With two games under its belt, Clemson is ready to dive into ACC play, starting with Georgia Tech.
The No. 6 Tigers host the Yellow Jackets at 3:30 p.m. Saturday (ABC) at Memorial Stadium in search of their seventh straight conference championship.
The Tigers have been powered by the defense — which returns safety Nolan Turner this week — with the group having not given up a touchdown yet while forcing three turnovers.
“If it was easy, a lot of people would do it,” Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables said of the eight-quarter shutout streak. “You want to keep perspective on it. We’re not beating our chest. We’ve got a lot of work to do. … I think a lot of guys are having a high ceiling for themselves and pushing and striving and straining for a championship-style defense, and we’ve got a long way to go before we get there, but we’re making incremental improvement.”
The challenge for this week in that process is preparing for two quarterbacks in Jeff Sims and Jordan Yates. Simms sat out last week with an arm injury, so the Yellow Jackets started Yates, a redshirt sophomore, in the 45-17 victory over Kennesaw State. Georgia Tech doesn’t put out a depth chart, however, so the Tigers are game planning around both signal callers. Having faced Simms last year, the squad has film and is more familiar with the sophomore.
“They’re going to do what they do regardless, but there is a little different emphasis,” Swinney said. “Yates is a good football player. He’s a winner, state champion quarterback, savvy kid, tough and very consistent. Sims is maybe a little bit better of a runner and a little bit more explosive in that part of the game. He’s a gunslinger too, now. He can rip it.”
On the other side, the Tigers’ offense is still putting the pieces together to continue its improvement. The offensive line took a hit to its depth when freshman Dietrick Pennington tore his ACL after playing only four snaps in his collegiate debut against S.C. State last weekend.
“Gonna be a great, great player and I think a guy that as the season went on, would’ve been a difference maker for us, for sure,” Swinney said. “I think he was on his way to really, really becoming a very consistent contributor for us and a definite, big-time depth guy.”
The group was already down two linemen in John Williams and Tayquon Johnson, both of whom suffered injuries before the season began. Best-case scenario for Johnson would be returning for the postseason. The Tigers do get back Mason Trotter, whose right hand will be “clubbed up,” but he’ll likely see action at one of the guard positions.
All eyes will continue to be on sophomore quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who had some miscues in Week 2 but showed growth from the opening loss to Georgia. He threw one interception while totaling 171 yards and a touchdown on 14-for-24 passing in the win over S.C. State. The Southern California native’s errors seem more mental than anything, to which Tigers offensive coordinator Tony Elliott’s message is to block out the outside noise.
“Just focus on the people that you trust to take advice from. That’s the only one that you need to worry about taking criticism from, and I think that’s a Morgan Freeman quote that we’ve showed the guys,” Elliott said. “The best thing about DJ is he’s going to be his hardest critic. He’s going to take ownership. He understands that there’s a process. He has to trust the process and go through the process day-in and day-out, and eventually, like I said, he’ll keep making those steps and be able to play up to his full potential.”
Clemson has enough to start conference play 1-0 before traveling for three of its next four league games. The Tigers’ first two opponents couldn’t be more different in terms of competitiveness, so they should be prepared for whatever the rest of the season hands them.
“The next goal for us is very simple. It’s win the division,” Swinney said. “That starts this week. That’s what’s in front of us and we know that we’ve got a lot of improving to do to be the type of team we want to be overall and in this league.”
— Prediction: Clemson 45, Georgia Tech 3 —