College Sports

5 burning questions for Clemson against Charlotte ... and a prediction

No. 1 Clemson returns home to face Charlotte in its first game against a non Power 5 team in 2019. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney has described the 49ers as the “most explosive” team Clemson has faced this season. Here are our top five questions heading into the game:

Can Trevor Lawrence avoid turning the ball over?

Clemson’s star quarterback has thrown at least one interception in every game this season, including two last weekend at Syracuse. Two of the interceptions were mistakes made by receivers, according to Clemson’s coaching staff. But Lawrence has also made some poor throws and bad decisions. The 49ers are allowing 34 points per game and have recorded only one interception this season. Lawrence has made it a goal to do a better job protecting the football moving forward, and that needs to start this week.

“Just don’t try to do too much,” Swinney said of Lawrence. “He’s an incredibly confident player, smart. Sometimes that can work against you, because you want to do too many things. Just stay within the system and learn from it, and he’ll be fine.”

Can Justyn Ross get going?

Lawrence isn’t the only sophomore on Clemson’s team who has gotten off to a bit of a slow start. Sophomore receiver Justyn Ross is averaging 57 receiving yards per game after finishing with a team-high 1,000 as a freshman in 2018. Ross didn’t appear as explosive as normal against Syracuse. He finished with five catches for 64 yards, but 48 of those yards came on one play. Ross managed four receptions for 16 yards outside of the one long reception. Was Ross banged up against Syracuse?

“He’s fine. I mean I think, again, just getting into the rhythm of playing in a season, there’s a difference in playing in games and in practice,” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “All of the guys get kind of beat up from time to time, but Justyn’s a tough kid and pushes through if he gets a little nick. But he’s been doing fine.”

How good is Charlotte’s offense?

Swinney had plenty of praise for running back Benny LeMay and the 49ers offense, describing is as the most explosive Clemson has faced yet. The Tigers have played three Power 5 teams, including Kellen Mond and Texas A&M thus far.

“I tell you what, this is a team offensively that is going to challenge us. Very impressed watching them on tape. This is the most explosive team we have played to this point,” Swinney said. “Schematically, this is probably the biggest challenge for our defense this season so far in what they do structurally. Multiple personnel, multiple formations, create a lot of challenges alignment-wise and communication-wise.”

While Swinney was definitely doing his best to hype up the 49ers, it will be interesting to see if Will Healy’s club can give Clemson any kind of trouble.

Who starts at punt return?

Derion Kendrick was expected to keep the starting punt return job, even after Amari Rodgers returned from his torn ACL. But when Kendrick went down with back spasms last week against Syracuse, Rodgers stepped in and did a nice job in his absence. Swinney was noncommittal when asked who would start this week.

“We’ll just keep working them. We’ll just see how it goes,” Swinney said. “Both of those guys are on deck ready to go. Both can do it.”

Kendrick could miss Saturday’s game all together. He was limited early in the week, before Swinney said he was “ready to roll” on Wednesday.

Will a freshman running back step up?

Freshman running backs Chez Mellusi and Michel Dukes have both had their moments through the first three weeks. Dukes has eight carries for 32 yards, including an impressive 13-yard run where he made a great cut in the opener against Georgia Tech, while Mellusi had a 57-yard touchdown run last week against Syracuse and has seven carries for 93 yards this season. Neither back has gotten a ton of opportunities through the first three weeks as the Tigers faced three Power 5 teams, but that should change against Charlotte. Clemson is still looking for a No. 3 back to step up and take some pressure off of Travis Etienne and Lyn-J Dixon.

Prediction: Despite what Swinney about the 49ers this week, Clemson should roll. No matter how much the Tigers try to downplay their less than stellar start offensively, the coaching staff is aware that the offense isn’t clicking on all cylinders. Swinney will want to get the offense going early, particularly the passing game, and then will likely let off the gas against Wealy, an up-and-coming coach who idolizes Swinney.

The pick: Clemson 55, Charlotte 14