CFB Playoff Favorites Preview: Clemson

by Derrik Klassen


  • Hunter Renfrow, WR, Senior
  • Mitch Hyatt, OT, Senior
  • Clelin Ferrell, DE, rJunior
  • Christian Wilkins, DT, Senior
  • Austin Bryant, DE, Senior
  • Dexter Lawrence, DT, Junior***
  • Tre Lamar, LB, Junior
  • Kendall Joseph, LB, rSenior
  • Trayvon Mullen, CB, Junior

*** Dexter Lawrence is suspended for (at least) the Notre Dame game as result of a failed drug test. 

No different than any year in the past decade or so, Clemson’s defensive line is again ready to bless a handful of NFL teams with premium talent. With Dexter Lawrence now suspended, Christian Wilkins steps to the forefront of the conversation as Clemson’s leader up front. Wilkins is a short, stout player who does his best work when able to work into space, be it as a pass rusher or as a run defender on wide runs. Wilkins is famously known for taking snaps at safety in spring camp. 

Clemson also boasts NFL talents beyond the front four. Linebacker duo Tre Lamar and Kendall Joseph compliment each other well through a thunder (Joseph) and lightning (Lamar) dynamic. Cornerback Trayvon Mullen is primarily an outside cornerback, but can also slide inside to the slot or follow primary receiving targets around the formation as necessary. 


Clemson has not quite recaptured the overwhelming firepower they featured with Deshaun Watson at the helm, but this iteration of their offense can grind opponents down and generate enough splash plays to stay out in front. In many ways, this year’s Clemson offense is similar to the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense from a year ago under Alex Smith. That Chiefs offense prioritized efficient passing in the short area of the field, dominated on the ground, and made great use of shot plays when they found the perfect opportunities to use them. Like Clemson, the 2017 Chiefs offense was also immensely talented at the skill positions and the quarterback could rely on them to make plays out of nothing. 

Transitioning from Kelly Bryant to Trevor Lawrence is one of the key catalysts for the offense’s improvement in 2018. With Bryant, the passing game was not enabled to open up enough and be relied upon as a staple of the offense. Bryant did allow for more creativity on the ground, but the tradeoff was not worthwhile. 

Lawrence is all the Clemson offense needs him to be: a striking arm who can give Clemson’s talented receivers chances down the field, and a safe, consistent passer within ten yards. The stability Lawrence provides for the Tigers’ offense has given them more chances to sustain drives, enable skill players, and take stress off the defense to shut out opponents (though, they are a near-flawless defense anyway). 

As exciting as a freshman phenom Lawrence is, running back Travis Etienne is the real lifeline for this offense. Among running backs with at least 100 carries, Etienne’s 8.31 yards per carry ranks fifth in the country. Etienne is also one of only two players in the country with 20-plus rushing touchdowns alongside Memphis’ Darrell Henderson. 

Etienne’s knack for swerving East-West to open up space for himself to get North-South is his defining feature. Etienne flashed this ability as a freshman last year, but an increased workload this season has given him chance upon chance to gash opposing defenses. Combined with his sneaky balance and power through the second level, Etienne has ascended into the top ranks of college football’s running backs and will go down as one of the best in school history. 

The core of Clemson’s current offense is not going anywhere, either. Aside from wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, who may be Clemson’s fourth or fifth best receiver, Clemson will field nearly all of their key players again in 2019. Lawrence, Etienne, and wide receivers Tee Higgins (Soph), Amari Rodgers (Soph), Justyn Ross (Freshman), and Derion Kendrick (Freshman) will all be back again to style on the ACC even harder than they did this year. What we are seeing the Clemson offense do now — an offense capable of carrying Clemson to a championship — is only scratching the surface of what they may be capable of down the line. 


No defense in the country can match the prowess of Brent Venables’ Clemson squad this year. As is typically the case with Clemson, the defensive line is the heart of the defense. They are the catalyst for the rest of the defense as they provide pressure in the passing game and suffocate runners on the ground. 

By the numbers, Clemson has a near perfect front four. Clemson leads the nation in line yards and opponent success rate, topped off by a third-place spot in stuff rate. To pair with their dominance against the run, Clemson also ranks sixth in sack rate, which should come as no shock with two future pros flying around the edge. 

With some help from the boys up front, the Tigers’ secondary has also enjoyed a successful 2018 campaign. 

*Sack rate slightly higher here than on Football Outsiders because this includes all snaps, whereas Football Outsiders removes garbage time play.

Draft-eligible cornerback Trayvon Mullen is likely the more well-known name due to the draft attention he is receiving, but Mullen’s counterpart, sophomore AJ Terrell, is a star in the making. Terrell is not only a traditional cover cornerback with the hips and ball skills to run with the best of ‘em, but he is a mean tackler. Venables instills in all his players how important it is to hustle to the ball and Terrell is the embodiment of that. 

What’s always set Clemson’s defense apart from others, however, is not just raw talent. Venables makes use of what many would call an “overhang” player. In short, said player’s job is to be an outside linebacker when necessary and be a slot cornerback or strong safety when necessary. He is a sort of do-it-all player between the numbers, but outside of the tackle box. Dorian O’Daniel, now a Kansas City Chief, previously held the position and excelled, and the role is currently manned by sophomore Isaiah Simmons. 

The value in a position like this is that Clemson does not need to substitute players in/out as often. If one player is capable of being both a third linebacker or a fifth defensive back, it allows Clemson to end up in fewer situations where a true third linebacker or fifth defensive back is absolutely necessary. It enables Venables to be more consistent in the call of his defense and creates less chaos in trying to keep up with offensive substitutions, of which many high-tempo offenses use deliberately to disrupt defenses. 

X Factor — Protect Trevor Lawrence

Every quarterback benefits from clean pass protection and a safe area to visualize the field from. Moreover, freshman quarterbacks who do not tend to execute well under pressure especially benefit from good pass protection. Lawrence, though undeniably talented, falls into that category. 

Lawrence does not play scared of pass rushers, per se, but he does not have the experience or skill set to manage himself with defenders in the pocket. When rushers work free around the edge or the pocket begins to collapse, Lawrence shows a tendency to rush the ball out of his hand and throw with poor accuracy. He is surprisingly good about not forcing awful decisions when under pressure, like so many other young quarterbacks tend to do, but it can be crippling to the offense when Lawrence is under an irregular amount of pressure and is not enable to throw cleanly, which he does with fantastic rhythm and accuracy. 

Thankfully for Lawrence, Clemson rocks an above average offensive line that has done well to this point to keep Lawrence upright. Clemson’s overall sack rate this season (3.5 percent) is good for 16th in the country, which includes time with backup quarterbacks Kelly Bryant and Chase Brice. With Lawrence in the lineup, the offense has surrendered just a 2.39 percent sack rate that would rank among the top five. 

With Clemson facing Notre Dame in the first round, the matchup favors the Tigers in the trenches. Notre Dame’s defensive line is a mediocre unit relative to their level of competition. The Fighting Irish defense holds a middling 6.5 percent sack rate, sandwiching them between USC and Virginia Tech at 58th. Clemson may (read: probably) face a much more fearsome Alabama front seven in the championship, but they should be able to give Lawrence a proper pocket in the first round.