CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Chaz Sutton. Kelcy Quarles. J.T. Surratt.
Some great-sounding names in that group. But none of them have a tenth of the name recognition as the fourth starter on South Carolina’s defensive line: Jadeveon Clowney. That doesn’t mean they aren’t talented enough to wreak havoc on an opposing offense, though, particularly if opponents spend all their time and energy on preparing for Clowney.
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North Carolina coach Larry Fedora and his offensive staff have been walking that fine line as they prepare to face the Gamecocks next Thursday to open the college football season.
“First of all, you understand that you’re not going to shut him down. That’s part of it. He’s too good of a football player,” Fedora said. “Let me tell y’all something, now … they’ve got a dang good defensive line.
“I know (Clowney) gets all the talk and all the press, but they’re good up front. … And then you throw him into the mix, so what you’ve got to do is you can’t plan for everything against Jadeveon Clowney because you’ve got three other guys that’ll eat you up, too. You have to do the best job you can with your scheme.”
Fedora often referred to his own players by their number last year (it was his first year on the job, to be fair). But he rattled off the names of South Carolina’s other three starters easily, so it’s clear he knows who they are and what they can do.
Sutton is a 6-foot-5, 263-pound fifth-year senior defensive end opposite Clowney, while juniors Quarles and Surratt total 605 pounds between them in the middle. They’re not all that experienced — Clowney’s 13 sacks a year ago are more than the other three combined in their careers (nine) — but they’re plenty talented.
UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson has watched a lot of South Carolina’s defense on film this offseason. Learning lessons from what other teams did to try to neutralize Clowney, Anderson made sure his priority in game-planning was accounting for the All-American end without compromising what the Tar Heels do well.
“Just watching, you saw people that did really spend a lot of time dealing with him and compromised what they were doing in the throw game in terms of people in the routes or not having enough options. And you saw (his teammates) up front make plays as well,” Anderson said. “It’s a delicate balance between respect for a guy and preparing for a guy and then also forgetting the fact that there’s ten other guys out there that are all quality players. And also compromising your scheme to a point where you don’t have good answers either.
“I don’t know that anybody knows the exact answer to that. We’re doing our best to try to find something that works within what we do.”
There’s no real blueprint on tape of how to slow Clowney down. Or at least if Anderson found it, he wasn’t saying. He said it was important to move the pocket around and to try to keep Clowney off-balance and “uncomfortable”.
But the reason there’s no blueprint is because the traditional methods people employ against dominant defensive ends — chipping, an extra blocker, whatever — don’t slow him down consistently. Nothing does.
“You’ve seen guys chip him and he still beats them. You’ve seen guys add a tight end and he still beats both of them, too,” Anderson said. “He is a very good player and he’s going to make his plays. Hopefully, we can make him as uncomfortable as possible so we’re not on everybody’s highlight reel the rest of the year.”
North Carolina left tackle James Hurst is an All-America candidate this year and a great player. But that doesn’t mean he and Clowney will match up all the time. On the other side of Hurst will be Jon Heck at right tackle, a sophomore making his first-ever start. He should see some of Clowney, too.
“I’m glad that James Hurst is going to be over there, but I also am not naive enough to think that that’s the only place he’s going to line up,” Fedora said. “He’s probably going to line up everywhere. They’re going to put him in a position to have success and cause problems for our offense.”
But this is about more than Clowney versus UNC, or even South Carolina’s defensive line versus North Carolina’s offensive line.
The perception of the SEC is that it’s “big-boy” football, with enormous linemen, stout defenses and bland, boring, pro-style offenses. And when those types of teams face off against supposed “gimmick” teams like the spread, up-tempo offenses that Nick Saban loves so much — it becomes a referendum about the relative merits of each style.
Obviously, that’s a gross oversimplification. But that’s North Carolina’s style of offense, and it broke a number of single-season records in its first year. And it’s been proven to work for other teams, too. As Anderson pointed out, Texas A&M employed a similar type of offense last year and went 11-2 with a win over Alabama in just their first year in the SEC.
“There’s no chip on our shoulder. It really just comes down to we want to win. We want to find a way to win a football game and we use the style of offense that we like and we feel confident in to do that. But there’s no argument that we feel like we’ve got to make,” Anderson said. “I think college football and even now the NFL has proven that spread football is not going anywhere and more and more, people are using both spread and tempo-style of offenses to move the football or it would have been gone by now.”
South Carolina versus Clemson last year was seen as that type of game. Clemson’s up-tempo, explosive offense was held to 328 yards on just 59 plays and just 17 points, their fewest last season.
Never mind that Clemson beat both Auburn and LSU last year, or that the Tigers have had success against the SEC before. That game alone was supposedly proof that “big boy football” will always win the day.
Oh, and never mind that South Carolina’s defense is just really, really good. Fedora understands that, and after he studied the film of that game, he said it “scares the heck” out of him. The biggest lesson he took away — as did Anderson — is that the Tar Heels have to try to stick to what they want to do offensively and stay in their comfort zone as much as possible.
“They did a good job of stopping the run. That was one thing they did. They stopped the run and put them into passing situations,” Fedora said. “I think they took Clemson out of their comfort level. When you’re trying to do things that you don’t normally do, it makes it tough.”