Clemson’s WRU Provides Unique Options for Deshaun Watson

Dabo Swinney, before he became Clemson’s passionate head coach, was the Tiger’s wide receivers coach where he recruited and coached with similar energy. He coined the term “Wide Receiver U”, now carried on by wide receiver coach and co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, and since then the Tiger’s have filled up NFL rosters with talented wideouts.

Receivers like Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins are the WRU headliners, but it has been the ability to replenish talent year after year that has propelled the Clemson offense forward. Another talented group of receivers, some with National Championship game experience and some the best high school wide receivers last year, are engaged in heated competition to catch the balls thrown by Heisman candidate, Deshaun Watson, on Saturdays.

With the emergence of Deshaun Watson as the nation’s best quarterback, and possibly the nation’s best player, Clemson’s wide receivers have become all the more potent. With a flurry of unique, up-tempo play calling and talented playmakers spreading the field, the Tiger’s finally have an experienced distributor who can make plays himself and brilliantly manage an opponent’s defense.

As Clemson’s offense progresses into 2016 they rely mostly on the experience they gained from the 14–1 campaign last season. You can understand a lot about the 2015 offense by analyzing Deshaun Watson’s and the Clemson coaches’ decisions on each down. The Tigers gained 332 first downs this season, 47% of which were completed through the air (all data is looking at the first 13 games, before the College Football Playoff). 71.2% of Clemson’s passing first downs came on first and second down showing the Tiger’s success moving the ball under Watson.

As shown below, Watson was incredibly efficient on first and second down. On the first two downs he completed 76.5% and 70.7% of his passes and had a pass efficiency rating of 164.1 and 157.9, respectively, which would rank him #7 and #12 in the country among the statistics of the nation’s best passers on all downs.

On first downs, Watson targeted his roommate Artavis Scott 61 times (53 rec.) and 29 on second down (22 rec.). Charone Peake, now with the New York Jets, was the second most targeted receiver on those two downs with 22 (15 rec.) and 28 (18 rec.) targets on each down, respectively. On these first two downs Watson spread the ball to playmakers, throwing 21 TDs to 8 interceptions. These downs are important, and looking at the distribution of receptions show Clemson’s depth at receiver, because they start drives and force a defense on its heels. However, third down may be the most crucial down in football, one that makes or breaks a drive.

If a team has a higher Success Rate (a statistic that measures first down success on each down) in a game than their opponent, they win 83% of the time. Therefore, with third and fourth down being the most important down in trying to cross that yellow marker on your TV, converting on third down holds significant importance in winning football games. On third down the defense tightens up, the field shrinks, and the play calls are conservative.

Through the air Clemson’s efficiency drops off on third down, as we would expect, but still remains relatively high. The Tiger’s were 13th out of 128 FBS schools last season in third down percentage, which was a major part of the Tiger’s wins against the nation’s top programs. Watson threw for 54.1% completion percentage on third down and still had a pass efficiency rating of 146.7, remaining among the nation’s best. The Heisman candidate was calm under pressure, even throwing for 8 TDs on third down and 15.8 yards per catch.

Much of this had to do with Clemson’s lethal wide receiver threats, but also with a change in strategy. Rather than throw to his speedy, athletic targets on third down, Watson looked for the biggest, sure-handed target he could find — Mackey Finalist TE Jordan Leggett. Scott and Peake were still high in the number of catches on third down and receivers like now transferred Germone Hopper and freshman standout Deon Cain caught several third down long balls. But, it was Leggett who led the Tiger’s when the defense collapsed. He was targeted 21 times and caught 13 balls, gaining a first down 52% of the time the ball was thrown his way. Even on first and second down, he proved to be one of the Tiger’s surest ways to move the chains with a first down percentage of 67% on first down and 56% on second down.

Along with Watson, Clemson will have its early down explosive threat in Artavis Scott back and reliable third down target in Jordan Leggett back for 2016. But, even with most of last season’s core returning, the Tiger offense will have to decide where to distribute the lost catches of Peake and Hopper. Many will likely fall on the shoulders of emerging stars in Deon Cain and Ray Ray McCloud, but others could fall to a handful of 4-star freshman receivers. More than likely Watson will find confidence in throwing to one of the nation’s top receiving threats, Mike Williams, who was out most of 2015 with injury. The addition of Williams make this receiving core the nation’s deepest group of wideouts — with not enough passes to go around.

As Clemson prepares for Auburn and the pressure of a top 5 ranking, Watson and WRU will have an even bigger stage in which they will need to perform on each and every down to repeat last season’s success, and possibly take it one step further.