Next up on the previews, we have the Clemson Tigers. Clemson finished the season 10-2, ACC champions, and College Football Semifinalists. Dabo Swinney is back coaching the Tigers who look to be contenders for the National Title once again. Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne are off to the NFL, but that does not mean the cabinets are left bare. Clemson still has plenty of talent on the team and guys who should take a step forward in 2021. Let’s get down to it!
Quarterback: Sunshine aka Trevor Lawrence (shame on your if you do not get the reference) is off to the NFL and should be the first player taken in the draft. For most teams, that would set them back, but not at Clemson. The air apparent DJ Uiagalelei will be taking over at quarterback. As a true freshman, Uiagalelei started two games for Clemson this year while Lawrence was out with Covid-19. While the Tigers did go 1-1 in his starts, the loss was not because Uiagalelei had a poor game. In his two starts, he threw for 781 yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions, and ran in two more scores. The future is bright at quarterback for Clemson.
Running Back: The biggest question mark I have for Clemson is who is going to replace Travis Etienne at running back. Etienne is one of the more decorated running backs in Clemson history. The Tigers have three guys who could all step up and be the lead back. First is Lyn-J Dixon who was the second leading running back in 2020 but he only had 190 yards. This will be Dixon’s fourth year in the program, and could be passed up by a younger back. Next is third year running back Chez Mellusi. He averaged over 5.5 yards per carry on 27 attempts. He averaged 6.3 yards per carry as a freshman. The final candidate is true freshman Will Shipley. Shipley comes in as a five star running back out of North Carolina, though there are some concerns of him being an every down back. No matter what, Clemson has a strong rotation of running backs they can play to replace Etienne.
Wide Receiver: Clemson got great news earlier this week when Justyn Ross announced he will be returning in 2021 and appears to have healed from his spinal injury. Ross was one of the ACC’s best wide receivers in 2019 and will be a great weapon for Uiagalelei. Ross should be an early candidate for All-ACC and All-American honors. Following Ross, Clemson brings back EJ Williams and Frank Ladson Jr who both rotated in for Clemson. The Tigers do lose Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell, who were their leading receivers, but luckily this is an area of depth for Clemson.
Tight End: The Tigers return both of their leading tight ends for the 2021 season. Braden Galloway and Davis Allen both return after productive seasons. Davis and Galloway combined to catch 43 passes and score six touchdowns. When bringing in a new quarterback, having experienced tight ends is always a helpful piece to have. Neither of them are going to be all world, but they are not a liability either. Both are solid and will continue to contribute next year.
Offensive Line: If running back is the biggest concern, then offensive line is a very close second. Depending who you ask, this might be a bigger concern. Left tackle Jackson Carmen declared early for the NFL. Four of the Five starters return from a group that was not considered to be so good. Guard Matt Bockhorst, guard Will Putnam, center Cade Stewart, and tackle Jordan McFadden all return with tackle Walker Parks expected to step in and play the other tackle position.
Defensive Line: Clemson returns all 11 starters on defense, but we are still going to go through them position by position. DE Myles Murphy and DT Bryan Breese were both two of the best freshman in the country last year with Murphy being a freshman All-American. Both should continue to anchor the defensive line next year. DT Tyler Davis and DE KJ Henry should fill out the rest of the starting defensive line. DE Xavier Thomas is a former five star prospect who has yet to live up to his hype and will look to rotate in as well. Clemson also has depth with DE Justin Mascoll and DT Jordan Williams both returning as well. Clemson signed a few defensive linemen in the 2021 class, but I do not expect many to push for significant playing time this year.
Linebackers: Braylon Spector, James Skalski, and Mike Jones Jr all return to lead the Clemson linebackers. Spector lead the team in tackles and sacks while also being tied for the lead in tackles for loss. Having him return for the Tigers defense is significant. The heart and soul of the defense is Skalski. He was ejected for targeting in the Sugar Bowl and is back for redemption. Jones Jr started seven games for the Tigers defense and had an interception in the Sugar Bowl. Having all three starters back at linebacker for Clemson helps with chemistry and should improve in 2021.
Defensive Backs: Clemson received good news when S Nolan Turner announced he was going to return next year officially giving Clemson all 11 starters back on defense. Turner was the second leading tackler on the team. Turner was a Second Team All-American in 2020 and will be looking to become one of the best safeties in the nation next year. S Lannden Zanders had nine starts at safety for Clemson this year. CBs Sheridan Jones and Derion Kendrick also return after Kendrick was named First Team All-ACC. Kendrick also led the team in passes defended with six. If Clemson has one position that needs to take a step forward on defense next year, it is the secondary. Overall, they had a good secondary, but I look for them to try and reach elite next year. Overall, Clemson averaged less than 200 yards passing per game. When they played upper echelon teams (Notre Dame twice, Ohio State) the secondary allowed more than 300 yards per game. To get back to a championship level, this is where they need to improve.
Special Teams: Continuing with a trend, Clemson’s punter Will Spiers said he will be returning for his extra year. Spiers is a four year starter who had a career high in average punt in 2020. Returning Spiers is huge for the Tigers special teams. BT Potter returns for his third season starting as Clemson’s kicker. Potter’s sophomore year he made 62% of his kicks and his junior season he jumped to 78%. Having a reliable kicker can be vital for championship contenders.
Analysis: Other than losing Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, Clemson does not lose much from their team. The rest of the players leaving have backups that are ready to take over. Clemson’s success is going to be based on how well DJ Uiagalelei plays next year. If he plays up to his five star capability, Clemson should roll through their schedule. With all this said, I do have Clemson going 11-1 and winning the ACC. Clemson plays Georgia the first game and because it is the first game of the year, I like the Bulldogs in that game. Overall, I like Clemson in the long run. Tigers fans can expect another playoff appearance next fall.