There are ebbs and flows with college football teams. Every year can’t be a gem and after losing personnel from a contending team, it is only natural that there will be a step back the next year. It happens in varying degrees to every program.
Except for Alabama, of course. And now Clemson. The ROY Bus has turned into a luxury liner.
Over the past four seasons, the Tigers’ down year was a trip to the semifinals where they lost to the eventual national champion Crimson Tide. Clemson was fortunate in 2018 that their three-star defensive linemen passed up early entry into the NFL and returned for one last, successful run at a title. But the Tigers have lost their fair share of talent over the past few years and the beat has gone on.
And it will again in 2019. Undoubtedly, Clemson and Alabama will be 1-2 entering next season and it would surprise no one if a fifth round was conducted in New Orleans next January.
QB Trevor Lawrence
RB Travis Etienne
WR Tee Higgins
WR Amari Rodgers
WR Justyn Ross
OG John Simpson
OT Tremayne Anchrum
OG Sean Pollard
OT Mitch Hyatt
C Justin Falcinelli
WR Hunter Renfrow
DE Xavier Thomas
DT Nyles Pinckney
LB Tre Lamar (Could declare for NFL draft)
LB/S Isaiah Simmons (Could declare for NFL draft)
CB Trayvon Mullen (Could declare for NFL draft)
CB A.J. Terrell
S Tanner Muse (Could declare for NFL draft)
S K’Von Wallace (Could declare for NFL draft)
DT Christian Wilkins
DT Dexter Lawrence (Expected to declare for NFL draft)
DT Albert Huggins
DE Clelin Ferrell (Expected to declare for NFL draft)
DE Austin Bryant
LB Kendall Joseph
Three Offseason Storylines to Watch
1. Revamping the defensive line
It was something just short of a miracle that Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant, and Clelin Ferrell all came back for the 2018 campaign. It would be an even bigger surprise to see Dexter Lawrence and Ferrell in Clemson orange next fall. As a result, defensive coordinator Brent Venables will have to put together a new defensive line in 2019.
But it’s not like he doesn’t have quality pieces ready to go. Xavier Thomas was explosive when he had his opportunities as a freshman and will be even more dynamic as a sophomore. On the other end, Justin Foster has shown that he can be disruptive and there are options like Xavier Kelly and K.J. Henry. Though depth inside could be a concern, Nyles Pinckney has waited his turn and had a huge national title game, showing his potential for 2019.
Plus, Venables has experience in this type of situation. After 2014, Clemson lost Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett... and got better. After 2015, the Tigers lost Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd... and got better. It’s doubtful that Clemson can improve on the play of this year’s defensive line, but they will be fine going forward. Venables just has to figure out who to put where.
2. How much can Trevor Lawrence improve?
Lawrence came to Clemson ready to play. He was as polished a quarterback as you will see coming out of high school and the Tigers would not have won the championship if he did not replace Kelly Bryant in late September.
But as a quarterback that took so many snaps in a similar system in high school before enrolling early at Clemson, he may be closer to his ceiling than your average true freshman. Still, he is just now completing his first full year on campus. He certainly still has room to grow.
Part of that development is tied to his talented receiving corps. Tee Higgins isn’t done getting better. Neither is Amari Rodgers. And Justyn Ross’s postseason may have earned him a spot on some preseason All-America teams. If a line that loses Mitch Hyatt and Justin Falcinelli can give Lawrence adequate time, with running back and reigning ACC Player of the Year Travis Etienne relieving pressure with big runs, Clemson could put up staggering numbers in the passing game.
3. Who are the new leaders?
This is always a question when a top-level team loses players (and personalities) that unified the group. Wilkins and Hyatt and Ferrell and Hunter Renfrow will be missed as much for what they did outside the lines as what they accomplished on the field.
But head coach Dabo Swinney has his system in place and when leaders depart, new ones emerge and some are certainly already being groomed as offseason workouts will begin before we know it.
As a quarterback that led his team to a title game, Lawrence will be looked at as the face of the new Tigers. Along the line, John Simpson and Sean Pollard have played a lot of football and know the ins and outs of the program. Defensively, a lot depends on who comes back and who declares for the draft. But there are plenty of worthy candidates.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.