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Clemson Syracuse Football

Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant (2) is sacked by Syracuse defensive lineman Chris Slayton (95) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Friday, Oct. 13, 2017, in Syracuse, N.Y. Bryant was down for a while and taken to the locker room in the final minute of the half. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

With seven games completed and the Clemson Tigers sitting at 6-1 overall and 4-1 in the ACC, the last five games of the season become the most crucial.

With the bye week upon the Tigers, it is time for the 2017 team to refocus and find ways to improve on offense, defense and special teams. Where they need to improve will come as a result of “self-scouting” and “internal evaluations” taking place this week.

While the coaching staff is grading the players and respective position groups, today, we grade the Tigers as well.

Offense: B

The offense had arguably the most difficult job of any of the position groups heading into the 2017 season with the losses of quarterback Deshaun Watson, wide receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, running back Wayne Gallman and center Jay Guillermo.

But through the first six games of the season, the drop-off from last year to this year was minimal — as the Tigers entered last week’s game ranked fifth in the nation in red-zone scoring, 11th in third0down conversions and 10th in scoring margin.

Combined with a dynamic rushing attack, led by sophomore Tavien Feaster and true freshman Travis Etienne, the Tigers are averaging 6.5 more rushes per game than last year, have increased their average yards per game from 169.5 to 237.3 yards per game on the ground, are averaging more yards per carry, have two 300-plus yard rushing games and 21 touchdowns.

However, the offense will go as quarterback Kelly Bryant can go — and that is the big question mark as the Tigers move into the last five games of the season. If Bryant is unable to use his legs to create offense when plays break down, the Tigers will be very limited — as in the Syracuse game.

Defense: B+

The defense was on track to earn a solid A through the first seven games until Syracuse exploited some holes in what was thought to be the best defense in the nation.

The secondary, which had been fairly consistent since the Auburn game, in which they had too many pass interference penalties, suffered from a case of ill-timed pass interference calls against Syracuse. It was not necessarily the penalties that are an area of concern, but the way in which the Tiger defenders had trouble covering the vertical passes downfield that is concerning.

The defensive line also was manhandled in Friday’s game, with the Syracuse offense physically outplaying the Tigers. The most obvious was a third-and-11 with the game on the line. Syracuse was able to rush for the first down on a quarterback draw to seal the victory.

The one area that has been solid on the Tigers’ defense is the linebacking corps. Led by Kendall Joseph and Dorian O’Daniel, the linebackers are playing at a level that impresses even defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

The linebackers miss the leadership of former Tiger Ben Boulware, but what they miss in leadership they more than make up for in ability — especially in O’Daniel, who has more receiving touchdowns than any other Tiger after his two “Pick 6s.”

Special Teams: C-

Another group that was on the way to earning a solid A before starting placekicker Greg Huegel suffered a torn ACL in practice.

The punting game has seen redshirt freshman Will Spiers become a weapon for the Tigers, ranking 27th in the nation with an average of 43.82 yards per punt. Last season, the Tigers ranked 117th of 128 teams — averaging 38.16 yards per punt.

With the loss of Huegel, the Tigers have not only seen their field goal efficiency drop, they currently rank tied for 123rd of 128 teams, having made only four of their 10 attempts this season. Junior Alex Spence, who took over the kicking duties after Huegel suffered his injury, is currently two-for-six on the season, leading head coach Dabo Swinney to open up the competition.

The loss of Huegel has also had an impact on the Tigers’ kickoff coverage, which is now giving up nearly 20 yards per kickoff return (67th in the nation) due to the inability to get the ball to past the goal line.

Zach Lentz is a Clemson University alumnus who got his start working with the Tigers basketball team from 1999-2004. Now a resident of Orangeburg County, he reports on Clemson sports as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat.


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