After five-star freshman Trevor Lawrence lit up Georgia Tech in spot duty to the tune of 176 passing yards and four TDs, Clemson officially named him the starting QB over senior Kelly Bryant.
Many anticipated this might happen, given Bryant’s struggles to get the passing game going against better defenses in 2017 (particularly Alabama) and Lawrence’s rare talent. So far in 2018, Clemson’s offense has been more efficient under Lawrence, significantly so on passing downs.
This proved similar to Alabama’s competition between Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, with the Tide also ultimately choosing the younger QB who made the bigger impact in the passing game.
It’s a tough gig, playing QB at a top program, when a hotshot freshman can push out a guy who led a team to a championship and playoff berth.
Bryant has since announced he’ll be transferring out of the program, less than 10 months after being named the MVP of the ACC Championship.
But that’s the world we’re living in. I’m sure Georgia’s Jake Fromm has taken a look or two over his shoulder as well at Justin Fields, Lawrence’s top competitor in the 2018 recruiting rankings.
Either way, here’s why Clemson is making the official move to Lawrence.
1. Clemson’s post-Deshaun Watson offense really wasn’t a fit.
The Watson Tigers were a Chad Morris-style smashmouth spread offense even after the OC left for SMU, up until they played a team they couldn’t push around up front. That was when they’d involve Watson more heavily in the run game or flip a switch and become a more pro-style squad.
That was the most deadly version of the Tigers, when they would drop Watson back and have him work through progressions as defenses were overloaded with covering Mike Williams, Hunter Renfrow, Jordan Leggett, and Deon Cain.
Under Bryant, the Tigers are largely a run-and-screen offense, using some RPOs and other innovative spread-option plays to create multiple stress points across the line of scrimmage to try and punch through resulting creases with speedsters. They mix in some play-action and dropback schemes but Bryant isn’t nearly as effective at diagnosing defenses and throwing as Watson was (to be fair, few QBs are).
They do also have the single-wing style QB run game for Bryant, an emergency switch they can flip against tougher fronts, turning the game into a contest of physicality at the point of attack. The offense gets a plus-one numbers advantage from the QB keeping the ball, and the only defensive response is either to beat blocks and overcome that advantage or abandon the concept of a safety by bringing defenders into the box.
The problem: Clemson has never really mastered the “smashmouth” dimension of the smashmouth spread. They’ve always been at their best at spreading the ball around to speedy skill players and winning matchups on the perimeter. They aren’t stocked with the sorts of OL, TE, or FBs to consistently overpower.
The Tigers flipped the switch to “single-wing” late on the road against Texas A&M, hoping to run clock and put the Aggies away before Kellen Mond had more chances to run wild and throw the ball all over their worn-down defense.
Bryant made a few impressive first down runs in that period, but the Tigers also struggled to secure him running lanes. At times his clock-running plays were a result of spectacular individual efforts, rather than effective team play.
For instance, here you can see the Aggies using a normal anti-spread field blitz to blow up the “QB split zone” play that used to be automatic for the J.T. Barrett Ohio State Buckeyes:
The Clemson roster is simply not going to overpower top competition by being the most physical, disciplined, and hard-nosed offense in the trenches.
Nor do they need to be, when Lawrence is in the game.
2. Lawrence can make the most of Clemson’s actual strengths.
Where Clemson is overpowering is in space, where they have the nearly uncoverable Renfrow running a variety of routes, 6’4 Tee Higgins is a matchup nightmare down the sideline, and guys like Amari Rodgers or Travis Etienne can induce nightmares.
Lawrence is one of the most gifted young QBs college football has seen at the important task of covering the space between the box and the skill players out wide. He’s as good a QB as you’ll ever see at getting the ball out quickly and to the correct shoulder on RPOs:
This is often a wildly overlooked skill. Great footwork and precision accuracy on these plays can make all the difference when the defense is counting on being able to play the blocks and recover to the throw. Teams can’t afford to zone up the RPOs and send defenders to stop the run against Lawrence, because the end result is a Tigers skill player running downhill into open grass with most of the defense yards away.
Defenses are left to play man coverage to any two-receiver side of the formation or risk giving up chunk yardage on quick passes. If they also feel the need to double the boundary receiver, as Georgia Tech does here ...
... that leaves them in a precarious spot trying to handle Clemson’s multiple run game and explosive RBs.
Lawrence loves throwing RPOs and uses them aggressively. It’s easy to understand why, given the combination of his arm strength and accuracy with Clemson’s wideouts against man coverage:
Not much A&M could do differently here, other than to play a safety over the top against Higgins on the boundary and sacrifice numbers elsewhere.
Then there’s the actual dropback passing game, where Lawrence has all the potential in the world but still a ways to go. He has a tendency to lock in on the veteran Renfrow, which is fairly understandable because the two can do things like this:
Georgia Tech has a hand in Lawrence’s face, a DB trailing Renfrow underneath, and a safety over the top, and the Tigers still convert and pick up a first down. Pretty amazing. But Georgia Tech isn’t representative of the best pass defenses, and Lawrence will need to move beyond his safety blanket and get through progressions in order to fully maximize his talents.
Lawrence, too, has a long way to go in order to become as good as Watson was, but Clemson’s schedule could greatly work in his favor.
Although he’s been good early at executing and avoiding turnovers, he still has miles to go in terms of making pre-snap reads, checking plays or protections, and getting through progressions after the snap.
Fortunately for Clemson, the schedule is setting up very favorably. Louisville and Florida State are not the challenges they appeared to be in the preseason, and it’s plausible Clemson will reach the ACC title game or beyond before facing another ranked opponent.
It’s clear that the highest ceiling for this team comes from having Lawrence chuck the ball around to an immensely talented collection of skill players.
So Dabo Swinney and his team are going to take the rest of the season to explore that upside as they head toward what seems like yet another postseason showdown with the Tide.