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Summer Scheming: Clemson Tigers Football

The cream of the ACC crop just keeps on rolling into 2020.

College Football Playoff National Championship - Clemson v LSU Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Miami Hurricanes fans are familiar with Dabo Swinney for a variety of reasons. As a player, Swinney was on the 1992 Alabama Crimson Tide National Championship team that ended the ‘Canes decade of dominance in the 1993 Sugar Bowl. And while Miami and Clemson have only played 11 times ever, Dabo has a 3-1 record against The U.

Swinney has transformed Clemson into a two-time national champion by focusing on culture and development. After winning with a roster that was clearly ‘less than’ the big dogs in Ohio State and Alabama, he began adding in the five-star pieces to his already stable locker room.

Clemson University Football Team Lead Protest March After Death Of George Floyd Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

If you’re looking for a blueprint on how to take your program from 6-7 to the top of the world- Dabo has provided one for you. His recruiting classes that made up the 2016 College Football Championship squad were 20th, 15th, 16th, 9th and 11th. Even after the 2016 season, Clemson only pulled the 16th ranked class before a 7th place finish in 2018, his 2nd championship squad.

Swinney has focused his recruiting on defensive line prospects and quarterbacks. Clemson hasn’t shied away from signing a quarterback every season (read the recruiting rules here) and signing Deshaun Watson, Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence has made a world of difference.

Is Coach Swinney perfect? Not by any means. He’s under fire for his beliefs on not paying players, Black Lives Matter, and other moments of what-the-hell. But, his focus on culture and finding the “best” players, not necessarily the most talented- has truly paid off. Oh, and Oklahoma’s former head coach Bob Stoops making the idiotic move to fire Brent Venables and Dabo’s genius to scoop him up has helped, too.

The Tigers are the preseason 3rd overall program per Bill Connelly’s SP+. Clemson is projected to have the 4th ranked offense and the 13th ranked defense. Miami is projected to finish 23rd overall, with the 63rd ranked offense and 9th ranked defense.


The Tigers are the best team in the ACC and with being the best team often comes having players make the all conference list. Per Athlon, the Tigers have 14 players on the All-ACC preseason list. It starts with QB Trevor Lawrence, RB Travis Etienne and offensive lineman Jackson Carman on the 1st team offense. In 2019, Lawrence completed almost 66% of his passes, averaging nine yards per attempt with a 36:8 TD:INT ratio. Etienne added 23 touchdowns while running for over 1600 yards. Making sure Etienne and Lawrence look good is a lineman like Carman.

College Football Playoff National Championship - Clemson v LSU Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Clemson would’ve had another offensive first-teamer in WR Justyn Ross (13.1 yards per catch, eight TD’s), but he is out for 2020 with an injury. Clemson has one first-team defensive player in linebacker James Skalski. Skalski logged 90 tackles with 6.5 tackles for loss last season.

The Tigers have WR Amari Rodgers and offensive lineman Jordan McFadden on the 2nd team offense. Defensive lineman Tyler Davis and cornerback Derion Kendrick made the 2nd team defense. Rodgers averaged 14.2 yards per catch with four touchdowns for Clemson last season.

Defensive lineman Xavier Thomas is the lone Tiger on the 3rd team. While TE Braden Galloway and defensive lineman Nyles Pinckney make the 4th team offense and defense, respectively. Thomas logged eight tackles for loss a year ago. Galloway and Pinckney are on the list based on potential.

Scheme on O

Clemson, like 90+ percent of the FBS Power 5, is an 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) team. Their run game focuses on duo, inside zone, and counter with run-pass options (RPO’s) attached. The Tigers have not had the most dominant offensive lines, but they ask their guys to do just enough and to let their NFL caliber running backs do the rest.


Duo is a staple in the Tigers run game. Duo is typically ran into the A-gap to the side the RB is aligned to. A series of combo blocks are made on the 1-tech (N) and 3-tech (T). The left tackle will “base block” the 5-tech (E) and the H steps in to cut off his 5-tech (E) to his side. It’s typically the interior linemen’s job to get to the second level (linebackers).

A great adjustment play off of duo is split zone. Any regular SOTU reader knows how much I love split zone. On split zone the line blocks like it’s inside zone, but the h-back comes across the formation and “kicks out” (blocks to the sideline) the defensive end. When you’re constantly reading the end, when he’s finally blocked it’s a shock to his system.

Clemson loves the use of counter. They run it with the QB reading the back side defensive end, where he doesn’t read him, and where there’s an RPO throw off of counter. Etienne is an elite back that makes the first two guys miss on almost every play.

Scheme on D

Clemson has predominantly ran a 4-2-5 quarters defense (with some 3-4 and 4-3 variation) under Brent Venables. Venables likes to play it safe in the back four or five, but does bring pressure. In a way he shares qualities with Bronco Mendenhall in that they’re not going to give up the deep ball but they’re also not going to give a QB all day to throw.

Above- If an offense is patient and skilled enough to dink-and-dunk the Tigers, they can win. However, it’s hard to have that level of skill and patience at the college level. It took a once in a lifetime offense at LSU to really make the Tigers defense look bad.

Below- you can see the Clemson interception of the Miami Dolphin’s Tua Tagovailoa. Alabama’s night was pretty much over before it started after the Clemson defense baited Tua into making this throw.

D’Eriq King is going to have to be careful with the football against Clemson. The way to beat the Tigers is to not play into Venables trap coverages and to evade the blitz. If anyone can do that it’s King who has good accuracy and excellent mobility.

Canyonero keys for success

How do you beat the Clemson Tigers? There aren’t a lot of programs that can offer you that answer. Syracuse, Pitt, Alabama, and LSU are the only teams to defeat Clemson since 11/15/2004 when Georgia Tech beat the Tigers in Atlanta.

First, you need to play nearly flawless football but you can’t play scared. Lashlee is going to have to let King make plays, which can come with the risk of a turnover. The player has to be safe with the ball, the coach has to let him make big plays.

Second, have the patience to put together longer drives. LSU showed patience and scored all over the Tigers. They also had elite NFL talent all over their offense. The LSU Tigers took advantage of match ups.

Third, you can’t give Trevor Lawrence all day. I know Gregory Rousseau has opted out but dear God the hype machine behind Jalean Phillips and Quincy Roche better cash those checks mouths have been putting up. Get pressure on Lawrence without having to blitz too much, and make him move around and get off of his first look.