence of learning on the job for Swinney and his offensive staff. Neither he nor 30-year-old Napier had prior experience coordinating an offense, and there have been some chokes and sputters. Swinney admits he “got my butt outcoached” in the first half against Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson. Going up against TCU’s Gary Patterson was no picnic, either.

I’d say most fans are a bit uneasy at this point with a 2-2 record, even though both of those losses were narrow and to ranked teams. If Swinney does not manage to do what Bowden was fired for not doing (advancing to the ACC title game), it’ll be hard to consider this season — or any season under him — a success.

3. C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford seem to have done their share. But is there any other skill position player capable of shining on offense this season?

LW: That’s the question of the day down here. The receivers other than Ford have not been good, with pronounced struggles gaining separation, catching and blocking.

Sophomore WR Marquan Jones has shown some flashes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he made an impact in College Park against man coverage.

Also look out for TB Andre Ellington. He sometimes gets confused with Spiller when he runs, and that’s quite a compliment. He has not received near enough touches thus far, and Napier said he’s committed to getting him the ball more from here on out.

Also, TE Dwayne Allen is talented and should get some opportunities to produce.

4. Sticking with the offense, what are the early returns on Kyle Parker? Most specifically, is he the long-term guy for the Tigers?

LW: I like Parker because of his quick release, strong arm, and ability to improvise and make big plays. He’s a gamer.

He had some struggles in the second half against TCU, but he might deserve a pass for that since it was raining pretty hard for most of that stretch.

Parker has struggled some at locking onto his receivers. It cost him against Boston College, which sat back in a zone and picked off two passes when Parker did not see the safety and linebacker drifting toward his intended targets.

As for whether he’s the long-term guy, I’d say he’s definitely the guy for this season. Hard to tell beyond that for two reasons: 1) Parker, who also plays on the baseball team, will be eligible for the MLB Draft next summer, and 2) Tajh Boyd, a redshirt freshman from Hampton, Va., is considered the real deal. It’s going to be fun to watch these guys battle it out next spring.

Parker’s backup is Willy Korn, the former anointed savior who was beaten out by Cullen Harper in 2007 and 2008, and then by Parker in August. Swinney says he’s committed to playing Korn, who got in against Middle Tennessee and Boston College while sitting against Georgia Tech and TCU.

I think Parker is better than Korn right now, and I’m not sure it’s even close.

5. This year’s 2-2 start, with a last-minute loss to Georgia Tech and a tight setback against Texas Christian, doesn’t appear as stunning as last year’s foibles against Alabama and Maryland. Some of that obviously has to do with expectations. What are the realistic expectations for this outfit a month into the season?

LW: I don’t think this is an overwhelmingly good team right now because of the issues on offense, but greatness isn’t required to win the Atlantic Division (see: Boston College, 2008).

I entered the season thinking 8-4, and possibly 9-3. The latter record seems awfully difficult to attain right now given remaining games against Miami (road), Florida State (home), N.C. State (road) and South Carolina (road).

If this team can get some confidence and continuity by beating Maryland and Wake Forest in its next two games, I think 8-4 is a reasonable goal.

They really need to get better at WR and OL, though.

Patrick Stevens

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