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College Football Preview 2019: 2. Clemson Tigers

2. Clemson Tigers

The face of college football, with the star power to build on last year's historical 15-0 campaign

Trevor Lawrence
Offense: Clemson began 2018 with a veteran quarterback at the helm in Kelly Bryant, but quicklybecame clear highly touted newcomer Trevor Lawrence was going to overtake him. He did just that and put together one of the best seasons by a true freshman in collegiate football history. With Bryant transferring to Missouri, Lawrence is now the face of the program going forward.

Lawrence finished the year with 3,280 yards and 30 touchdowns, while getting picked off just four times. He looked a seasoned pro sitting back and picking apart defenses, which continued into the Playoff against Notre Dame and Alabama. Under Lawrence's leadership, Clemson's offense went from good to great, and they have enough surrounding the true sophomore to have one of the best offenses in the country. Lawrence appears to be a Heisman frontrunner if he can continue to blossom.

Running back Travis Etienne shouldn't be lost in Lawrence's wide shadow, as Etienne was a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender deep into 2018. Etienne ended up finishing seventh, while grinding for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns. The junior was so explosive and deadly in open space that he averaged 8.1 yards per rush. His backup, Tavien Feaster, recently announced that he was transferring to South Carolina, opening up Etienne to be an absolute workhorse. He should be a Doak Walker Award favorite throughout the season. Sophomore Lyn-J Dixon will now be the No. 2 guy, as he quietly added 547 yards and averaged 8.8 YPC himself.

While Lawrence was obviously a major breakout star with his Playoff performance, wide receiver Justyn Ross also had a coming out party. Ross was dominant against a strong Alabama secondary, gashing them for 153 yards and an insane one-handed snag. After totaling 1,000 yards, Ross will form an All-American tandem with junior Tee Higgins. Higgins showed good chemistry with Lawrence throughout all of 2018 and compiled 936 yards despite not being completely healthy. Both of them should be 1,000 yard guys and some of the best in the country. Receivers coach and co-OC Jeff Scott also brings in two highly touted freshmen, who should play a larger role with Amari Rodgers sidelined in the spring. Frank Ladson was snatched from Miami, while Joseph Ngata was a big win for the Tigers off the West Coast. They are both sure to see some action, and could provide an extra spark. Tight end is a little bit of a concern, but Clemson is hopeful it will figure itself out. Junior J.C. Chalk is a good blocker that could be helpful over the middle.

The most underrated part of the offense is certainly the offensive line, which has four starters back for 2019. While it may lose its longtime leader in left tackle Mitch Hyatt, senior guard John Simpson and senior right tackle Tremayne Achum give it All-ACC talent. Simpson will be especially huge opening up gaps for Etienne between the tackles. Even left tackle isn't that much of a concern, as sophomore Jackson Carman has a ton of upside and should figure things out quickly. Seniors Sean Pollard and Gage Cervenka round out the unit.

An offense that averaged 44.3 PPG (1st ACC, 4th FBS) and 527.2 YPG (1st ACC, 3rd FBS) now returns seven starters and Heisman contenders at QB and RB. In other words, this Tigers offense may be the most star-studded unit we've seen in recent memory. They will be neck and neck with Alabama to have the best offense in the country.

Defense: For all the successes of the offense, Clemson's loaded defense was just as crucial in their National Championship run. Four 2019 NFL Draft picks, including three first-rounders, played on the D-Line, all veteran starters. While that is a tremendous amount of production and experience that needs to be replaced, this is still a defense that looks to be in a good spot heading into the fall.

Even though he wasn't super high on the depth chart in 2018, Xavier Thomas had plenty of flashy plays for this Tigers defense as a true freshman. A year older, the Tigers are hopeful Thomas will be their next elite edge rusher. Thomas recorded 8.5 TFL and 3.5 sacks a season ago, and a game-clinching sack in their near-loss to Syracuse. The rest of this line also offers a lot of upside, even though it does lack experience. Junior tackle Nyles Pinckney does have a healthy dose of experience and is a hard-worker in the interior. He is an important run stopper, with 23 tackles on the 2018 campaign. Joining Thomas on the perimeter is junior Justin Foster and redshirt freshman K.J. Henry, both who could be prime breakthrough guys.

Clemson will also endure some losses at linebacker, but this is still going to be a quality unit. Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar are the two main pieces now departed, although projected starter Shaq Smith transferred over the off-season. The good news is that do-it-all outside linebacker Isaiah Simmons is still playing. Simmons is one of the most versatile defenders in FBS football, and DC Brent Venables is going to move him around a bit. Simmons had 89 tackles and six pass deflections in 2018, and will be even more important going forward. There is going to be some growing pains at inside linebacker, where there is little experience. Senior Chad Smith will probably start, with sophomore Baylon Spector looking like the favorite to replace Shaq Smith. Without the D-Line to swallow everything in its path, at least early on, this linebackers corps is going to have to do more. How they handle that will determine whether this is still the ACC's premier defense.

The good news is that there is not much question about Clemson's secondary, which has three impact returnees back. Junior cornerback A.J. Terrell is going to be the No. 1 cover corner, now that Trayvon Mullen is also off to the NFL. Terrell is a lengthy defender that is a pest to opposing receivers, although he can also produce big plays, like the pick-six he had to open things up in the National Championship. Senior safeties Tanner Muse and K'Von Wallace are going to be two mainstays in the back. They both are moved all over the field and do a variety of things for the defense. Having two veterans that know what Brent Venables wants is going to be very key. The lone starting job up for grabs is the second cornerback. Sophomore Derion Kendrick is a converted receiver who saw a lot of reps there over the spring. He is a terrific athlete who certainly could bring some great ball skills to the position. Depth doesn't appear to be a concern, with reserves Nolan Turner and Denzel Johnson also still in the fold.

Who are we to doubt Venables and this team's ability to reload on this side of the ball? Year-in, year-out, Clemson is a program hit hard by NFL defections, yet they still seem to come back stronger. While some players are going to have to step up, a veteran secondary and a key cog like Simmons will go a long way towards maintaining a Top 25 unit.

Special Teams: Long-time kicker Greg Huegel graduated over the off-season, leaving Clemson searching for a new starter. Sophomore B.T. Potter looks like he is the favorite to start the opener, but it is still a position with some question marks entering 2019. Junior punter Will Spiers is a helpful returnee, but the Tigers will miss Rodgers in the return game.

Bottom Line: How does Clemson follow up a remarkable 15-0 campaign (first team ever) that concluded with the worse loss of Nick Saban's Alabama tenure? This has become a program that reloads every single season, and they should have quite an exciting core. They are absolutely terrifying on offense, and you have to trust what Venables can do on the other side of the ball. The Tigers will get a tough road game against Texas A&M early on, but beyond that, their schedule sets up nicely for another run. If the defense can gel relatively quickly, there doesn't seem like a lot of doubt Clemson will return to the National Championship Game.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 13-0 (8-0 ACC, Win ACC Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Trevor Lawrence
Defensive MVP: LB Isaiah Simmons
Breakout Player of the Year: DE Xavier Thomas
Impact Freshman: WR Frank Ladson

Five-Year Trend
2014: 10-3 (6-2 ACC)
2015: 14-1 (8-0 ACC)
2016: 14-1 (7-1 ACC)
2017: 12-2 (7-1 ACC)
2018: 15-0 (8-0 ACC)

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