A veteran defense will lead Clemson next fall
For just the second time in the past six seasons, the Clemson Tigers lost two games in a season. With one of those coming in decisive fashion to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff, Tigers fans were left with a strange taste in their mouths. Add in the fact that two true Clemson legends — Trevor Lawrence in Travis Etienne — are moving on to the NFL, and some may wonder what the future holds for Dabo Swinney's gang.
But this is a program that has made the playoff each of the last six years and has a 79-7 record over that period of time. They have a coaching staff that has dealt with roster turnover on a year-in, year-out basis, including losing a Heisman runner-up quarterback. Considering that there doesn't seem to be another legitimate contender looming in the ACC combined with the talent remaining on the roster, one can easily conclude that Clemson isn't going anywhere.
QB D.J. Uiagalelei
WR Brannon Spector
TE Braden Galloway
TE Davis Allen
OG Matt Bockhorst
C Cade Stewart
OG Will Putnam
OT Jordan McFadden
QB Trevor Lawrence
RB Travis Etienne
WR Amari Rodgers
WR Cornell Powell
OT Jackson Carman
DT Tyler Davis
DT Bryan Bresee
DE Myles Murphy
DE Xavier Thomas
DE K.J. Henry
LB James Skalski
LB Mike Jones Jr.
LB Trenton Simpson
LB Baylon Spector
CB Derion Kendrick
CB Andrew Booth Jr.
S Lannden Zanders
S Nolan Turner (Could declare for the NFL draft)
S Joseph Charleston
DT Nyles Pinckney
Three Storylines to Watch
1. From Trevor to D.J.
Clemson's run of highly successful quarterbacks has been the envy of every other college football program. Tiger fans are very aware — but few on the national scene may actually remember — that the Clemson quarterback story began in 2011 with Tajh Boyd, who to this day still holds the school passing yardage and touchdown records. Cole Stoudt then kept the seat warm for the great Deshaun Watson, and the playoff — and championship — stretch began. After a year and change of a successful Kelly Bryant stint, Lawrence took the reins and another title resulted.
Now, it's time for Lawrence to pass the baton to the next big thing. And D.J. Uiagalelei is a big thing in so many ways. At 6-foot-4, 250-pounds, Uiagalelei is a large man. Moreover, his talent is big-time as well. It was evident after watching him play against Boston College and Notre Dame that Clemson will still have one of the best quarterbacks in the nation for the next couple of seasons. With Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell off to the next level, there will be some new pass-catching options. The Clemson staff is hopeful that star receiver Justyn Ross will be available after sitting out this year with a major spine issue, but the group as a whole will be young. Very talented, but young. Throughout this offseason, it will be imperative that this super-talented sophomore-to-be quarterback develops cohesion with his youthful, dynamic receivers.
2. Improving the running game without Etienne
Now that will be a chore. No. 9 is the leading rusher in Clemson history by nearly 1,000 yards, so it is difficult to imagine a scenario where they get better without him.
But it starts up front. The offensive line was not a strength for the Tigers this season, and though they will return four starters, left tackle Jackson Carman has decided to move on. As a result, it is possible that there could be some shuffling, as right tackle Jordan McFadden could flip over to the left side. At 6-foot-2, McFadden doesn't have prototypical tackle size, so putting him on the blind side may not be the optimal solution. At 6-5, Walker Parks is a bit longer and is looked at as the left tackle of the future. A true freshman this season, Parks thriving on the left side is the situation that would be best for the Tigers.
Interestingly, as well as Clemson has recruited in recent years, they have not killed it along the offensive line as they have in other areas. Since 2010, the Tigers have signed just four linemen that were top-100 overall prospects in the 247Sports Composite rankings: Parks, Carman, Mitch Hyatt, and incoming five-star freshman Tristan Leigh.
As for the guys toting the ball, Lyn-J Dixon is next in line, though he may get passed by younger players. Chez Mellusi had a better per-carry average in 2020 and five-star back Will Shipley comes in with a lot of hype. Five-star 2020 recruit Demarkcus Bowman is now at Florida, so some combination of Dixon, Mellusi, and Shipley, along with everyone's favorite Darien Rencher, is what Clemson will have at running back next fall. They will all be asked to do their part to make up for the loss of Etienne.
3. Getting the swagger back on defense
As you can see from the listing above, just about everyone is back on the Clemson defense. Plus, three of the most important members of the 2020 unit — Bryan Bresee, Myles Murphy, and Trenton Simpson — were true freshmen who should be even better as sophomores. The Tigers also received great news when linebacker James Skalski and cornerback Derion Kendrick both decided to return for another year.
And in reality, Clemson had a very good defense this fall. They finished in the top 20 in scoring, rushing, and total defense. But the thing everyone remembers is that final game and the thrashing Ohio State gave them. It also should be noted that in their last three games each of the opposing quarterbacks completed over 70 percent of his throws at 10.8 yards per attempt. In reality, though, it was the Ohio State game that gives people pause, as the Tigers couldn't stop the Buckeyes at all.
With the front seven being so young, and the fact that they did provide good pressure throughout much of the season, it is the secondary that is being questioned. Nolan Turner, Landen Zanders, and Joseph Charleston are solid safeties, but how good are they in coverage? And Kendrick is considered an NFL prospect at corner who contemplated turning pro. But he has to show more in his senior year. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables would also like to see Andrew Booth Jr. play with a little more consistency.
— 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.