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College Football Preview 2022: 6. Clemson Tigers

Will Shipley, Clemson

6. Clemson Tigers

A rebound seems likely, but QB play and staff changes will determine whether a Playoff return is in the cards

2021 Review
Clemson's season-opening loss to the Georgia Bulldogs was a sign of things to come over the course of the 2021 campaign. The offense didn't manage a single touchdown against the Bulldogs and the unit struggled all season long, catching up to them at multiple points during the year. Following the loss to UGA, Clemson handled South Carolina State and Georgia Tech, but a loss to ACC Atlantic foe NC State put them in a difficult spot early on. They again won a pair of games before the offensive woes struck once more, this time against the league's eventual champion, Pittsburgh. Sitting at 4-3 in mid-October, Clemson could have punted on the 2021 season but the culture that Dabo Swinney has built seemed to come through down the stretch. They won their final five regular season games, then proceeded to beat Iowa State in the Cheez-It Bowl. The 10-3 record was an obvious step-back for a program that had made six straight CFB Playoff appearances, but considering the challenges faced along the way, it was actually an impressive coaching performance from Swinney and company. The offseason brought new challenges, with several coaches leaving the staff, but the expectation around the program is that 2021 was more of a fluke than the new normal in Clemson, South Carolina.

2022 Outlook
Offense: Considering that the Tigers lost two program stalwarts in Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne prior to 2021, it shouldn't have been shocking that the offense took a step-back. However, just how drastic of a step back that was surprised a lot of onlookers. Clemson finished 13th in the ACC in total offense (100 nationally) and were among the worst passing teams in Power Five football.

Despite the offensive struggles, coordinator Tony Elliott decided to take the Virginia head coaching job, forcing Swinney to start anew after a frustrating year. Instead of going outside the Clemson family, Dabo decided to promote QB coach Brandon Streeter, who could be the X-factor in 2022.

The top priority for both Swinney and Streeter will be figuring out a passing game that was anemic throughout most of 2021. Former five-star recruit D.J. Uiagalelei started several games in 2020 when Trevor Lawrence was out with COVID and was extremely impressive, but that never carried over into last season. He struggled mightily against Georgia and never found a rhythm, resulting in a season in which he threw for nine touchdowns compared to 10 interceptions.

The hope is that Uiagalelei can figure it out this season and live up to his former billing. He's a talented passer who can create with his legs, but he didn't seem to be operating with any confidence in 2021. If he struggles out of the gate once more, don't be shocked if true freshman Cade Klubnik pushes him for the starting job. Klubnik was one of the highest-rated signal-callers in the Class of 2022, and we've seen that Dabo won't hesitate to make a midseason quarterback change. 

The struggles in the passing game forced Will Shipley into a larger role than expected and the true frosh delivered. He ran for 738 yards and 11 scores despite dealing with injuries throughout the campaign, proving to be the most effective part of the Tiger offense. He enters 2022 as one of the ACC's best, and hopes to evolve into a national name this season. Junior Kobe Pace is more than just a change-of-pace option, as he totaled 641 yards a year ago and averaged over six yards per carry. With those two leading the charge, Clemson should be a potent team on the ground.

It didn't help Uiagalelei that Clemon's receiver corps wasn't up to their usual stuff in '21. The unit dealt with severe injuries and inconsistent play, which they hope to solve this season. While Justyn Ross may be gone, just about every other big name is returning here, including senior Joseph Ngata. Ngata was repeatedly flashed star potential with the Tigers, but it hasn't come together for a whole season just yet. Now that he's entering his final season, the hope is that he will go out with a huge grand finale.

Flanking Ngata on the outside will be Beaux and Dacari Collins (not related), as well as two players returning from injury, Brannon Spector and E.J. Williams. Beaux was a pleasant surprise a year ago and is ready for even more, while Spector's  and Williams' returns are huge. Spector is in the Hunter Renfrow mold as a sure-handed, polished wide out who missed last year with respiratory challenges, while Williams is super talented but missed spring practice.

Tight end appears to be in good hands, with the ever-reliable Davis Allen returning. Allen was third on the team with 28 receptions a season ago and could emerge even more this fall. Joining him will be sophomore Jake Briningstool, a super talented pass-catcher who could see his role expand.

Like just about every other facet of the Clemson offense, the O-Line struggled in 2021. They were outplayed by several of their toughest foes on the schedule and forced D.J. Uiagalelei into uncomfortable situations. However, four starters are back, including both tackles, which bodes well for a rebound season. Right guard is the lone position with questions at the moment, with junior Mitchell Mayes the frontrunner to take over.

Even though their play-caller took a promotion, could Clemson's offense actually improve? They should be healthier throughout the skill positions and the O-Line should be better, but this all falls on quarterback. Uiagalelei simply has to be better; he's way too talented to perform like he did last season. If he can figure things out, this could be among the best offenses in the ACC in 2022.

Defense: After a decade in charge of the Clemson defense, Brent Venables has finally moved on, taking the head coaching job at Oklahoma. There's no sugarcoating just how significant of a loss this is, as the longtime coordinator was one of the brightest defensive minds in the sport.

Much like on offense, Dabo decided to promote internally, raising defensive assistant Wes Goodwin to defensive coordinator. Goodwin has massive shoes to fill, but this defense is loaded with star power, particularly up front.

The Tigers have been an absolute factory in producing NFL pass rushers and they have several on the roster this fall. Junior end Myles Murphy is the headliner, coming off a 2021 season in which he led the team with seven sacks. Joining him will be numerous veterans, including Xavier Thomas, K.J. Henry, and Justin Mascoll. All three are proven contributors, but Clemson is hopeful there may be another level they can discover, particularly for a guy like Thomas, who had a huge freshman campaign but hasn't built on it the way they hoped.

In addition, the Tigers will get numerous players back full strength from injury, namely Bryan Bresee and Tyler Davis. Bresee, formerly the nation's top overall recruit, played important snaps right away as a freshman in 2020 but missed most of last year. 100 percent and ready to go, this should be the year he establishes himself as a household name. Davis battled injuries all last season and still managed to earn All-ACC recognition; he should be a key cog in the heart of this defensive line.

The linebacker situation is an interesting one, as the Tigers lose a longtime contributor in James Skalski, but project to be strong once more. Skalski set the tone for the entire defense, but junior Trenton Simpson should be expected to take on a leadership role within the unit. He notched 64 tackles and 12 TFL in 2021 and should be even more effective this fall.

In addition to Simpson, a projected starter at one of the outside linebacker spots, Clemson is hoping sophomore Barrett Carter and LaVonta Bentley can slide into starting roles. Carter and Bentley may not have the experience of Skalski or the departed Baylon Spector, but they offer significantly more athleticism and upside to the position group.

The secondary was solid a season ago, but may need to be even better in a division with some great quarterback play. Both corners will have to be replaced, Andrew Booth and Mario Goodrich, but senior Sheridan Jones has been in the program for years now and appears ready to take on a starting role. Don't be shocked if one of the two highly touted freshmen also contribute, in Jeadyn Lukas or Toriano Pride Jr.

Safety Andrew Mukuba played a larger role than expected as a true freshman last season and looks ready for superstardom. It never looked like the stage was too big for him and he was one of the most consistently productive defenders on the roster in 2021, with 47 total tackles. He is likely to lock down the strong safety spot, with veteran Lannden Zanders handling free safety duties.

Losing one of the few truly elite defensive coordinators in the nation may be cause for concern, but Clemson may actually improve their numbers in 2022. The front seven is loaded with future NFL selections and the entire defense is set to be even more athletic, even with some longtime contributors moving on. It's going to be difficult to improve their scoring numbers, as they allowed under 15 PPG, but expect the Tigers to record a Top 5 overall defense this season.

Special Teams: Longtime specialist B.T. Potter returns for what should be his final season with the Clemson Tigers. He's one of the top placekickers in the country and should be expected to handle punting duties in 2022 as well. The return game doesn't have any proven weapons just yet, but there are plenty of candidates, including star tailback Will Shipley.

Bottom Line: Considering all the injuries Clemson faced, along with the complete lack of a competent passing game, going 10-3 with a bowl victory was actually fairly impressive. As they look ahead towards 2022, a resurgence seems likely, even with all the staff turnover. Sure, quarterback is a major question as we inch towards the regular season, but the rest of the offense is loaded with weapons and the defense may actually improve, despite the absence of Venables. The ACC Atlantic has gotten significantly more difficult in recent years and traveling to Notre Dame won't be easy but at this point, Clemson has earned the benefit of the doubt. They remain the most talented team in the ACC and are far deeper than any other team in the conference. Expecting a return to the College Football Playoff after the one-year hiatus seems like a reasonable goal for a program that had reeled off six straight prior to the 2021 setback.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Dabo Swinney had never even been a coordinator at any level of football before Clemson promoted him to interim head coach in 2008. Since earning the full-time job, he has gone 150-36 overall, with two National Titles, and seven ACC Titles to his credit. Even after last season's struggles, he remains one of the best coaches anywhere in college football. The new OC is Brandon Streeter, who has been Clemson's QB coach since 2015. Prior to arriving in Clemson, he bounced around as an assistant at several stops on the East Coast, most recently OC at Richmond from 2012-2014. Defensively, Wes Goodwin will be tasked with filling the massive shoes of Brent Venables. It's an unenviable task, but Goodwin has familiarity with the program, being at Clemson since 2009, with a quick pit stop with the Arizona Cardinals.

Recruiting Breakdown
The 2022 Class was not Swinney's strongest at Clemson, but the Tigers still landed a Top 10 group in the 247Sports Composite. There are two headliners here, with the big one being quarterback Cade Klubnik, rated as the top signal-caller in the Class. The Austin native is not your average freshman quarterback; he's well-built, with refined mechanics and decision-making for his age. He could seriously challenge D.J. Uiagalelei right away in 2022. On defense, the big names are in the secondary, as the Tigers landed five-star corner Jeadyn Lukas and high four-star corner Toriano Pride Jr. Lukas is a stud, the top ranked player in the state of South Carolina, who is long and athletic. Pride will probably need a bit more time before he's ready to make an impact in the Tiger defensive backfield, but has a similarly high ceiling. Also coming in is safety Sherrod Covil, who can play at several different spots, including both safety positions and nickelback.

2022 X-Factor: D.J. Uiagalelei, QB
It might go without saying that quarterback is an X-factor for any team, but the reality is that Clemson's success absolutely hinges on this position in 2022. They have a potentially elite defense and plenty of other playmakers at the skill positions, but the fact that the aerial attack was so poor last fall cost them several games. "D.J. U" is a much better player than what we saw a season ago; it's hard to tell what went wrong, whether he wasn't healthy, simply didn't have any confidence, or the lack of proven weapons at receiver had a pronounced effect. There's a new OC running things, but Uiagalelei has familiarity with him and the receiver corps should be much improved. There should be no excuses this year; if it doesn't come all together for him, Clemson shouldn't hesitate to turn to highly touted newcomer Cade Klubnik.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 12-1 (8-0 ACC, Win ACC Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: RB Will Shipley
Defensive MVP: DE Myles Murphy
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Beaux Collins
Impact Freshman: CB Jeadyn Lukas

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