Mailbag: Wondering about Clemson, worried about the secondary

semerson@macon.comAugust 21, 2013 

Clemson Practice Football

Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, left, rolls out after being pressured by offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Chad Morris during preseason practice.


Perhaps this question is hitting too early (before you've had a chance to talk with the Clemson beat writer); it's prompted by the AP article yesterday on Clemson's secondary. Sounds like they are having the same issues as Georgia - injuries and a bunch of new starters. Anyway, what are the three main areas Clemson is worried about or is in need of rebuilding? What were their holes last year that they are focusing on? And is their offense dominating their D in scrimmages so far?
- Bob Ho, Tucker Ga

It’s less than two weeks until the game, so of course it’s not too early! Yes, I will have a Q&A with a beat writer next week, but my boss at The Telegraph, Daniel Shirley, also happens to be a Clemson graduate who follows the team closely. So Bob, I passed along this question to Daniel, and he was kind enough to provide an in-depth and professional, non-homerific response:

"Three main worries for the entire team? The secondary is the first one. They had a TON of injuries back there last year and they signed a bunch of kids. Good class, but they're understandably young. One kid they were counting on to play right away at corner is Mackensie Alexander, but he has been nicked up.

"The second is settling on a running back rotation. Without Andre Ellington, they have Roderick McDowell, who is solid, and Zac Brooks, who is talented and has had a good preseason, but he has had to put on weight. They're also deciding whether to redshirt two talented freshmen running backs.

"Third is tight end. Sam Cooper, who is really talented and has great hands, tore his ACL in the spring game. Then Jordan Leggett, a true freshman who enrolled early and had a great spring, also got hurt this month. He should be back (as will Cooper later in the season), but will miss the Georgia game.

"The holes last year were secondary, which was really shaky, linebackers, who improved, and the defensive line, which was YOUNG.

"But the thing about the defense is they have a bunch of players back. It only lost one defensive lineman who was in the rotation (Malliciah Goodman who went to the Falcons). The linebackers are mostly all back and should be much improved. Secondary is still a big question, although the depth and athleticism is better there.

"Finally, they have limited Boyd and Watkins in scrimmages, so no the offense hasn't really "dominated."

Thanks to Daniel, and now I'll take back the helm.

How do you expect Clemson to try and attack our defense? You think they'll test the secondary early and often?
- Sean Davidson

Early, often, late, during warm-ups, during halftime, whenever possible. Clemson will have to run the ball to try to keep the defense honest, and you’ll see some trick plays and reverses and keepers by Boyd. But the passing game is how Clemson makes its hay, and if the Tigers don't pass at least 60 percent of the time I'll be surprised.

That said, I tend to think that one of the keys to the game will be whether Clemson can run the ball. I don’t expect Georgia’s secondary to be very successful throughout the game. But the Bulldogs can really flood the passing zone – and send blitzers after Boyd – if the running game isn’t much of a threat. Part of the reason South Carolina has been so successful passing against Georgia the past couple years is that the front seven was worried about Marcus Lattimore. Ditto for Alabama last year with Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon. Clemson doesn’t have that.

The story of pre-season camp seems to be the injury-riddled secondary. Aside from tackling, however, it would seem that the guys who can at least get on the field in a green jersey could still participate in some live action and start learning schemes and coverage. I know you get limited access to practice and don't see all of the drills, but is the lack of full-speed practice for these guys as big of a deal as it's starting to sound? Or are there just too many guys who can't practice in any capacity at this point?

Obviously we'll know better after that first game -- I guess I'm trying to figure out just how much to panic.
- Dan in Atlanta.

I wouldn’t panic, but I wouldn’t rest easy yet either. If the secondary can get Tray Matthews, Damian Swann, Sheldon Dawson and company together for a full week of preparation leading up to the Clemson game, then everything may be fine. Matthews in particular is key, because it’s clearly his show at free safety. Corey Mooore was probably going to share time with Shaquille Fluker and Connor Norman anyway. (And at this point, my bet is on Norman getting the most snaps in the game.)

The worry for Georgia is that valuable practice time has already been lost in the secondary. So many young players, particularly newcomers who were not here in spring practice (Fluker, Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley) needed a few weeks to work together and gain some cohesion. The past few weeks of injuries could mean the secondary is relying more on pure individual ability and less on cohesion, and will be susceptible to communication breakdowns.

The only good news? Damian Swann (while in a green jersey Tuesday) has been out there every day, and he’s the guy who knows the system the best and should be able to help the younger players. Norman has also stayed healthy, so those are two guys out there with experience who will know what to do.

With all the injuries reported in the secondary is there any talk among the coaches of putting Malcolm Mitchell on defense for the opener against Clemson like last year?
- Allen, Dunlap, Tenn.

This was not the only question along these lines:

On a scale of 1 to double facepalm, what are the chances Mitchell gets moved to the secondary for the first two games?
- Ben Sheppard

Todd Grantham would love for that to happen, but there's been no indication that it's under consideration. Mark Richt was adamant after last season that Mitchell needed to concentrate on one position, and it will be receiver. Now can you rule it completely out? Of course not. But keep in mind, the injury situation is worse now at safety, and Mitchell played cornerback.

I know there’s still some sentiment out there for using Mitchell at cornerback, or even moving him back there, given the depth and experience at receiver. But that’s losing sight of a couple things:

1. Mitchell is the team’s best receiver, period (remember the Florida game last year), and taking him away from the offense would have an impact. Chris Conley and Michael Bennett are pretty good, but having the breakaway threat that Mitchell is really takes the offense to another level.

2. During his brief stay at cornerback last year, Mitchell was okay, but not great. He’d be the second cornerback at best this season, and could stunt the development of guys like Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley.

During Grantham's first season, it seems like all we heard about is how DeAngelo Tyson at 300 pounds was a defensive end trying to play nose and we desperately needed a guy like Mt. Cody (375 pounds) to clog up the middle for this defense to work. The next year we sign 365-pound John Jenkins and everyone stops complaining about the nose tackle position. Fast forward to this year Jenkins and Kwame are gone, but almost no one seems concerned about losing those guys. I know John Atkins and Chris Mayes are huge, but it looks like the smaller more athletic Mike Thornton is our guy this year. Why all of a sudden is everyone fine with starting a 295-pound nose? Do you think it's because our big guys underperformed last year, particularly against the run?
- Jonathan Hansard

It could be what you’re seeing there is that while having a big nose tackle is important to Grantham, having a veteran who “knows the system” is even more important. Thornton hasn’t played significant action, but he’s in his fourth year, so he’ll be relied on heavily when the season starts.

But if Mayes or John Taylor – a couple 320-plus guys – play well early in the season, they’ll see more action. Thing is, those 365-pound nose tackles don’t just show up every year on campus. It’s like everyone wanting Mark Fox to recruit a big-time center. There’s not an infinite number of those out there. So in the absence of that classic Mt. Cody-type nose tackle, they’re going to rely on depth this year, shuttle in players, and hope that works. I tend to agree with you, Jonathan, that it’s a cause for concern. Hell, almost everything on the defense is at this point. Things could still end up being pretty good. But you have to see it happen first.

1. Do you think that Richt’s hip replacement will have any impact on his coaching style this year? To be honest, I was hoping that it would never get fixed. Although I actually like his even keel demeanor, It seemed like he had a different edge to him last year. My personal theory is that the constant irritation of his hip had him on the edge of losing it. It’s pretty obvious he has a fire to him but it seemed to be closer to the surface last year.

2. I wrote about this at the end of last year but the fundamental shift in attitude appears to have carried through the offseason and into camp. A hallmark of great teams is that they are truly unconcerned with their opponents and realize that if they concentrate on themselves executing to the best of their ability, they will (usually) win the game. Is this attributable to better athletes, better people, or better coaching?
- James Colvin, Tulsa, OK

1. Oh, I wouldn’t look much into the hip operation’s impact on Richt’s coaching style. I’m not so sure he even had more fire last year than in previous years. It may just seem that way because the memory is fresher.

2. On offense, I just think it’s a combination of nearly everyone being back, and the leadership on that side of the ball. It’s not just Aaron Murray, who clearly sets the tone, but Arthur Lynch and Todd Gurley. When your best players are also taking a bigger leadership role, that means a lot. On defense, we’ll have to see. I do think this group will be hungrier, and won’t need until the second half of the season to get fired up. But does that translate into actually being better than last year’s defense? Again, we have to see it happen.

Do you think the departure of Rodney Garner helps or hurts the chemistry between the coaches? I have heard in the past that he wasn’t necessarily a team player. I imagine something that negative would seep out to the players. Also do you feel the DL buys into Wilson’s coaching style more than Garners?
- Edgardo, Midland, Ga.

When Garner left last December, I wrote that he had some disagreements with fellow coaches, mainly when it comes to recruits. But that’s not necessarily unique or a sign of chemistry issues. Every workplace has its egos, its disagreements, its occasional communication issues. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Garner wasn’t a team player. I would just say he was the recruiting coordinator for a long time at Georgia, he had his way of doing things, and when a new defensive coordinator was hired from outside, one who is also fiery and opinionated, invariably there would be the butting of heads. But it wasn’t so bad that Garner couldn’t have continued here.

As for the linemen and how they respond to Garner and Wilson, that’s going to depend on the player. Some will play better with Wilson’s nicer approach (which still isn’t completely nice.) Some might have needed the daily kick in the butt that Garner provided. It’s a little easier to say at the pro level that a team might have tuned out its coach. At the college level, obviously you’re getting a complete turnover every few years.

I want to ask a question: What happened with what appears to be the transformation of Richt from passive to aggressive recruiting. This is the first year in a spell where the Dawgs have depth most anywhere. Why did it take year 13 and I guess year 2012 to do it?

And now he goes to Clemson. I watched the Clemson/FSU rebroadcast on ESPN U the other night and the Tigers are quick as a cat. I can't see us stopping them so this will be a true shoot out. Your thoughts?
- Don Joel

Second question (concern) first: Yes, I see this as a shoot-out. Given what we’re seeing in each team’s secondary, I’d be shocked if 31 points wins this game. Take the over.

Now the depth question: I don’t know if the premise of your question is accurate. Yes, depth was an issue the past few years, but that was because of massive and unplanned attrition, particularly from the 2010 and 2011 classes. Richt has recruited very well throughout his tenure, with just a few hiccups. The 2002 class, his first full one as Georgia’s coach, ranked third nationally, according to The next nine years were all top-10 ranked classes. It seems to have panned out: Georgia will probably have around 45 former players in the NFL this year, the vast majority of whom were recruited by Richt.

I wouldn’t call that passive recruiting.

I've been reminiscing about tired storylines from previous years. What sort of reaction would a reporter get if he asked a coach or player about any of the following subjects?:

1) Marlon Brown's significant improvement from the previous season.
2) The looming suspension of Bacarri Rambo.
3) A possible position change for Richard Samuel.
4) Malcolm Mitchell's ability to contribute in the secondary. (Initially, I was joking when I wrote this. Now that I think about it, the possibility might only approach the lunatic fringe, especially when you factor the lack of healthy and experienced bodies in the secondary and the significant depth at WR.)
- THEshag/the surface of the sun, AZ

Ah, thanks for the trip down memory lane. But don’t forget:

1) Coach Richt, will you start calling plays again, because clearly Bobo can’t handle it? (Circa 2011).
2) Coach Richt, will you give play-calling duties to Bobo, because clearly you can’t handle it? (Circa 2006).
3) Why aren’t Georgia practices physical enough? (Circa 2010).
4) Why are Georgia’s practices too physical? (Circa this week.)

Follow Seth Emerson at @sethemerson.

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