CLEMSON – Fix the screen. Get the bugs out.
That’s the task of the Clemson football’s defense, a much-hyped unit sometimes compared to the best in program history (2018 during a national championship season) in what has been exposed as the team’s biggest weakness so far in 2022.
Furman, an FCS team from 30 miles away in Greenville, used short passes last week at Memorial Stadium to do surprisingly well against the fourth-ranked Tigers. The Paladins dinked and dunked their way to gaining more total yards than Clemson despite a 35-12 defeat.
Furman did it with a graduate transfer quarterback, Tyler Huff, who barely played last season for Presbyterian in the non-scholarship Pioneer League. In the first half against Clemson, he completed 14 of 16 passes for 149 yards with a touchdown.
Clemson (2-0) plays at home Saturday (8 p.m., ACC Network) against Louisiana Tech (1-1) before going on the road next week to face No. 18 Wake Forest, which is expected to be one of the Tigers’ main obstacles in trying to win a seventh league title in eight years.
“The completion percentage (by Furman) was really high,” Clemson defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin said Monday. “Twenty-one of (the first) 25 completions were within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. We’ve got to do a better job at feeling the screens. Obviously, when you have an aggressive (defensive) front, people will screen you to death.”
Clemson defensive tackle Ruke Orhorhoro said he and the other pass rushers should have figured something was up when they got to Huff so easily.
That screen door was left open for a reason.
“We’ve got to tighten up and recognize it quicker,” Orhorhoro said. “Sometimes when you come free, it happens like that. But when you come too free, you just need go to, ‘All right, something’s wrong. The quarterback is retreating (going backwards to make a pass) and I came free.’ I’ve got to put my foot in the ground, turn around and try to find the running back and get to the ball.”
Defensive players always want to play aggressively. But there comes a point where the offense will use that aggression to its own benefit.
Screen passes are an example.
“It’s just a feel thing, more or less,” Goodwin said. “You’ve got to feel that you’re coming free for a reason and be able to put on the brakes.”
Louisiana Tech quarterback Parker McNeil is similar to Huff in that he is well-traveled and somewhat overlooked. McNeil led junior colleges in passing yardage in each of his two years at Navarro College (Corsicana, Texas) before appearing in one game for Troy in 2020 and seeing no action for Texas Tech last season.
“He knows what to do and where to distribute the ball,” Goodwin said. “They’ve got a short-area quickness guy in the slot that we have to do a good job of getting our hands on. They present a ton of issues. … We just have to be alert and make adjustments in the game.”
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Todd Shanesy covers Clemson athletics for the USA TODAY Network.