Since we are at season’s end, you would think Clemson Football would be pretty settled and we would know exactly what to expect. Instead, it is a new era in college football when big changes can come to teams between the end of the season and the bowl games.
Between players entering the portal, players opting out of bowl games, and coaching changes, most teams are dealing with a new aspect to their team that can change their dynamic considerably. Add the big change at the starting quarterback position for the Tigers, and the injuries at quarterback for the Volunteers, and suddenly we have several areas where fans aren’t sure what to expect in the Orange Bowl.
Here are five things to watch for when the Tigers take the field against the Volunteers on December 30th.
What formation does the defense play?
I am a fan of the traditional 4-3 formation, and I think Clemson has seen a good amount of success with it. Times change, however, and the best defenses must adjust to meet their opponent’s capabilities.
In the ACC Championship game, we saw multiple formations: 4-3-4, 3-4-4, 3-3-5, etc. While it does appear some of the formations were in response to Trenton Simpson being injured relatively early that night, you wouldn’t know it if you were just casually watching the game. Clemson’s defense looked well-prepared to counter North Carolina’s strengths.
Simpson will not be returning from injury to play in the Orange Bowl, and Clemson will also be without the services of Myles Murphy, who is opting out. Defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin probably learned a thing or two from the Tar Heel game about how versatile his unit can be. It will be fascinating to see what surprises he has in store.
What position does Bresee play?
One of the most noticeable changes we observed when watching the ACC Championship game was how often Brian Bresee was lining up at defensive end. I remember when Bresee was being recruited that there was a lot of speculation about whether he would be an end or a tackle in college. He quickly settled into tackle in 2020 and that seemed to be the end of it….until the North Carolina game.
It’s possible Bresee was simply responding to a need. When Simpson was injured, the defense started using a three-man front, which usually calls for the defensive end to be more of a power player than just an edge rusher. In hindsight, I wonder if Bresee had been part of the contingency plan in case the Tigers moved to a three-man front for any reason, especially considering that Xavier Thomas hadn’t been available much of the year. KJ Henry and Justin Mascoll might not be the right style of player to work in a 3-4-4 or 3-3-5.
With Murphy not playing, Clemson could steer away from the three-man front, and Bresee might play exclusively inside. If the Tigers’ defensive staff thinks they have stumbled upon something by playing Bresee on the edge, they will become more variable to capitalize on it.
Which receivers get targets?
After the South Carolina loss, there were some notable Clemson observers predicting an overhaul of the wide receiver position in the offseason. Following Cade Klubnik’s inspiring performance against North Carolina, there seems to be more optimism about the capabilities of the receivers, particularly the younger players. Antonio Williams has been Clemson’s best receiver this season, but Cole Turner became the Tigers’ first 100-yard receiver of 2022 in the ACC Championship game.
I want to see who takes the field for the Tigers and who gets the targets. Beaux Collins will not play due to injury. I suspect the veterans like Joe Ngata and Brannon Spector will get the start alongside Williams, but I don’t think it will be long before Turner and Adam Randall get on the field.
I think the staff will want to see if Turner can repeat his performance against the Tar Heels. Randall has struggled to bounce back following his ACL surgery in the spring, but I think he will receive opportunities to get back on track.
Tight ends Davis Allen and Jake Briningstool, as well as the running backs, will get targets too. Klubnik completed passes to nine different players against North Carolina. I am curious if he continues to spread the ball around or if he begins to develop chemistry with one or two players.
There are a handful of areas where we aren’t quite sure what to expect from Clemson Football
Which young players will get field time?
Some freshmen, like Klubnik and Williams, have gotten a decent amount of playing time this season. Others, like Turner, haven’t seen the field much until later in the season.
Some freshmen can play in the Orange Bowl without burning their redshirt. We might see some of them on the field.
I have read speculation that TJ Dudley might get some game time against Tennessee. When Simpson went out against UNC, Wade Woodaz filled in, but sometimes he was dropping back to safety. When that happened, Dudley often stepped in at linebacker.
Another possibility is offensive lineman Collin Sadler, who has seen snaps in three games so far. He is a player that will likely be at least second-string in 2023, so I think the Tigers wouldn’t mind getting him in the game for more snaps.
If the game is well in hand by the second half and both teams start inserting reserves, several other players might be in line for playing time, including running back Keith Adams, Jr. and tight end Josh Sapp.
Will the offense be balanced, or rely on the pass?
Against the Tar Heels, Clemson only ran for 68 yards as a team, and 30 of those yards came from Klubnik. Given the talent in the backfield, I would first think that the Tigers probably want to get more from running backs Will Shipley and Phil Mafah.
As we discussed in previous articles, however, Tennessee is like North Carolina in the defensive backfield – they aren’t particularly stout. Given the weakness there, Clemson might defer to taking what the defense gives them.
Another wildcard here: the absence of DJ Uiagalelei. When DJU was behind center, teams stacked the box and dared him to beat them with his arm. With Klubnik taking snaps, Tennessee might instead scheme to give their defensive backs some help. If they go that direction, the Tigers will need Shipley, Mafah, and Klubnik to move the offense on the ground.