Since the final second of the 2019 College Football Playoff game, there has been a major debate surrounding Chase Young’s performance against Clemson and the impact he had on that game. Young was widely considered the top defensive player in the nation at the time and some viewed him as a legitimate Heisman contender. In the following NFL Draft, Washington took Young second overall as he was the consensus top player in the class.
Why do some think Young struggled against Clemson, while others think he was a dominant force? After a thorough evaluation of the film, this is my final impression of Young’s performance in that matchup with Clemson. Was he dominant or a non-factor, and does that mean anything for his play in the NFL?
Chase Young’s performance against Clemson in 2020
“Young was a non-factor against Clemson in the playoffs.” This is a take I see far too often, and most commonly by casual fans who lack a deeper understanding of the game of football. They simply note that Young did not register a sack and only made two total tackles in the game. They believe that’s enough evidence to support their claim.
Meanwhile, people on the other side of the spectrum think that despite a lack of box score numbers, Young still had his way with the Clemson defense and completely wrecked the game. A small percentage of fans and analysts believe that while Young didn’t have a bad game he also didn’t have his best game of the season.
This should not have come as any real surprise considering Clemson was the second-best team in the country. It would be foolish to assume he’d dominate Clemson in the same way he did teams like Wisconsin and Penn State, both top 25 teams but not nearly on the elite level Clemson was.
As mentioned earlier, Young did not fill up the stat sheet in this match-up. That is an accurate assessment, and can’t be refuted. However, what people who acknowledge the stat sheet fail to mention is that a boxscore simply doesn’t tell an entire story.
Plays where Young pressured the passer, induced errant passes and incompletions, and forced cut-backs or fed the rusher into a teammate all impact the game massively. Yet none produces a stat that you can see after the game. Young was able to produce an impressive ten pressures and four hits on the quarterback. If you ask any head coach, general manager, or quarterback they would all say they would rather give up a single sack than 10 pressure and four hits on the quarterback. Yet, some fans act as if the sack statistic is the end all be all for judging the impact of a pass rusher.
Take this play for example. Young does not register a sack, a tackle, a forced fumble, or any other boxscore statistic on this play. However, the entire play is compromised because Young wins his battle nearly instantly, forcing the quarterback to throw a premature and inaccurate pass. Young didn’t net a sack on the play, but he did manage to blow up the play single-handedly.
Clemson, like every team that faced Ohio State, came in with a plan to attempt to neutralize Young. Relative to other teams, they did the best job. From their first offensive snap, Clemson was trying to limit the impact Young could have on the game. It was evident early as Clemson’s first drive game-plan consisted of runs away from Young and passes that left the quarterbacks hands as soon as possible. Despite winning his reps almost instantly, Clemson’s quick game was designed to give pass rushers an almost 0% chance of impacting the play.
Halfway through the second quarter, Young had already accumulated four pressures and two QB hits. So Clemson had to make in-game adjustments, the first of which was to start targeting Young as the read on option plays. Option plays are designed runs, and occasionally passes, that leave a defender left unblocked. This defender becomes the quarterback’s “read” and depending on how the defender reacts, the quarterback decides to either keep the ball and run or to hand off/pitch the ball to the running back.
This play is nearly impossible to defend as the read because the quarterback’s decision depends on how the defender plays the snap. If Young closes in on the QB, the QB simply gives it to the runner. If Young plays the runner, the QB simply keeps the ball. Young did as good a job as you can ask from the “read” defender, as he stayed home and limited the yardage allowed while he waited for his teammates to make the play.
It wasn’t enough for Clemson to commit to the quick game, and then attack Young as the read defender, they also ensured that for most of their non-quick game passing plays that Young was getting “chipped” by a tight end or running back. The intent of the chip is to knock Young off balance before he engages the offensive lineman.
Clemson came into the game with a plan, a plan to completely adjust their offense in order to avoid being beaten by a single, dominant pass rusher. A testament to the respect, and fear, that Dabo Swinney and the Clemson coaching staff had for Young. Here you’ll see running back Travis Etienne chip Young before Young engages the OL and eventually helps bring Trevor Lawrence to the ground.
Assessing Young’s overall impact against Clemson
Despite failing to record a sack in the game, the notion that Young was “ineffective” or “handled” in his game against Clemson is blatantly incorrect. It shows a lack of football knowledge, and it means the person with that opinion likely looked at the stat sheet and came to a premature conclusion.
Could Young have done more? Potentially. Did he make an impact and affect the game? Absolutely. Young was dominant early in the game despite an attempt to slow him down from the first snap. Clemson continued to make in-game adjustments and committed more and more resources to limit Young’s effectiveness. Before the game even started, Young was affecting Clemson’s plan for the game. That’s called impact. Young’s performance against Clemson did not produce the statistical production some fans hoped for but he provided the impact the team needed.
What does it all mean for Young’s transition to the NFL
It’s unheard of for an NFL offense to adjust their game plan for a single player as drastically as Clemson did for Young. However, Clemson used a number of strategies that professional teams will throw at Young in his career. Quick game, running option at him and making him the read defender, chips, double teams, etc. It will all be used against him at least once in his career, so to get the first-hand experience in college was excellent for his development.
One of the things that made Young such an incredible prospect is that he paired his natural physical gifts with a refined skill-set. He understands the nuances of pass-rushing, he’s faced NFL tactics and game plans, and still managed to make an impact. Expect Young to make an immediate impact in the NFL, as he was well prepared for the advanced play during his time at Ohio State.