Clemson is ranked No. 3 heading into its ACC opener this Thursday night against NC State, but there is still cause for concern if you are a fan of the Tigers. Clemson’s secondary still has a lot of questions that need to be answered before people can really start to label them a true national title contender.
The Tiger secondary gave up 323 yards through the air to Aaron Murray and the Georgia Bulldogs in the Week 1 victory. Perhaps the most alarming aspect about those numbers is the fact that the UGA receivers were wide open. Clemson played a lot of zone against the Dawgs, and their receivers found the sweet spot between the coverage and exposed the Clemson secondary. Georgia had five completions of at least 20 yards downfield, and whenever their receivers caught the ball, there was not a defender within seven yards of them.
In Clemson’s second game against South Carolina State, the Tigers only gave up 155 yards passing and had two interceptions returned for touchdowns. However, a lot of the secondary’s success can be credited to the defensive line getting a great push up front and forcing bad throws, and messing up the timing between quarterbacks and receivers. There is still a lot of doubt out there on whether or not these players for Clemson can cover people and not give up the big play. Safety Travis Blanks had a miscue against SC State, in which he did not stay in his lane and let the receiver take the better angle all the way to the end zone.
The other starting safety is Robert Smith, who has showed some flashes of good play, but is still learning on the go. The two cornerbacks are Bashaud Breeland and Darius Robinson — two experienced, athletic players. Both players were plagued by injuries a season ago, but Robinson seems to be turning the corner this season. I thought Breeland was going to be a stud after I watched his freshman season in 2011. He made a big play in 2011 when the Tigers were playing at Maryland. Down by 18 points, Breeland made a one-handed interception and had a solid return that set Clemson up with a score to get them back into the game. However, since then, Breeland has either been hurt or has had too many mental mistakes for most people’s liking.
Mike Reed has come over from NC State as the new secondary coach at Clemson and is trying to make the cornerbacks more physical. This week, Clemson will face Reed’s old team and will be challenged by a skillful wide receiver unit. Quintin Payton and Bryan Underwood are both upperclassman who have a lot of talent and speed that can cause problems for this Clemson secondary. Both teams have had a bye week to prepare, and the new-look Wolfpack will come out fired up to play against a top-five team at home.
Clemson’s Achilles-heel on defense the past few seasons has been giving up the big play through the air, especially in big games. In Clemson’s two losses last season, they gave up 300-plus yards through the air each time. It was the same song, different verse against Georgia. Significant improvements need to be seen in Clemson’s secondary if they are to keep winning. Thursday night, the nation will see if those Clemson DBs have progressed enough to give their team a chance to win the ACC, and maybe even more.
Travis Patterson, Writer for the ACC on Rantsports.com. Follow on Twitter @tpat20.