Yesterday I decided to turn a series of Twitter arguments into a post about Michigan’s relative talent level. My argument was that Michgian’s overall talent level under Jim Harbaugh has actually been plenty high, but they haven’t been strong enough in the box to win with the run game and their aggressive defensive strategy and they should have been aiming to win on the perimeter anyways.
You win on the perimeter as a blue blood by employing your recruiting advantages to develop the best space force. The space force positions are ones where you need elite athleticism to win because you’re going to be isolated in space as a matter of course. Offensive tackle, particularly left tackle, receiver, cornerback, and edge-rusher. It’s hard to replace high level athleticism at those positions.
That lead to this question from Matt:
What’s your take on how Clemson has dominated when they haven’t had elite tackle play? How do they compensate?
Believe it or not, this is something I’ve considered very carefully for the last year while I’ve been developing the “space force” theory. Which is essentially that spread passing is the highest level of football strategy and the teams best equipped to get it right have top level space forces.
One of my bigger (and truly more painful) realizations was that the 2009 Texas Longhorns, long decried for their strained performances against Oklahoma and Nebraska and lack of a great running game, were way ahead of their time. They relied VERY heavily on spread passing concepts, some of which they shared in common with the 2019 LSU Tigers, and probably should have relied even more heavily on them.
At left tackle they had Adam Ulatoski, a 6-5 and 300 pounder that was a part of the Southlake Carroll Dragon dynasty that I discuss in my book…
A 3-star recruit, Ulatoski “greyshirted” in 2004, meaning that he took a year off to grow before attending college, then redshirted in 2005. For 2006 and 2007 he was the starting right tackle and he took over on the left after an injury to the other tackle at the end of 2007 and held that spot for 2008 and 2009. He went undrafted after 2009 and signed with the Houston Texans but didn’t stick and moved on from football. However he was a freshman All-American in 2006 and All-Big 12 in 2008 and 2009.
You can go find tape of Von Miller torching him but for the most part he offered Texas very reliable play with his experienced and technically savvy play. What did him in for the NFL was a lack of reach (33.25″ arms) and quickness (4.99 shuttle). For the college game though? He was pretty dang good and he played in front of a highly mobile quarterback in Colt McCoy.
Dabo Swinney’s Clemson
Dabo Swinney’s specialty is wide receiver play. Even when “Clemsoning” was a popular internet term for showing promise before failing when it counted, the Tigers were cranking out future pro receivers every single season. Fielding the receiver component of a space force has never been an issue for Dabo and the 2016 National Champions also had a “space force dreadnought” in tight end Jordan Leggett.
Cornerback and defensive end have also been positions of strength since they hired Brent Venables to oversee the evaluation, development, and deployment of their defense.
The 2016 draft took edge-rusher Shaq Lawson, cornerback Mackensie Alexander, and cornerback T.J. Green. Then their national championship team the next season sent cornerback Cordrea Tankersly after them. Since then they also saw the NFL snatch up defensive end Clelin Ferrell (2019), cornerback Trayvon Mullen (2019), defensive end Austin Bryant (2019), cornerback A.J. Terrell (2020), and a whole bunch of wide receivers and defensive tackles. They have not had a left tackle drafted in that entire period.
So what gives? How’d they get away with that?
I could give two answers. Mitch Hyatt OR “they didn’t.”
The 2019 Clemson Tigers plugged in a former 5-star sophomore named Jackson Carman from Ohio. He’ll likely be drafted pretty highly as soon as he’s eligible after the 2020 season and while he didn’t protect for a championship, he did neutralize Chase Young in the semifinal. He’s a 6-5, 330 pound dancing bear that will probably test very well in the combine.
From 2015 to 2018, the left tackle position was manned by Mitch Hyatt.
Hyatt has a similar profile to Adam Ulatoski. He was a high school All-American as a senior and a three-year starter for a school that won a state championship in Georgia his junior season and were runner-ups when he was a senior. He was a 5-star recruit from that resume and after those three years of experience, he took over the Clemson job immediately and was a four-year starter and a senior for the 2018 National Championship win.
At the NFL combine he measured 6-5, 303 pounds with 34 1/8″ arms and a 4.52 shuttle. That arm length made for a wingspan of almost 82 inches, or that of a 6-10 man. The NFL deemed him a touch weak and limited on the edge and he went undrafted before signing with the Cowboys, where he’s recently been activated on the roster. I haven’t studied his film extensively but he definitely kept Trevor Lawrence clean against Alabama, Notre Dame gave him a little more trouble. My suspicion is that the concerns centered more around his lack of weight and strength in the run game rather than his pass protection ability.
The Clemson offensive line for each of the last six years has actually been somewhat modest in its composition. It’s always included a former 5-star at left tackle (Hyatt or Carman) but then to his right have often been a cast of highly developed 3-stars that they molded into winning units. This of course buttresses my central thesis, that you really only need the elite athletes that tend to garner the big time recruiting rankings at the space force positions. Elsewhere depends on development and system fit, although elite athleticism is always useful at any position. Useful, but not essential.
That’s basically a long way of saying that Clemson actually has had pretty elite tackle play. Mitch Hyatt was good at what mattered most when it mattered most. Who cares if he was a great run blocker in the playoffs? Clemson didn’t win the playoffs by running the football with a dominant O-line. They did it mostly by throwing or else by running with an advantage garnered from using the quarterback. Also, don’t close the book on his NFL career either. Jackson Carman is the real deal for sure.
So once again, when you’re evaluating a team’s chances for a championship, check out who’s manning the space force positions. And at left tackle, an elite talent is valuable but teams have been able to get by with marginal NFL talents that were ultra experienced/skilled. What matters at the end of the day is that that guy can protect your quarterback reasonably well without needing a ton of help, everything else is gravy.