By Tim Bourret // Athletic Communications
After each Clemson home game — usually about 90 minutes after the final horn sounds — I go through the football offices in the WestZone distributing the final books of statistics to Dabo Swinney and each assistant coach. Most of the time, the coaches have gone home to enjoy time with their family by then, so I just slip the stapled set of data under the door.
But last season, secondary coach Mike Reed’s door was always open and there was a player in his office looking at film. It was freshman Mackensie Alexander, dissecting the coaches’ video of the game he had just played in. I was startled to see him after that first home game against South Carolina State.
“What are you doing,” I asked the precocious freshman.
“Trying to see how I did, and how I can get better,” he replied.
Wow … I had seen players in the football office looking at film on Sundays, but never Saturday night.
“I have always been a fanatic about watching film,” Alexander said. “It is the best way to study and learn. But, I actually enjoy it. Right after the game when it is still fresh in your mind, and that is the best time to see it. It is just something I love to do.”
Alexander started the practice in high school.
“I just brought that with me to Clemson,” he said. “You have to be prepared as much as possible, because this is a totally different level.
“When I watched film in high school, I knew it made me a better player. And, you hear about NFL guys looking at film all the time. It just helps me understand the game and what we are trying to do.”
Alexander showed he understood Brent Venables’ playbook last year. He started all 13 games at cornerback, the first freshman in Clemson history to start 13 games at that important position. He was a big reason the Tigers led the nation in pass efficiency defense for the first time in history. The squad allowed opponents to complete exactly 50 percent of their passes for just 5.27 yards per attempt, 10.5 yards per completion and 157.4 yards per game. Opponent efficiency rating was 98.3, compared to the Clemson offense’s 139.7 figure.
Alexander had a lot to do with those team numbers.
The native of Immokalee, Fla., was a first-team Freshman All-American according to the Football Writers Association.
He registered 22 tackles in the 13 games, had a respectable six passes broken up, but did not record an interception. Those wouldn’t be considered gaudy statistics for a star cornerback.
But a closer look to Alexander’s statistics tells the story. It did not take long for the gifted athlete to grab the attention of opposing offensive coordinators. Film study revealed to them that throwing to the other side of the field was the prudent approach.
In May, I did my own film study, taking a look at every defensive play from the 2014 season. Here is what I found:
• Opponents attempted 374 passes when Alexander was on the field, and they threw to the receiver he was assigned to cover just 57 times. In other words, they threw the ball in his area just 15 percent of the time. It is tough to get a lot of interceptions and pass breakups when you are challenged that low of a rate.
• Of those 57 opportunities, the opposing receiver caught the ball just 20 times for 280 yards. Alexander broke up six of those 57 passes, and opponents scored just two touchdowns against his coverage, none in the last nine games of the season.
• Breaking down those stats further, opponents completed just 35 percent of the passes thrown in Alexander’s direction, and averaged just 4.91 yards per attempt.
• Only one completion all year went for more than 20 yards, and opponents averaged just 1.5 catches for 21 yards per game against him. Nine of the 13 games, the opposition failed to gain more than 20 yards on pass plays to Alexander’s man.
• During a five-game winning streak against ACC teams from the NC State game through the Wake Forest game, opponents caught just one pass TOTAL in 14 attempts for -2 yards against Alexander’s man.
Alexander was not aware of those numbers throughout the season, but he knows he has to continue to grade himself on what he sees on the film to evaluate and become a better player.
“I don’t think my stats are going to (ever) be crazy,” he said. “I don’t have as many opportunities, but I can still grade myself on every play. I look to see that I stayed square, and that I was technically sound. I never get frustrated when the play is on the other side of the field. I just have to be ready every time. My preparation has taken me this far.”
Alexander is the first to point out that his teammates make him a better player. That includes his fellow defensive backs, and the receivers he faces in practice every day.
“We’ve got really talented receivers, and we compete every day,” he said. “We fight for every inch in practice. Our receivers want to win just as much as the defensive backs. And the coaches are into it also. Coach (Jeff) Scott wants to win every play and pushes his guys. He even talks some trash at us (laughing). Our guys push us and we push them. It makes us all better.”
Alexander got better and better as the season went on. He might have had his best game of the year in Clemson’s dominating 40-6 win over Oklahoma, a team known for its offensive efficiency and 35-point scoring average.
The Sooners featured veteran receiver Sterling Sheppard, who had already accumulated over 2,000 passing yards and 15 touchdowns in his career. Entering the game he averaged nearly 100 receiving yards per game and 19 yards per catch, third-best in the nation among receivers with at least 50 catches.
Oklahoma threw toward Alexander seven times in that game and completed one for 13 yards. It was Sheppard’s only catch of the game. Long or medium distance, it did not matter, Alexander was right on top of his opponent in red and white.
“I was certainly up for that challenge,” Alexander said. “That is another way to grade yourself, how productive is the man you are assigned to guard?
“I have respect for every receiver that steps on the field against me. You have to be that way in your preparation.”
That preparation continued shortly after the end of the season. At the conclusion of this interview, I asked Alexander about this coming year’s game with Notre Dame, a team with considerable talent at wide receiver, a group that includes Corey Robinson, the son of Basketball Hall of Famer David Robinson.
“They are really good at wide receiver. Number 88 (Robinson) is tall and talented and No. 7 (Will Fuller) is very strong with the ball on the deep passes. He catches a lot of touchdowns (15 in 2014).”
It was April 3, exactly seven months to the day before Notre Dame comes to Death Valley, and Mackensie Alexander had already looked at half a season worth of film on the Irish.
Staff Writer ACCBattles.com