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Against Wake Forest, Clemson pass defense will be tested

Katie Bradham, Photo Editor

Clemson cornerback Nate Wiggins (20) takes the field against Georgia Tech at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sept. 5, 2022. 

Taking on the reigning ACC Atlantic champions on Saturday, No. 5 Clemson will have its hands full against a potent passing offense by the Demon Deacons.
Clemson’s secondary has looked less than ideal through three games, allowing 244.7 passing yards per game, 9.62 yards per completion, and a 64.4 completion percentage (76/118).
Furthermore, the Tigers have given up 19 completions of 15 yards or more, nine of which went for 25 yards or more — big plays that Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman will look to take advantage of this week.  
Since rejoining the team in week two, Hartman is throwing for 312.5 passing yards per game and averaging 14.2 yards per completion.
With Hartman’s talent and production, Clemson safeties coach Mickey Conn knows the threat he is for the Tigers’ secondary.
“He’s just a competitor,” Conn said of Hartman on Monday. “He’s been there for a while. He’s run this offense. He’s a smart guy. He knows how to read. They’re an RPO team, and he knows how to read it, and he’s very patient with his reads.”
The Demon Deacons have a handful of playmakers in their receiving room, none more important than redshirt junior A.T. Perry. The 6-foot-5, 205-pound Biletnikoff award hopeful is off to a strong start to the season with a team-leading 222 receiving yards on 12 receptions.
Perry is not only a reliable target, but he is Wake Forest’s premiere deep threat. So far this season, Perry has had three catches that went for 30 yards or more, including a 68-yard touchdown.
“He’s (Perry) an extremely good receiver,” Conn said. “Their slot receivers — very quick. They do a great job getting open… They do a great job of reading off your leverage. And then the Perry kid, he can go up and get it. He’s very talented. They’re playing with a lot of confidence.”
Against Louisiana Tech, Clemson played without starting free safety Andrew Mukuba and cornerback Nate Wiggins. The Tigers also lost cornerback Sheridan Jones to an injury in the first half of the game.
On Tuesday, Conn mentioned that he believes Jones will be available on Saturday.
As far as Mukuba, Wiggins and a few others, head coach Dabo Swinney said on Tuesday that the injured players are “in a good spot,” but the team will not put out an availability list until game day.
If Clemson can return these players, the team’s secondary automatically takes a huge step forward, especially with Mukuba, who was last year’s ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Another key to slowing down Wake Forest’s explosive passing offense is by winning in the trenches with their pass defense.
After all, one of the best ways to help a secondary in coverage is by pressuring the opposing quarterback.
Against Liberty, Wake Forest struggled with pass protection, allowing Liberty to put pressure on Hartman and sack him three times.
After sacking Hartman seven times in 2021, the Tigers’ defense has a plan in place to repeat that performance from a year ago.
“We do have a few things we’d like to do,” defensive end K.J. Henry said. “From a defensive line standpoint, you see it week in and week out; they’re a team that kind of wants to keep pushing the line of scrimmage as they are reading their progressions, and we have to be very intentional on holding ground, not moving. Really staying in our gaps, being very disciplined.”
For Clemson to limit Wake Forest’s passing offense, Henry and the Tigers’ front will need to disrupt Hartman while the secondary grows into themselves and eliminates big plays downfield.

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