CLEMSON — Thursday night, Clemson issued a football rarity – a clean injury report. Three players – cornerback Martin Jenkins, linebacker Justin Parker and quarterback Tony McNeal – are out for the season with injuries, but no other players are even so much as questionable for Saturday’s noon showdown with Virginia Tech. Coming off their only open week of the season, the Tigers are refreshed and ready and healthy as they’ve been all season. Clemson has been far from perfect in a 5-1 start, but the fact that they have yet to play their best game is a big reason for optimism heading into the season’s home stretch.
Here are the five things I’ll be watching for when the Tigers and Hokies face off Saturday:
1. Can Sammy get involved? Halfway through his sophomore season, Watkins is just getting started, thanks to a suspension and illness. He has only 116 receiving yards, and has yet to score a receiving touchdown or record his first 100-yard game of the season. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris said Watkins was not in game shape before the open week, but he used the week to work himself into better shape. If Virginia Tech man coverage creates more opportunities – especially with Nuk Hopkins garnering attention – expect Watkins to take advantage for a breakout day.
2. Is the tackling improved?: Tackling has been an issue across college football, and a flashpoint for Clemson’s defense. The Tigers have struggled mightily to bring opponents down, and never was it more apparent than against Georgia Tech. On the Yellow Jackets’ second series, safety Jonathan Meeks whiffed on receiver Anthony Autry near his own bench, turning a 17-yard gain into a 52-yard gain. Later, Meeks struggled to bring down quarterback Tevin Washington in the open field, trailing and flailing for 20 yards. He wasn’t the only offender; defensive coordinator Brent Venables spent the open week focusing on fundamentals and basics. To improve a struggling defense (97th nationally in total yardage), that’s a good way to start.
3. Can Clemson stop the big plays: Chunk plays have been a major concern for the Tigers through six games, and Tech’s offensive history does little to assuage those fears. Logan Thomas has touchdown passes of 42, 42, 42, 47, 49, 56, 66 and 85 yards, accounting for eight of his 12 passing scores. Clemson’s secondary is shaky at best; junior cornerback Darius Robinson was benched two weeks ago in favor of sophomore Garry Peters, who will start Saturday. Peters was impressive against Boston College, making his first career interception, but Georgia Tech’s flexbone offense isn’t a good gauge for corners. He’ll be tested Saturday. On the other side of the coin, Tech has allowed 19 pass plays of 20-plus yards, which likely leaves Tajh Boyd and Co. salivating.
4. Under pressure: Venables joked this week that Andre Branch – who terrorized Tech’s linemen for six sacks in two games last year – could come back for a one week-only appearance against the Hokies. He’d be welcomed; Clemson ranks 104th nationally in sacks. Starting defensive ends Malliciah Goodman and Corey Crawford have yet to record a sack between them this season, and Goodman shows a frightening ability to disappear in games; he has 2.5 tackles for loss in 279 snaps. Tech’s offensive line is beat up; center Andrew Miller – the only returning starter from 2011 – is done for the season with a broken ankle, forcing guard Michael Via into his spot. The Tigers’ line is due for a breakout, and if not now, when?
5. Can they keep the balance: Clemson ranks 11th nationally in total offense, and has been quite balanced – 11th in passing offense and 32nd in rushing offense. Andre Ellington (99.5 ypg) leads the ACC in rushing, and Hopkins (129.5 ypg) leads the league in receiving. If they keep up their pace, Clemson could be just the fifth team in ACC history to have the league’s leading rusher and receiver. The Hokies are expected to bring pressure on defense, and keeping them honest will be crucial.