Throughout the football season, I'll exchange several questions and answers with writers and bloggers that cover Auburn's weekly opponents. This week, I'm talking with Eric Dowling of SB Nation's Clemson blog, Shakin' the Southland. Among other things, we discuss Sammy Watkins, Clemson's offensive line and Eric's confidence level going into Saturday's game. You can find my answers to Eric's questions over at his home base. For more Auburn-Clemson coverage, check out SB Nation's game page.
1. On his way to becoming the third true freshman to ever be named first team All-American, wide receiver Sammy Watkins torched Auburn for 10 receptions, 155 yards and two scores. Watkins is suspended for the Week 1 matchup, and I've read in some places that Clemson is so loaded at wide receiver, the Tigers won't even miss him. I know Clemson has a great stable of receivers, but surely the offense will be missing a key piece without Watkins, right?
"What you've read about our WR depth is true. Clemson has done a tremendous job bringing in wide receiver talent the past couple of recruiting classes. The 2011 class consisted of five-star Sammy Watkins, five-star Charone Peake, and former Rivals100 and No. 1 prep player in the country, Martavis Bryant. Adam Humphries was also part of that class. And although he was the least heralded of the bunch, he showed last year that he has the quickness and toughness to be an asset in Chad Morris' offense. Those four made up what was considered to be the No. 1 WR class in the country. They were added to a group that already had Nuk Hopkins, who just might be the best second banana in the country, and Jaron Brown, a guy who seems to come up with big third down catches. Long story short, it's a loaded position.
That being said, Peake and Bryant aren't Sammy Watkins. They have yet to fully show their talents on the collegiate field. They possess the same type of speed as Watkins, and both are taller guys, but they haven't nailed down the intricacies of playing the position. Defenses aren't going to be forced to focus on those guys the same way they do with Watkins. The loss of Watkins hurts more than most care to admit. Peake is getting the starting nod, but I think you'll see a combination of Peake, Bryant, and Humphries share snaps in Watkins' absence.
The guy that can really help mitigate the loss of Watkins is Hopkins. He would be a No. 1 WR on most teams but was forced to play as a No. 2 WR because of Watkins' excellence. This was his first offseason where he fully focused on football (he played basketball the previous offseason). As a result, he was the MVP during spring ball and most beat writers said he had the potential to match Sammy stat for stat this year. If he can provide Tajh with a go to target, possibly forcing defenses to send bracket coverage his way, it should make things easier on Peake and Bryant."
2. As far as the offensive line units go, Auburn and Clemson are more or less in the same boat. Both teams will be pretty inexperienced in the trenches. While I'm worried about Auburn's O-line, it does have more experience and, I think, more raw talent. How worried are you about Clemson's offensive line going up against an Auburn D-line that has a few playmakers?
"Clemson's offensive line is a huge concern. With an above average offensive line this offense could be especially potent, but expectations are tempered due to the inexperience of the line. We're breaking in three new starters with a fourth starter switching positions. Here's how it breaks out.
LT - Brandon Thomas played here some last year when our starting LT was injured, but he was much better at LG. He has the athleticism to play LT but lacks the tenacity at the point of attack that you'd like to see from your blind side protector. His backup is true freshman Isaiah Battle. Battle has tons of potential, but his lack of experience is what keeps Thomas as the starter for now.
LG - David Beasley is fitted to make his first career start, but he hasn't completely solidified the job. Dabo has mentioned that backup Kalon Davis will be ready to go if Beasley starts missing assignments. Davis does not have a start to his name, either.
C - This is our strength. Dalton Freeman is an All-Conference center. While he might not be the physical mauler that we'd like, he knows his assignments and is the leader of the OL. His backup is RS freshman Ryan Norton, who the coaches think is one of our five best linemen. It'd be nice if they'd find a way to get him on the line at OG, but they have been hesitant to cross-train him there.
RG - Tyler Shatley is the starter. He moved over from DT in the spring and was immediately running with the first team. That probably tells you all you need to know about our depth at RG. However, last year's starter, Antoine McClain, was terrible, and we don't think Shatley could possibly be any worse.
RT - It looks like Gifford Timothy is going to be able to give it a go on Saturday. He had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee at the beginning of fall camp. It was expected that RS freshman Shaq Anthony would get the start in his place. He was the backup LT before Timothy went down with the injury. Anthony is too light to be a bulldozing run blocker on the right side, but he does possess solid pass blocking skills. Timothy is much more your prototypical RT at 6-6 and 330 pounds. If he is close to 100 percent on Saturday, this will be a big boost to the line.
I'm sure your fans are going to be licking their chops after reading that rundown. The coaches have been talking highly of the line, saying that talent-wise, it's a better group than last year. And Chad Morris isn't one to pump sunshine, so there may be some truth to it. But it all depends on how quickly this unit can gel will live bullets flying on Saturday night."
3. There's no doubt that Tajh Boyd is a great threat at quarterback. In Clemson's 10 wins last season, Boyd completed 63 percent of his passes, threw 29 touchdowns and just five interceptions. But in the Tigers' four losses, it was a different story. Boyd completed 53 percent of his passes for four touchdowns and seven interceptions. Do you think the junior has learned from his mistakes in those four losses, or will he continue to have erratic play this season?
"The biggest problem that Tajh Boyd had in our four losses was a lack of confidence in the pocket. Starting with the NC State game (our second loss), Clemson was playing without its starting LT. The line was shuffled around and did a very poor job blocking in those games. Tajh was getting hit on every play. As a result, he seemed to play hot potato, trying to get the ball out of his hand as fast as possible. The results are the numbers you pointed out above. Now, this doesn't completely excuse Tajh. Some of his throws were right in the numbers of the opposing team. But there is a direct correlation to starting LT Philip Price's absence and Tajh's numbers declining.
Chad Morris has been working with him during fall camp on his composure in the pocket and cutting down on these errors. He wants to see him mature to the point where is is willing to accept that a punt isn't the end of the world. Last year he showed a reluctance to throw the ball away or take a sack. Tajh has a tendency to always try to make a positive play. We'll get a glimpse at how much it has helped in Week 1, because I expect Auburn to be able to generate a pass rush against our inexperienced line."
4. Auburn fans are quite familiar with Clemson's offense, particularly the style Chad Morris employs. It's what we saw from 2009 to '11 with Gus Malzahn running the show. We don't know as much about the Clemson defense. What can we expect to see from new defensive coordinator Brent Venables? How will his defense differ from Kevin Steele's? Which players will lead the Clemson D this season?
"Clemson's defense was horrendous all year, allowing 394 ypg and 5.6 yards per play. Those numbers are very similar to Auburn's defense last year, so you guys get a feel for just how bad this defense was. Schematically, not much has changed between Kevin Steele and Brent Venables. They both run a base 4-3 with a lot of 4-2-5 mixed in. The main difference you may see is the coverages that they run. Venables is going to run more Cover 3, whereas Steele ran more Cover 1 and Cover 4. Aside from that, the biggest difference, according to the players, are the line calls. Last year under Kevin Steele, the calls were long and complex and the players were left scrambling pre-snap trying to figure out what their assignments were. Venables doesn't make as many pre-snap adjustments as Steele, and as a result, the players are saying that they are able to just read and react rather than think. I think this will pay dividends, because it was obvious last year to the fans that there was confusion when we had guys looking around and talking to each other when the ball was being snapped.
Linebacker is our strongest and deepest defensive unit. Former five-star Stephone Anthony takes over the MLB spot and should be a star in the ACC. He combines great instincts with size and strength to form the quintessential middle linebacker. He'll be flanked on the weakside by seniors Tig Willard and his backup, Corico Wright. Both guys are experienced and know their roles, even if they are not necessarily the most physically gifted LBs on the roster. On the strongside you'll see Quandon Christian receive a majority of the snaps on rushing downs and freshman Travis Blanks come on in passing situations.
The DL is very young and inexperienced and will need these linebackers to fill the gaps in order for this defense to be successful."
5. Speaking of defense, the last time Clemson played a game, the Tigers forgot to take theirs to Miami for the Orange Bowl. How much did West Virginia's 70-33 blowout win tarnish a successful season in which the Tigers won 10 games and a conference title? How much is that game being used as a motivating factor throughout the program, from coaches to players to fans?
"That was the most painful game to sit through that I can remember. And one of the reasons is exactly what you mentioned; it tarnished a season that included our first ACC Championship in 20 years. Well, that and another loss to the team in Columbia, a team that we are used to dominating. There are really two factions of fans: those that love Dabo, what he stands for, and the fact that he brought Clemson their first ACC Championship in 20 years. Then there is the other faction that, while they appreciate the ACC Championship, they would like to see a more consistent team that doesn't get their tails handed to them by the Gamecocks anymore.
As for the players, they are saying all the right things. The loss on national television to WVU was obviously embarrassing and they seem to want to get back on the field and respond. I guess we'll see how much the loss really bothered them on Saturday."
6. How do you think Saturday's game plays out? How confident are you in a Clemson victory?
"I'm having a tough time envisioning this game. I have fresh memories of a bipolar team from last year. When the offense is cranking it's an almost unstoppable force. But when opposing teams are able to get into our backfield we become a turnover machine. I think it's really going to come down the play of the offensive line. If they can hold their own then we should be able to put some points on the board. But without having seen this unit play together, I lack confidence in what they'll be able to do. The same can be said for the defensive side of the ball. I like to think the defense can't be as bad as last year, but we do replace three of four starters along the defensive line, which makes it difficult to feel too good about things. With AU's numerous changes as well, I think it makes this game a coin flip. Is that a cop out?"