Why there’s a disconnect for Clemson offense in translating practice success to games

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Offensive struggles against Georgia were understandable.

Two weeks later when Clemson played Georgia Tech, those struggles were still there.

It was at that point that Tigers offensive coordinator Tony Elliott realized he’d have to take a different approach with the unit. For so long, there had been veteran leadership and experience with guys like quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne, among others.

Now, it’s a different story.

“I had Travis for four years, but I also remember the challenges of Travis as a sophomore,” Elliott said. “It’s a little bit different. Trevor had some challenges as a sophomore that — now that he’s gone and moved on — that people sometimes forget about. You’ve just got to go back to meeting the young people where they are.”

Clemson is averaging 14.8 points in five games played against FBS opponents this year. That’s almost 25 points off last year’s 39.4-point average.

The biggest problem the Tigers are facing, coaches and players maintain, is that what’s being shown in practice isn’t the same as what’s happening in the games. When asked why that’s happening, Elliott pointed to a couple possible reasons, starting with performance anxiety.

“It could be that once you get into the stadium and it’s full and you feel the pressure to play perfect, and we’re trying to get them to understand we don’t have to play perfect,” he explained. “We just have to play well, so I think that the guys, because of the environment that they live in now with social media, they’re hearing so many things. Even though they’re trying not to listen to it. It’s gotta be creeping in. They all want to play better, so they’re just pressing, and a lot of times when you press, you actually don’t play your best.

“You’ve got to be free, so when they’re on the practice field here, there’s a certain level of comfort and freedom for them to go out and practice. You’ve just got to transfer that to the game.”

Tigers sophomore quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei admitted that could be part of the reason.

“You want to be perfect — like, OK, do this, this and that and (you) kind of tense up and try to be too perfect, to where you’re just going out there and you’ve just got to be able to play,” the sophomore said. “Just let it loose and go out there and just be you. That’s what got us here.”

Uiagalelei said he’s starting to get to that point of playing more free while trying to get any self-imposed perfection pressure out of his head. He had fewer mistakes against Syracuse and threw for 181 yards and a touchdown. Now, it’s a matter of getting the rest of his offensive teammates to do the same.

The wide receivers showed glimpses of greatness with Justyn Ross corralling in a 15-yard strike to set up running back Kobe Pace’s two-yard score. Joseph Ngata made a highlight-worthy, 19-yard TD catch to get Clemson on the board first in the second quarter. Eight different Tigers recorded a catch, but they also had several drops.

During Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s weekly Sunday meeting with reporters, he called the drops frustrating because “I know we’re better than that.”

“We’ve got to finish,” he added. “We made some plays too, now. That play that Ross made down the goal line was unbelievable. It must’ve been 15 feet in the air. It was crazy. The play Joe had for the touchdown. We’re making some. We’re just not being as consistent as we are accustomed to around here. We’re just in a little bit of a funk there. We’ve just got to keep working our way through it.”

Calling all Clemson leaders

Another factor for the game-to-practice disconnect, Elliott noted, was a need for a vocal leader. That comes with experience and knowledge of the program.

For the Tigers, the two most experienced players just so happen to be on the offensive line in Jordan McFadden and Matt Bockhorst. They have the challenge of leading the front five, and making sure they’re all on the same page. That’s been more difficult than usual because of how many rotations the group has had. Injuries have resulted in Clemson playing three different centers in six games.

Aside from Bockhorst and McFadden, leadership must come from somewhere else as well.

Elliott mentioned Ross, a redshirt junior, as being one of the guys needed to rally the troops.

“We all know J. Ross is one of the best receivers in the country,” he said. “He just needs to just cut it loose. Play fast, play free and then I think everybody else will follow his lead.”

Uiagalelei is working at being that vocal leader the team needs. His go-to so far has been leading by example more so than being a “rah rah type of guy,” he said. Still, he realizes that talking more often is something that’s required for being a quarterback.

He’s not the only one, either. Elliott said tight end Davis Allen is as quiet of a guy as he’s been around and that someone like him needs to be more outspoken. Allen recording a career-best eight catches for 49 yards was a good boost in bringing that to fruition.

“Now maybe he’ll have a little more confidence to talk and then he can demand and he can encourage those guys, and they’ll follow him,” Elliott said.

Still in search of an identity

Because Clemson has yet to find that full connection between the practice and game fields, the team still lacks an identity. Normally by this point in a season, every group Elliott has coached has found its identity, so 2021 is a new experience. At the same time, getting to that point is a matter of correcting fixable mistakes.

Elliott mentions how, during the game against Syracuse, wide receiver Ajou Ajou got turned around on a screen play and ended up getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage for a loss. It’s something the group can watch on film and learn from.

The Tigers are still waiting for the game where the offense will explode — and they thought it would be against Syracuse coming out of the open week. It was disappointing when it didn’t happen, but they’ll look to the challenge of playing at Pitt this Saturday for an opportunity to put it all together.

“I want that identity to be a confident group,” Elliott said of his unit. “Guys that we throw the ball when we need to and we want to, and the same thing: we run the ball. We stretch you sideline to sideline, put the ball down the field. … You’ve seen that these guys are capable of putting together drives, but we need to get the explosion back in our offense.”

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