The Clemson Tigers looked every bit the part of a playoff team Saturday, thoroughly dominating previously unbeaten North Carolina State 41-7.
Clemson’s true freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence outshined NC State’s redshirt senior Ryan Finley, a trendy NFL prospect lauded by some as a possible early round draft pick.
Starting just his third career game, Lawrence showed off a strong, accurate arm, completing 26 of 39 passes for a new career high 308 yards and a touchdown without an interception before being subbed for most of the fourth quarter with the outcome no longer in doubt. His precise passing put sophomore running back Travis Etienne in position to score three touchdowns in his third consecutive game (setting a new school record), despite rushing for just 39 yards on 15 carries.
Finley, a graduate transfer from Boise State, had a much more difficult afternoon, though the caliber of defense he was playing had a lot to do with it.
Finley entered the game completing a career-high 69.5% of his passes on the year, helping the Wolfpack lead the country with a 60.9% conversion rate on third down.
He completed 21 of 34 passes Saturday for just 156 yards, however, and was picked off on two of the only throws further than 15 yards downfield that he attempted. Worse, the Wolfpack converted a woeful 2 of 12 third downs.
Clemson owned the advantage in size and athleticism at most positions but it was especially obvious along the line of scrimmage, where the Tigers’ dynamic duo of defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence routinely collapsed the middle, allowing twitchy edge rusher Clelin Ferrell (among others) to clean up.
With his outspoken personality and All-American resume, the 6-foot-3, 315 pound Wilkins is perhaps the most well known of Clemson’s top prospects. While his frame suggests run-stuffer, Wilkins’ initial quickness, lateral agility and relentless style of play make him just as effective against the pass, helping him rack up 32 tackles for loss and 13 passes deflected over his career.
Check out Wilkins' surprising nimble feet on this snap last year against Miami.
His statistical and physical opposite – the 6-foot-3, 350 pound Lawrence – is the perfect complement as Clemson’s immovable nose guard and one of the nation’s most imposing players.
With his numbers plummeting since a dominant freshman campaign in which he registered 62 tackles (including 8.5 for loss and 6.5 sacks), Lawrence has drawn his share of criticism this season. That is justifiable considering that he entered Saturday’s tilt with just 11 total tackles on the season (including just half a tackle for loss).
For those scouting based on box scores, Lawrence re-established himself Saturday, registering a season-high four tackles (including a half tackle for loss). As with all nose guards, however, Lawrence’s value lies more with his ability to eat up double-teams and open up opportunities for teammates to pad their statistics than he registering stops of his own. Lawrence was noticeably more active in this game, however, stuffing the middle on short yardage and showing his underrated lateral agility and balance as a short-area pursuer.
Players of Lawrence's size aren't supposed to be this light on their feet.
As has been the case for much of the past two seasons, the splashiest plays were turned in by Ferrell, a 6-foot-4, 265 pounder who led the team with 9.5 sacks a year ago and entered Saturday tops on the Tigers with six more this season.
Unlike most collegiate edge rushers, Ferrell possesses a legitimate repertoire, beating tackles with speed, power and technique, alike.
While Ferrell was kept sackless Saturday, he was certainly disruptive, registering five tackles, including a game-high 2.5 tackles for loss.
Ferrell possesses the burst and bend so critical for success as an edge rusher but as he showed Saturday against NC State, he is also quite effective in run support, using his long arms and hand strength to successfully set the edge and string backs out wide.
Ferrell’s combination of length and athleticism drew a comparison to future Hall of Fame edge rusher Julius Peppers from two-time NFL general manager Scot McCloughan on our debut episode of the Instinctive Scouting Podcast.
Wilkins, Lawrence, and Ferrell each rank among my personal top 32 NFL prospects in the entire country.
Perhaps most frightening for future Clemson opponents is that Clemson boasts two other draftable senior defensive linemen with defensive end Austin Howard (6-5, 280) currently earning a second round on NFLDraftScout.com’s board and and even backup defensive tackle Albert Huggins (6-2, 315) viewed as a Day Three candidate.