Clemson University

Tuning and overhauling

Clemson's C.J. Spiller dives into the end zone for a touchdown during the first half against N.C. State.
Clemson's C.J. Spiller dives into the end zone for a touchdown during the first half against N.C. State.

CLEMSON -- During a North Carolina staff meeting six years ago to plan a red-zone scrimmage, Clemson running backs coach André Powell remembers the offensive coordinator being asked how many plays he wanted to script.

The coordinator, Gary Tranquill, looked at defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, a no-nonsense, Woody Hayes disciple, and deadpanned, "Against Tenuta's defense? Just one freaking play."

It was meant as a competitive jab, yet the joke also underscored the respect and admiration Tenuta, Georgia Tech's coordinator the past five seasons, has generated among his peers, Clemson's included.

Tenuta has made a living striking fear in opponents' hearts with his relentlessly attacking scheme.

In that regard, though, the Tigers may have slain the beast with last year's 31-7 home victory.

They expect Tenuta's unit to be a formidable foe in Saturday's 3:30 p.m. game at Georgia Tech.

The nature of its own offensive scheme, coupled with a dearth of dangerous weapons, seems to have equipped Clemson with a quiet confidence that suggests intimidation will not count among the Yellow Jackets' usual advantages.

"You want to get those guys out of an element of a rhythm," right guard Thomas Austin said. "They're aggressive, and sometimes that comes back to haunt you."

By all accounts, Georgia Tech's defensive philosophy is the most unique in the ACC.

As a broad principle, defenses tend to pressure the line of scrimmage with four linemen, keep three linebackers behind them to patrol an intermediate-sized space, then have four defensive backs who can chase receivers deep.

The Yellow Jackets almost always send a linebacker or safety as a blitzer, adding a fifth person to create chaos either at the line of scrimmage (lending to a high number of tackles for losses) or in the backfield (by pressuring the quarterback).

In turn, they leave one fewer player at the back end of the defense, increasing the risk of surrendering a long, lower-percentage pass or giving up a substantial gain once an offensive player breaks the first wall of tacklers.

"If you break it down, it's not a lot of different blitzes, but they bring them a lot of different ways, kind of like our offense," Powell said.

An offense seemingly constructed to make assertive defenses such as Georgia Tech's and Florida State's pay for their aggression.

It could be argued the teams that have had success against Clemson were passive in nature, following a blueprint outlined last year by Virginia Tech.

Instead of sending kamikaze defenders flying into the Tigers' backfield, they stacked the line of scrimmage with eight or nine guys, clogging the running lanes and waiting for its standout tailbacks to come to them for minimal gains.

Granted, that was also when Clemson had little semblance of a vertical passing threat, a dimension first-year starting quarterback Cullen Harper has added to offensive coordinator Rob Spence's disposal.

Spence's system is full of screen passes, misdirection plays and zone rushing plays, all considered deterrents for North-South defenses. A bevy of play-action passes and rollouts also prevent defenses from plotting where the quarterback will set up in the pocket, which would make him an easier blitzing target.

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