Clemson will have a new-look team in 2021 with Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne off to the NFL. But the expectations remain the same — win and win big.
It obviously won't be easy to replace the production of Lawrence and Etienne. The two are arguably the top players at their position in school history. Nor will it be easy to replace the production of receivers Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell.
But there is plenty of talent still remaining at Clemson on both sides of the ball. The Tigers have won six consecutive ACC titles, reached the College Football Playoff in six consecutive years and have won two of the past five national titles.
The expectation is that Clemson will be back competing for a national championship again in 2021.
"This team is definitely further along than last year's group," Dabo Swinney said this spring.
Previewing Clemson's Offense for 2021
It all starts with D.J. Uiagalelei, who is taking over for Lawrence and is expected to immediately be a Heisman candidate. Uiagalelei made a pair of starts last season when Lawrence was out after testing positive for COVID-19 and excelled in both.
He passed for 342 yards in his first career start against Boston College on Oct. 31 and followed that up by passing for 439 yards the following week at Notre Dame. The 439 yards were the most ever by an opposing quarterback against the Irish.
Uiagalelei should have plenty of playmakers to catch passes around him, including receivers Justyn Ross, Joseph Ngata, E.J. Williams and Ajou Ajou.
Ross was expected to be one of the top receivers in college football last season before a congenital spinal fusion diagnosis sidelined him for the year. He caught 112 passes for 1,865 yards and 17 TDs his first two years on campus.
Tight ends Braden Galloway and Davis Allen are also expected to be heavily involved in the passing game.
Senior Lyn-J Dixon is the favorite to take over at running back, but he does not have the position locked up. Dixon is averaging 6.6 yards per carry for his career, which is second all-time at Clemson behind only Etienne. But he was pushed by sophomore Kobe Pace this spring.
Perhaps the area Clemson needs to improve the most is on its offensive line. The Tigers were inconsistent up front last year, particularly struggling to open up running lanes for Etienne and the other backs. But Swinney expects the group to be much improved in 2021. New starting tackle Walker Parks could bring a necessary mean streak to the unit, which returns three starters.
Previewing Clemson's Defense for 2021
The group had a rough ending to the 2020 season as Ohio State put up 49 points and 639 yards against the Tigers in the Sugar Bowl.
Clemson struggled at all three levels against the Buckeyes and entered the spring determined to correct its mistakes. The biggest area of focus this spring was being more physical.
"We've gotta be able to improve our ability to dominate," defensive coordinator Brent Venables says. "We've gotta stop the run. … We didn't show against Ohio State. They gave it to us. So we've gotta live with that and learn from that."
The Tigers return 10 starters from last year, including all four starting defensive linemen.
Bryan Bresee could be the best of the bunch. He was a Freshman All-American and the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2020 after posting 33 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks.
Tyler Davis, Myles Murphy, K.J. Henry, Justin Foster, Xavier Thomas and others should help this group to be Clemson's best defensive front since the 2018 national title team.
At linebacker, James Skalski is back for his sixth season and could be one of the best at the position in the country. He is the only player to play in five ACC title games and will try to make it six this year. Sophomore Trenton Simpson is a special talent who flashed at times last season and has a chance for a breakout year.
The secondary is an experienced group, led by sixth-year senior Nolan Turner, who led the Tigers with three interceptions a season ago. Andrew Booth Jr., Sheridan Jones and Mario Goodrich are cornerbacks who have played a lot of snaps but need to be more consistent.
Previewing Clemson's Specialists for 2021
Punter Will Spiers and placekicker B.T. Potter have All-America potential. Spiers averaged 44 yards per punt last season and had 12 punts for 50-plus yards. Potter made 18-of-23 field-goal attempts, with a long of 52. He was 2-for-3 from 50-plus yards.
There are some question marks, for sure. Most notably: Is the offensive line improved, and can it hold up against elite defensive fronts? Can the secondary bounce back from a rough showing against Ohio State in the playoff?
But, as has become the norm at Clemson, there is also plenty of talent and experience. Even if the Tigers drop what should be a tough opener against Georgia, they should be heavily favored the rest of the regular season. Swinney has built a monster of a program, one that should continue to compete for titles even after losing two of the best players in program history.
National Ranking: 2
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(D.J. Uiagalelei photo courtesy of clemsontigers.com)