Dabo Swinney is convinced that his Tigers are a better-tackling team than they were when the season began.
He expects that improvement to be put to the test Saturday by a dynamic and sophisticated Duke offense designed to put playmakers in space with room to run.
Swinney said Duke's wide receivers, led by record-breaking senior Conner Vernon, are "as good a group as we've gone against in a while."
"Tackling in space is going to be one of the keys to the game," Swinney said. "They create 'space plays' just by the nature of what they do. We'll need the best tackling effort we've had to minimize their yards-after-catch."
He said the Tigers have had "segments of tackling" in practice this week, but not live periods. "We're working on tackling every week," he said.
Swinney said all of Duke's quarterbacks are effective at getting rid of the football, so that it's difficult to get pressure.
"The quarterbacks have been very productive," Swinney said. "Not many teams have gotten pressure on these guys. They know where to go with it and they don't hold the ball."
He said Clemson's defensive effort needs to start with taking away the rushing game, which has been somewhat hit-or-miss for the Blue Devils this season. After running for 234 yards against North Carolina, the Blue Devils managed just 103 against Florida State last week. Earlier in the season, they failed to reach the 30-yard mark against Virginia Tech and Stanford.
"They throw it all over, but they like to have balance," Swinney said. "We need to stop their run, win some match-ups and then somehow find a way to affect the quarterback."
Swinney said that receiver Conner Vernon, the ACC's all-time leader in receptions who needs less that 100 yards to become the league's career leader in reception yardage, is "a smart, veteran player who understands defense, route-running, leverage and technique...He's good at the break point, and he finishes plays. And he can run with it."
Swinney said the Tigers had one of their best practices of the fall on Tuesday, and followed it up with another productive session on Wednesday. He said both Bashaud Breeland and Garry Peters have practiced and are ready to play on Saturday.
The Tigers spent some practice time on Wednesday working on overtime situations.
"We'll tie it all together on Thursday and get ready to travel on Friday," Swinney said.