Q&A with Clemson beat writer Aaron Brenner

Aaron Brenner, who covers Clemson for the Charleston (S.C.) Post & Courier, offered his insights into the Tigers on behalf of the AJC. His coverage of Clemson can be found hereand follow him on Twitter here.

Q: How much stock do you put in the lack of production out of the offense against Auburn and Troy?

A: Well, it’s all we have to evaluate so far, and therefore we have to read somewhat into the lackluster production from players like Deshaun Watson, Artavis Scott and Jordan Leggett. Watson’s completion percentage and yards per attempt are significantly lower than last year’s clips; not that anybody reasonable thought he could reproduce last year’s stunning totals, but he hasn’t even really been close yet.

The fact the offensive line got whipped by a Sun Belt defensive line doesn’t necessarily bode well, either. There shouldn’t be anybody freaking out necessarily over the offense, but these clearly aren’t the 2007 New England Patriots.

Q: Besides Deshaun Watson and wide receiver Mike Williams, what or who are Clemson’s greatest strengths?

A: Running back Wayne Gallman gets overlooked in the world of Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook and Elijah Hood. Gallman’s an angry, violent runner with some burst who wouldn’t necessarily be considered a “system” running back; even when the whole defense knows he’s getting the ball, he’s still effective. And it can work both ways; while Watson’s running threat helps Gallman, the inverse is true as well.

Much is made of Georgia Tech’s triple option and how challenging that can be for the decision-making of defenders, but in a way, Watson has three options too out of the zone read: hand it off, tuck and run or toss it out on a bubble screen. Georgia Tech’s challenge, as it is for all of Clemson’s opponents, is to win the line of scrimmage and contain Gallman and Watson from consistently moving the chains.

Q: If Clemson were to somehow lose Thursday night, what would probably have to happen?

A: I think if you were to tell me right now Clemson loses a sixth straight game at Bobby Dodd Stadium, I’d probably ask you how many times the Tigers turned the ball over and you’d probably tell me “at least twice.” Because that’s exactly what has happened in all five of Clemson’s previous losses at Georgia Tech: multiple turnovers, for a total of 15 turnovers (nine interceptions, six lost fumbles) against just four offensive touchdowns.

Quite honestly, while nothing in college football surprises me, I’d be relatively surprised if Clemson’s defense completely fell apart Thursday night. That’s not to say Justin Thomas and the Tech backfield won’t make a few big plays, because they can and likely will. But the way Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has seemed to get a handle on the Ramblin’ Wreck, I just don’t see this being a 40-point, 500-yard performance for the Jackets. They’re going to need to benefit from a big special teams play and/or some sloppy ball security from the Tigers’ offense, which wouldn’t be a big surprise.

Q: Who’s a Clemson player on either side of the ball that you could see having a big impact on the game?

A: Right now, sophomore receiver/return man Ray-Ray McCloud is making his name known for more than just dropping the ball before the end zone on a punt return. McCloud has sparked the Tigers’ punt return team like nobody has maybe since C.J. Spiller. Had he held on to the ball for a half-second longer, McCloud would have had Clemson’s second punt return for a touchdown in the program’s last 95 games dating to September 2009, or less than one full year into Dabo Swinney’s head coaching career.

Tech has to pay attention to him in punt coverage. Also, McCloud is now a starter in the Tigers’ offense with folk hero Hunter Renfrow out with a broken bone in his hand, and McCloud has 11 catches for 146 yards and two scores in his last two games.

Q: What sort of measures did the team take to ensure it would be sufficiently rested for Thursday?

A: Well, it scored 31 points in the first quarter vs. South Carolina State. That helped. The starters were done for the day about 2 p.m. on Saturday, and leading linebacker Ben Boulware sat out the whole afternoon even though he wanted to play with a bad ankle. Then the second half vs. S.C. State was shortened by mutual agreement between the coaches and refs, which might not have meant much for the Tigers’ first-stringers, but it did mean the game lasted just 2 hours, 59 minutes, so that’s an extra half hour of film review for the coaching staff that Saturday night.

During ACC Media Days in July in Charlotte, Paul Johnson slyly pointed out how his team had to face an SEC opponent while Clemson faced an FCS foe in preparation for this short week, but quickly added “it is what it is.” And he’s right: it’s difficult to quantify what difference that will make in this particular matchup.

All we know is Clemson hasn’t won at Bobby Dodd Stadium since Michael Phelps owned zero gold medals and Greg Maddux was a 37-year-old Atlanta Brave, so Georgia Tech has the Tigers’ full attention, even ahead of their giant Louisville showdown.

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