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College Football Preview 2021: 5. Clemson Tigers

D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson


5. Clemson Tigers

Clemson will reload, not rebuild, but a slight step-back may be in store as they move on from the Lawrence/Etienne era

2020 Review
Clemson sat perched as the No. 1 team in the nation for most of the 2020 campaign, until Trevor Lawrence's COVID-19 infection threw a wrench into their season. Lawrence's absence just happened to line up with a precarious part of the Tiger schedule, as they got all they could handle from a sneaky Boston College team and a week later, fell short in double overtime to Notre Dame. Clemson would avenge the ND defeat with a dominant ACC Championship Game victory but a few weeks later, they ran into a motivated Ohio State team in a rematch of the controversial 2019 Fiesta Bowl. The Tigers were no match for Justin Fields and the Buckeyes, with the 21-point loss being their worst in years. Even though a 10-2 record, ACC Championship, and sixth straight Playoff berth is quite a list of accomplishments, that defeat cast a shadow on the 2020 season as a whole and served as a wakeup call for Dabo Swinney and the program.

2021 Outlook
Offense: For the last three seasons, quarterback Trevor Lawrence and tailback Travis Etienne have propelled the Clemson offense to fabulous heights. The pair left school with a long list of accolades, as Lawrence ranks third on their all-time passing list and was a No. 1 overall pick, while Etienne is now the school's all-time leading rusher. However, both are now playing for Urban Meyer and the Jacksonville Jaguars, forcing the Tigers to start anew in their backfield.

D.J. Uiagalelei filled in for Lawrence in the two games he missed due to COVID, and played well beyond what was expected of a freshman quarterback. He thew for 914 yards in the two starts and finished with five touchdowns to zero interceptions, showcasing impressive poise and maturity for his age. He now takes over as the full-time starter and while there will be growing pains, the coaching staff believes he has just as high of a ceiling as Lawrence. Uiagalelei is a slightly different QB than his predecessor, as more of a pocket passer than Lawrence, but they have similar builds and arm talent.

While Uiagalelei appears more than ready to take over the reigns of the offense, concerns arose about quarterback depth over the off-season. Likely backup Taisun Phommachanh tore his ACL in the spring and is likely to miss the entirety of 2021. Then, highly touted true freshman Bubba Chandler signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates, ending his Clemson career before it got going. That leaves freshman Hunter Helms as the only other scholarship QB on the roster, a genuine concern if anything were to happen to Uiagalelei.

It's likely that the Tigers turn to a committee approach to replace Etienne, who totaled 914 yards and 16 total touchdowns last fall. Junior Lyn-J Dixon has played in 38 games as a backup and will get the first crack at the feature role, but youngsters Will Shipley and Kobe Pace. Shipley in particular has flashed during the spring and in fall camp, and the five-star prospect will see immediate playing time.

The good news is that Clemson might actually be improved at receiver, even as their top two pass-catchers, Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell, move on. Much of that can be credited to the return of a healthy Justyn Ross, who missed all of 2020 due to a spine injury. Ross was a 1,000 yard receiver as a true freshman back in 2018 and dominated an Alabama secondary full of future NFL defenders in the National Championship Game, but his playing career was in serious question before receiving medical clearance for this fall. When healthy, Ross is one of the best wide outs in college football, and a serious Biletnikoff Award candidate.

Beyond Ross, the Tigers feature a slew of playmakers ready to step up into larger roles. Freshman E.J. Williams is the top returning true receiver after notching 24 catches for 306 yards in 2020, while sophomores Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson offers loads of potential. Then there's Ajou Ajou, a physical specimen who has flashed in limited playing time. 

At tight end, sophomore Braden Galloway could be among the ACC's best. The 6'4", 240 pounder is an absolute matchup nightmare with his athleticism and burst in the open field, but he has to become more consistent. Veteran Davis Allen and newcomer Jake Briningstool will also offer help in complementary roles.

One of the least talked about storylines for the Tigers in 2020 was the offensive line reload they were undergoing. Four starters had to be replaced from the 2019 group, and there were some understandable protection problems. The 2020 struggles should lead to improvements this fall, as the unit now offers significantly more experience and depth. Tackle Jackson Carman and center Cade Stewart moved on this off-season, but Clemson has blockers waiting in the wings ready to go. Sophomore Jordan McFadden is expected to slide from right tackle to left in order to replace Carman, with freshman Walker Parks slated to take over his vacated spot.

Losing Lawrence and Etienne presents an obvious challenge for coordinator Tony Scott and the rest of this offensive staff, but this is not the first time this decade the Tigers have had to replace a generational talent at QB. D.J. "U" should be able to handle the full-time duties, and it helps that Clemson is loaded at receiver and strong on the O-Line. Expect this offense to still be among the ACC's best, and a Top 15-20 group nationally.

Defense: Clemson posted suffocating defensive numbers all year long in 2020 before allowing 639 yards and 49 points to Ohio State. Expect this group to respond in a big way, as they're loaded in the front seven and should be ready for an improvement in a defensive backfield that was fairly young last year.

The Tigers have become an NFL factory at nearly every spot on their roster, but particularly so along the defensive line. This year's group is loaded with future NFL talent, but should be more experienced and healthier than the 2020 edition. Defensive end Xavier Thomas had a big freshman campaign back in 2018 and was an All-ACC defender in 2019, but started just one game last fall due to complications from COVID. Fully healthy and ready to go, he should be one of the league's best this season. Senior end Justin Foster missed time as well, but he never was able to return. He briefly announced retirement this off-season, but is back and should contend for a starting spot.

The return of Thomas and Foster will be huge, but Clemson is really excited about the continued growth of their young D-Linemen, especially Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee. The pair were both high-profile recruits who come on and immediately made an impact, even though their off-season leading up to college was so unique. They were both Freshman All-Americans and Murphy in particular was chaotic, totaling four sacks and eight tackles for loss. Expect Bresee to start alongside Tyler Davis at defensive tackle, while Murphy blows things up off the edge. 

Depth is of no concern to Clemson's defensive line either. Although veterans Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams may have transferred away, the Tigers have a variety of pieces that can swap in. Ends K.J. Henry and Justin Mascoll are proven contributors who could start just about anywhere else in the nation, while freshman Demonte Capehart is a serious breakout candidate at DT now that Pinckney and Williams are absent.

At linebacker, Clemson must replace a fairly big-name transfer, Mike Jones, but they have nearly everybody else returning. That includes the "Bruise Brothers" combination of James Skalski and Baylon Spector, who set the tone for this entire defense. Spector finished as the team's leading tackler, while Skalski is a physical specimen who loves the huge hit. Skalski will have to be more disciplined this fall, as he has been kicked out of several big games for targeting. Trenton Simpson started three games in 2020 and is likely to slide into a starting role now that Jones plays for LSU. Some around the program believe he may actually be an improvement at the position, and his ceiling does appear to be higher. The depth here is also nice, as names like Kane Patterson and Jake Venables can contribute if needed.

Many of Clemson's struggles in the secondary were expected, as they had to replace numerous key defenders from the 2019 group. Even with the inexperience, the pass defense was solid for most of the season, with the games against Boston College and Ohio State being notable exceptions. The good news is that nearly every big name is returning, with the notable exception being Derion Kendrick. Kendrick was an All-ACC corner last season but was kicked off the team over the off-season and has since landed at Georgia.

While Kendrick is a notable loss, Andrew Booth and Sheridan Jones should be able to handle cornerback duties. Booth has earned a reputation for acrobatic, magical interceptions but he has to become a more consistent cover option. Jones wasn't used a ton in 2019 but emerged as a reliable piece to the defensive backfield a season ago, making eight starts. 

Both safety spots are also in good hands, with sophomore Lannden Zanders handling strong safety and veteran Nolan Turner locked in at free safety. Turner is a great story, a former low-rated recruit who has improved each year he's been on campus. He was the hero of the 2019 Fiesta Bowl and then followed that up with an All-ACC campaign in 2020. Again, depth shouldn't be too much of an issue, as the recruiting the Tigers have done throughout the Dabo Swinney era continues to pay dividends. Youngsters like R.J. Mickens and freshman Andrew Mukaba are just waiting for their opportunities.

Coordinator Brent Venables is still the best defensive mind in the game. He has reloaded year-in, year-out as well as anybody in the nation and some of the growing pains last fall were to be expected. This season, the Tigers lose only Jones and Kendrick, at positions that they might actually end up being improved at. There's reason to believe the defense will surpass the offense as Clemson's strength, and end up being one of best in all of the land.

Special Teams: Veterans B.T. Potter and Will Spiers return at kicker and punter, respectively. Potter was 18-23 on field goals in 2020 and also proved his worth as a kickoff specialist, while Spiers is aiming to improve on his 37.9 punt average from last year, which was lower than past years. Lyn-J Dixon could be dangerous in the return game, but it's unclear who will handle punt return duties.

Bottom Line: With six consecutive ACC Titles and just three conference losses over the last five years, there's no debate that Clemson is the league's powerhouse. They are once again heavy favorites, even with teams like North Carolina, NC State, Miami and Boston College likely on the upswing. The larger question is on a national scale. Have the Tigers fixed the issues that held them back the last two years, losing in the National Championship Game in 2019, then the semifinal last fall? An improved defense should put Clemson in a better position, but now the offense has some questions of their own to grapple with, even though most firmly expect D.J. Uiagalelei to have a tremendous 2021 season. It doesn't help that the Tigers also begin their campaign with a neutral site duel against Georgia, a team that most expect to have serious National Championship aspirations (including me). It's still probably a safe bet to assume the Tigers make another trip to the CFB Playoff this fall, but the game against Georgia and a tougher ACC reduces the margin of error.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 12-1 (9-0 ACC, Win ACC Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: WR Justyn Ross
Defensive MVP: DE Myles Murphy
Breakout Player of the Year: LB Trenton Simpson
Impact Freshman: RB Will Shipley

Recruiting Breakdown
The Tigers continue to recruit at an elite level, finishing with the No. 5 group nationally and first in the ACC. They landed a trio of five-star prospects in this Class in tackle Tristan Leigh, running back Will Shipley, and linebacker Barrett Carter. Shipley is the one most likely to make an impact in 2021 based on Clemson's current backfield situation, but Leigh and Carter both look like they have NFL futures. The coaching staff continues to do a tremendous job landing impact receivers and defensive linemen who they can develop in their system. Wide outs Beaux Collins and Dacari Collins are both long, physical receivers who should be an ideal fit in the Tiger offense, while defensive linemen Cade Denhoff and Payton Page are future starters. Page is already 6'4", 335 pounds and should be an absolute monster once he gets fully engrained in the Clemson nutrition and weight system.

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