While the Clowney hype may be out of control, there is a basis for its origin – the junior defensive end has turned in highlight reel performances in single games that most players don’t produce over their careers.
“There are a lot of plays where [a team] will run the ball the other way and he’ll just take a pursuit angle and somehow, someway, he’s in on the tackle,” UNC left tackle James Hurst said. “It’s pretty amazing to see how fast he is and how athletic he is. You’re going to have to block him until the whistle.”
Hurst was tasked with blocking former LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery in his first game as a Tar Heel. He’s started 36 games since then, but has yet to see one player dominate game prep as much as Clowney. The only other name worthy of consideration was former Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers.
While the pro-style offense the previous UNC staff employed would have accounted for Clowney with more checks and a specific game plan, Hurst pointed to the spread’s tempo as a technique to wear down Clowney and Chaz Sutton, South Carolina’s other defensive end.
According to UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson, the intent is to make Clowney uncomfortable.
"Try to play a game that makes him less comfortable,” Anderson said. “Tempo is one way we can do that, which we do to everybody, not just him, so that’s no surprise. But then, just not letting him ever really dig in as best you can. Try to change the launch point, try to change the way we block him, who blocks him, how we block him. And, at the same time, not compromise what we do offensively.”
Tempo is key, although it’s not as simple as UNC playing as fast as it can. By constantly adjusting the tempo, Anderson never lets a defender know when he can catch his breath. Quarterback Bryn Renner is just as likely to run to the line of scrimmage and snap the ball as he is line up and step back to receive a call from the sideline. That's by design.
Another method Larry Fedora’s spread offense utilizes in countering talented defensive ends is by using its quarterback to “block” the defender. While a fullback may be responsible for blocking a player of Clowney’s ilk in a pro-style scheme, UNC’s inside zone read allows for Renner to read a defensive end – in effect, blocking him – during his decision-making process.
UNC’s most effective tool on Thursday, however, may be its perimeter screen game.
Fedora provided insight into his philosophy on the perimeter screen during an interview with InsideCarolina.com in the spring:
“Everybody on that defense, when you turn and throw that ball out to the perimeter, what do they do? They’re all taught to run hard to the sideline to make that play. That corner is going to try to turn him in and the pursuit from inside-out should make the play. Then, all of a sudden, you line up and throw to the perimeter on the other side. The defense then has to turn and run over there. And if you do that enough, they become fatigued and they stop worrying about getting to the quarterback and they start just trying to survive.”
That sounds good in theory, but does it work in reality? According to UNC defensive end Kareem Martin, the answer is yes.
“As a defensive lineman, you want to pin your ears back and just go 100 miles an hour up the field for the quarterback,” Martin said. “But when you have to slow down when he catches the ball and throws it to the screen, you’re running to the sideline. On the next play, he’s throwing to another receiver on the other sideline. After doing that three or four times, you’re going to start anticipating the screen and once you start anticipating the screen, that’s when they drop back to pass and you’re late getting started.”
All of these techniques are designed to prevent a defensive player from establishing any type of rhythm or consistency by taxing both the body and the mind.
And while Clowney has been a point of emphasis during UNC’s game prep, Anderson stressed the importance of not getting so focused on a particular matchup or player that it inhibits an offensive player from doing his job.
“Offense is about execution, where defense is a little bit more about reaction,” Anderson said. “So we’ve got to execute well to have a chance, regardless of who lines up well on that side.”