AN OPPOSING VIEW
Each week during the season we’ll try to hook up with a beat writer who covers the opposing team Georgia is playing to get an idea of the perspective from the other sideline. This week we’ll be getting that view from Larry Williams, who covers the Clemson Tigers for the Rivals website TigerIllustrated.com. I’ve known Larry since he covered Georgia for The Augusta Chronicle many moons ago.
I sent Larry five questions about the Tigers via email earlier this week and he did the same with me. Here then, is what Larry had to say about Saturday’s matchup (5:36 p.m., ESPN) at Sanford Stadium:
1. My thinking is this game will boil down to Georgia’s mostly-new offensive line handling Clemson’s well-established defensive front. What can you tell us about that group for the Tigers and do you agree with that assessment?
Williams: Yes, I tend to agree with that though I do think the matchup between Clemson’s offensive line and Georgia’s defensive front will be rather huge as well.
To your point, Georgia loves to pound it and if they are not pounding it with regularity they are not comfortable because everything (hard play-action, wearing teams down with those running backs) is sort of rooted in that. You think back to last year’s game, and even though Georgia piled up 222 rushing yards there were some key moments when Clemson’s defensive line overwhelmed them, stuffing the run and pressuring Aaron Murray. With so much returning experience on the defensive line, and three starters gone from Georgia’s offensive line, I can see why Clemson fans think they can win that battle.
The thing that strikes me about this defensive line is not just the star power with Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett, but the impressive depth inside and outside. In Tavaris Barnes, who will replace suspended end Corey Crawford, they have a fifth-year senior who has played 34 career games. Behind Beasley, they have a big, physical sophomore (Shaq Lawson) who will play in the NFL one day. And inside, line coach Dan Brooks basically has five starter-quality players in Jarrett, DeShawn Williams, Josh Watson, D.J. Reader and Carlos Watkins. It is an embarrassment of riches even without Crawford in the fold.
When we last saw this defensive line, they were winning most of the battles against two excellent lines (Ohio State and South Carolina). I think Todd Gurley is going to be a load, and the Tigers’ back seven is still going to have to tackle him. But Clemson’s front, even without Crawford, is going to be a serious challenge for Georgia.
I can’t wait to watch this confrontation, because it’s not like Georgia is going to go away from its identity.
2. It seems pretty apparent that Cole Stoudt is going to be the starting quarterback in this game. Any insights on him beyond his career stats? How much might we see Deshaun Watson and is Stoudt just a place-holder until the freshman is ready to run the whole show?
Williams: Stoudt waited three years and watched Tajh Boyd break all those records and win all those games. And then last spring, he won the starting job after Chad Kelly (Jim Kelly’s nephew) melted down in a series of tantrums.
Though he’s far from a statue, Stoudt is more of a drop-back, pocket passer who carries himself with a cool, confident demeanor. And where Boyd tended to play fast and loose and fire into coverage, Stoudt is known as a more disciplined decision-maker who will rely on his check-downs when that’s the safer option.
I think Stoudt would be just fine with all the weapons that were present last year. But the offense lost several guys, including some receiver named Sammy, who made the Tigers a terror to defend on the outside. With the current receiving corps largely unproven, some of the stuff that defined this offense the last three years won’t be as easy to come by in 2014.
And that’s one of the reasons I think it’s going to be hard to keep Watson off the field this season, starting Saturday. Not saying he’s going to immediately beat out Stoudt for the starting job, but Watson is a special talent who also happens to be the prototype dual-threat quarterback in an offense that functions best when its quarterback is a threat with his legs.
From the moment he arrived at Clemson as an early-enrolled freshman last winter, Watson has shown a mastery of the zone-read concepts that gave even Boyd trouble at times during his career. Watson did this stuff all through high school, and I suspect the zone-read is going to be an element this offense will have to rely on in the absence of Watkins, Boyd, Martavis Bryant and others.
3. Please review for our fair readers the Clemson players who are injured and/or suspended for the opener and what might be the impact of that?
Williams: The four suspended players, announced last spring, were offensive linemen David Beasley and Shaq Anthony, Crawford (the defensive end) and cornerback Garry Peters. Anthony is no longer on the team, having decided last week to transfer.
Anthony’s absence leaves them very thin at the tackle positions, but honestly I’m not sure if he was legitimately the second-string guy at right tackle though he was listed as such before his departure. Crawford’s loss is big from the perspective of experience, given that he’s started 25 games and played in 40. He knows what it’s like to play in these types of games. Beasley is kind of a similar deal, because he has 19 games of starting experience at guard. I think the staff feels good about Reid Webster and Eric Mac Lain in his left guard spot, but neither of those guys has performed beyond garbage time in blowouts. Peters is a veteran, but honestly they might have out-recruited him and they feel really good about corners Mackensie Alexander, Cordrea Tankersley and Martin Jenkins.
Regarding injuries, running back Zac Brooks is out for the year with a foot injury suffered recently, and Georgia fans might recall him hurting them in last year’s game with both physical between-the-tackles running and a sensational touchdown catch on a wheel route. The Tigers still have some talent at running back, but losing Brooks’ experience is a big deal going into a game of this magnitude on the road. Also, the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield is emphasized heavily in this offense and Brooks was their best in that category.
Tight ends Sam Cooper and Stanton Seckinger have been nagged with some injuries this month, but they’re pretty deep at that position. Sophomores Jordan Leggett and Jay Jay McCullough had really good camps, and they present some matchup problems if Georgia tries to cover them with some of their bigger linebackers.
Travis Blanks, a nickel/SAM who blew out his knee last November, has struggled to get back to 100 percent and they’re hoping to redshirt him. They do like the other options at that spot, particularly sophomore Korrin Wiggins.
4. Who are the offensive play-makers you expect to see step up this season, and are there any on par with Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant?
Williams: Offensive playmaking is absolutely one of the biggest questions about this season, because they’ve had so much of it the last three seasons with receivers who are now in the NFL (Watkins, Bryant, DeAndre Hopkins, Jaron Brown).
Charone Peake came in with Watkins and Bryant in 2011 and was considered in that same elite class. I’ve heard some compare him to A.J. Green in terms of his size, speed and athleticism. He looked poised for a breakout a year ago, making some really important plays against Georgia, before blowing out his knee in practice shortly thereafter. After a long offseason of rehabilitation, he was supposedly 100 percent during the summer before tearing his meniscus in the same knee in late July and undergoing minor scope surgery. He sat the first couple weeks, and he returned last week to good reviews. The pressing objective now is getting him conditioned to play at the breakneck pace that defines this offense, and that could take some time. There’s also the issue of Peake establishing himself as a major playmaker when there are no other major playmakers around him, at least no obvious ones. Watkins created opportunities for others because defenses were so paranoid about getting embarrassed by him. It’s going to be a bit of a different dynamic now, and the pressure is on Peake to become a weapon that defenses truly fear.
I think you’ll see freshman Artavis Scott emerge as a playmaker in time, and he’ll probably be the most viable deep threat Saturday in Athens. Another one is redshirt sophomore Germone Hopper, who was in the doghouse all offseason but has made considerable progress in regaining his coaches’ trust. He’s a jitterbug type that Dabo Swinney says is the spitting image of former Alabama star Freddie Milons.
5. How would you rate the Tigers special teams play?
Williams: Well, losing Chandler Catanzaro was huge, because he made so many big field goals the last three seasons. They like Ammon Lakip, who’s had a really good offseason. But you just never know how these guys, however accurate in practice, will respond to the glare of big-game pressure.
Their punter/kickoff man, Bradley Pinion, is a huge weapon. He has this rare ability to sort of spin balls inside the 10 and 5, almost like a sand wedge. And he can flip the field with booming kicks from deep in his own territory, too.
You’d probably be shocked upon hearing that the last kickoff or punt return for a touchdown came in 2011. It’s almost astounding, given the number playmaking weapons they’ve had. I think Alexander, the redshirt freshman cornerback, can be an electric return man if he learns how to field punts. Speaking of fielding punts, two fumbles on punt returns last year against South Carolina loomed large in the Tigers’ 31-17 defeat. And Watkins was bailed out of a fumbled punt against Georgia when Crawford dropped into coverage and intercepted Murray a few moments later.
Of course, I had to ask Larry for a prediction. …
His view: I have this game pegged a little closer than the oddsmakers see it. I view it as a toss-up, and I’ll give Georgia a slight edge based on the home field, and based on the fact that so many unproven players for Clemson will be touching the ball (not to mention kicking it). Something like Georgia, 24-23. Clemson fans will be delighted to know that I picked Georgia last year as well.