By Marty Coleman (Seldom Used Reserve)
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Spring practice begins later this month and with the assumption that most of Clemson’s portal departures are complete for the time being, it’s time to take stock and think about what needs to happen for the Tigers to compete for a National Championship post-Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne.
Everything’s relative as the old saying goes and what Clemson has in any given year is better than about 126 of 130 FBS teams, sometimes a bit more and sometimes a bit less, but you get the point - the Tigers are near the top of the food chain and any “shortcomings” identified below are relative.
With that caveat, here’s some areas that need to be addressed before the Tigers open up with Georgia on September 4 in Charlotte.
What do the Tigers 2016 and 2018 National Championship teams have in common? Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, Dexter Lawrence and Albert Huggins. This list is not exhaustive, but the point is the defensive line needs to be more of a force in 2021. No one’s feeling sorry for Clemson with freshman sensation Myles Murphy and Freshman All-American and ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year, Bryan Bresee returning. In addition the coaches obviously feel pretty good about the other young players and newcomers, because the portal departures of Nyles Pinckney (Minnesota) and Jordan Williams (Virginia Tech) barely registered on the stress meter.
That’s fine, but Clemson becomes a championship contender with a deep and talented defensive line. Without one, they’re a playoff team.
Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell were vastly underrated as the Senior Bowl showed us, but they weren’t Sammy Watkins, Nuk Hopkins or Mike Williams either.
Injuries played a huge part in 2020 as Frank Ladson missed significant time while Joseph Ngata barely saw the field. That said, I’m a guy who generally has to see it before he believes it, especially when both were up and down as freshmen in 2019.
After a solid freshman season, E.J. Williams (24 receptions) is primed for a breakout season in 2021 and add the potential return of Justyn Ross and you can understand why the Tiger faithful are eyeing a return to Wide Receiver U status.
Throw in the incoming freshmen Collins’ - Beaux (#82 overall per 247) and Decari (#176) along with Troy Stellato (#173) and Tiger fans are rejoicing over this unit.
That’s one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is you have two very talented, but injury prone and inconsistent juniors (Ladson and Ngata), a sophomore (Williams), an uber-talented Ross with a congenital spine injury and three true freshmen. Not quite what one would envision on Wide Receiver U.
I’m loath to depend on true freshmen at the position, especially early in the season because of history. Yes, Nuk Hopkins and Sammy Watkins were spectacular as freshmen, but they’re outliers and the majority of players take time to develop. Remember, Mike Williams had 20 catches as a freshman and Ross didn’t break out until late in his 15 game true freshman season.
Pretty obvious, right? No matter how many times in how many ways people like me wondered about the offensive line during the 2020 season the concerns were pooh-poohed and we were told we didn’t know what we were talking about. One need look no further than Travis Etienne’s numbers to know something wasn’t right.
The recruiting has improved, but offensive linemen generally need some time in the program before they see the field and the Tigers have to replace two of the five starters.
The biggest question? Center Cade Stewart has elected to move on which leaves the position razor thin and the potential for true freshman Ryan Linthicum to be the man. That’s a tall ask, in my opinion, and even if he is who’s next on the depth chart? Remember, it’s not if injuries will happen on the line, it’s when and how bad are they.
What a strange trip it was for this group. Alternately praised and bashed, the last we saw was the Ohio State wide receivers and tight ends running free. That’ll live in our heads for a while and this group has a lot to prove.
There were flashes for sure, especially from Andrew Booth, Jr. and Malcom Greene and the return of Nolan Turner is a major plus for a group that seemed to struggle getting lined up at times. The surprise return of Derion Kendrick is a wait and see for me, which is also surprising this deep into his career.
In my circles there was talk about youth and a learning curve that goes with the positions. I get that. You’re going to get burned in 2020s college football as a DB. It’s going to happen. No one is asking for perfection. We’re asking for discipline and knowing your responsibilities.
Some of the issues could be resolved by the defensive line improvement discussed above (hopefully), but the bottom line is this group needs to improve. A lot. Especially in today’s college football. Good enough to beat 125 or so teams, but those last 5 or so will eat you up as we’ve seen in the last two postseasons.
For the first time in 3 and half seasons, someone not named Travis Etienne will be primary. Before this past season it was a no-brainer that would be Lyn-J Dixon, but a funny thing happened along the way. Dixon didn’t play much in 2020 and wasn’t as effective when he did.
Looking back, we know the offensive line struggled and Dixon has always been a hit or miss runner. He’s not a straight ahead, grind it out runner. He’s going to twist, spin and reverse field. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t.
There’s a pile of talent and options here, especially when you add true freshmen Will Shipley and Phil Mafah (coming off injury) to Dixon, Chez Mellusi and Kobe Pace.
Running back is a position where freshmen contribute (see Etienne and Dixon for recent examples), so this is wide open and I’m guessing we’ll see a “committee” early until someone establishes himself ala Etienne.
Running backs generally go as the offensive line goes and we all know improvement is needed there, but the line returns a lot of experience and should be improved, but it’ll still be intriguing to see what happens without Etienne’s general greatness and ability to run through tackles.
It’ll be different for sure, and let’s be honest - the chances of replicating Etienne are not high. Still, the Tigers can have an efficient and effective running game with this group.
This is on the list because it has to be on the list. It’s the most important position on the field and while it’s going from 5 star to 5 star, Trevor and D.J. are different quarterbacks.
Uiagalelei was fantastic in his two starts, but that’s just what it was - two starts. Can he do that for 12 to 15 and deal with the ups and downs of the season, the highs and lows, press and fans, lovers and haters?
We already have a couple of data points: He rallied his team from 18 down in his first start and then acquitted himself marvelously on road with limited fans at Notre Dame. Would it have been the same with full stadiums? Everything I’ve heard, read or seen about this young man says he’s ready and my strong lean is yes, but until he does it there’ll always be a sliver of a question mark.
The other reason it’s on this list is because of the lack of depth at the position that I detailed in a previous post. D.J.’s young and played a little over 200 snaps, so he needs the reps. What he doesn’t need is an injury. Developing a competent backup should be near the top of the priority list for the spring, summer and fall.