SAN JOSE, Calif. — Explosiveness is up. The running game is stronger than ever. The passing game is dangerously effectively on first down and dangerous, period, when opposing defenses are forced to creep up closer to the line of scrimmage. As a whole, Clemson’s production on the offensive side of the ball has discovered a new level.
Or rediscovered, actually. After a year of relative struggles, the Tigers’ offense has reverted to form: Clemson ranks third nationally in yards gained per play, averaging nearly two additional yards per snap compared to a season ago. The offense ranks second nationally in plays of 20 or more yards, 30 or more yards and 40 or more yards, and leads the Bowl Subdivision with 21 plays gaining 50 or more yards.
In schematic terms, however, not much — if anything — has changed.
“It’s the same offense,” said co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott.
What has changed is the quarterback. In true freshman Trevor Lawrence, the Tigers have developed a passer whose impact has exceeded even his advance billing as the nation’s top recruit, and who in doing so has reawakened an offense that went dormant in the one-year gap separating Lawrence from Deshaun Watson.
“It’s been very easy for us,” co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Jeff Scott said. “It wasn’t like we’ve been having to go and create new plays. We really were able to get back to some of the things that we had done the previous three years with Deshaun.”
Lawrence is undoubtedly the biggest addition to the Clemson offense, providing the Tigers the ability to attack defenses “horizontally and vertically,” Elliott said, and creating opportunities for a running game led by sophomore Travis Etienne. The word Clemson players and coaches used to describe Lawrence’s impact on the offense is “balance,” meaning the ability to force defenses to engage in a cruel choose-your-own-adventure battle against a dynamic offense — either devoting themselves to stopping Etienne or to slowing down Lawrence, and neither has been possible.
“Mentally, I’ve gotten a lot sharper,” Lawrence said. “I’ve grown a lot as far as decision-making and a lot of little detail stuff, too. All the way around, I’ve grown a lot.”
A new wrinkle appeared in the Cotton Bowl win against Notre Dame, which saw Lawrence become more involved as a runner in a move that “really loosened things up,” said offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell.
That slight evolution fits into the theme of the Tigers’ season: Lawrence’s growth as a quarterback has echoed the offense’s growth at large, as a unit that continues to grow and progress behind a rotation of skill talent largely composed of underclassmen. He’s gone from knowing where everyone should be to knowing how things could unfold on any given snap, said quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter, equating this rise in awareness to learning a new language — first you learn the words and grammar, and then you grasp the nuance.
Lawrence has added variations and tweaks to the system, said senior left tackle Mitch Hyatt, aspects that since his September promotion to the starting job have created the formula behind one of the most prolific offenses in program history.
“He just kind of took over the system for himself,” Hyatt said.
An equally important evolution has been seen from the Tigers’ personnel. Clemson’s leading passer is a true freshman. The leading rusher is a sophomore, as is the leading receiver. The team’s second-leading rusher is a freshman; the Tigers’ secondary receiving target, Justyn Ross, is a true freshman. After averaging 497.6 yards per game in September, the Tigers averaged 572 yards per game and 7.8 yards per play in November — the clearest marker of the rapid in-season growth propelled by a youthful core.
“The maturity of the players has evolved more than anything,” Elliott said. “The schemes are the same. The terminology’s the same. We build a game plan the same way.”
Lawrence, like Watson before him, has simply carried a largely unchanged offense to new heights. Teammates and coaches casually compare the two, one a true freshman and the other a recent legend, drawing parallels between how both orchestrated the system and lifted the production of their supporting cast. The greatest similarity is seen how they “command the offense,” Hyatt said.
“I remember Deshaun doing that,” said the four-year starter. “Seeing Trevor do it brings back those memories.”
If unsaid, a subtle difference can be read between the lines: Lawrence is playing at a higher level than was Watson as a true freshman, which isn’t necessarily a slight against a player considered among the best in program history. Clemson’s success and his own numbers — with 27 touchdowns against just four interceptions and 2,933 yards passing despite not starting a full game until October — even suggest that Lawrence is the most impressive true freshman at his position in history.
“That was Deshaun his second and third year,” Streeter said. “He just understood it so well and the game slowed down for him. Trevor is learning at a rapid pace and really coming through.”
In a general sense, the change at quarterback was designed to bolster the offense’s overall production. More specifically, the move was made in an effort to beat Alabama. Clemson’s evolution wasn’t in scheme but in personnel, behind a quarterback capable of stretching the flexibility of defenses and expanding the reach of the Tigers’ playbook. Lawrence hasn’t changed Clemson’s offense — he’s just made it better.
“When you know what you’re going to get from this kid — when you just know what you’re going to get — it’s awesome,” said Streeter. “It makes it a lot more fun.”