If there was ever a team that fits the mold of that old cliche, “we don’t rebuild, we reload,” it’s the 2019 Clemson Tigers. After thumping Alabama 44-16 to win their second national title in three seasons, the Clemson Football program was facing a lot of turnover on the roster heading into 2019, particularly on the defense. They lost not only seven starters off of that side of the ball, they also lost some guys who played key roles as reserves. Guys like Albert Huggins, Mark Fields, and JD Davis were all major components of that defense last season.
Two thirds of the Tigers roster is currently made up of underclassmen. If this team is going to make a run at another national title, the coaches are going to have to rely on some of the talented freshman, and rely on them in big moments.
While it’s unlikely that any of those first year players come into the season as starters, there will be some that will have to come in and produce as backups. Now that the Tigers are recruiting at an elite level, the coaching staff has the luxury of knowing they can depend on many of these freshmen to step in and shine when their number is called.
DT Tyler Davis is one of those guys. An early enrollee, Davis is set to play a major role on the Tigers revamped defensive line. He may not be starting but he’s still expected to be on the field a ton. It’s well documented that this staff likes to rotate early and often and Davis’ ability, progression, and his tendency to pick things up quickly has been a consistent talking point from coaches since the beginning of spring.
Andrew Booth, the former five star recruit, is another one who could be looking at early playing time. With starting CB Derion Kendrick missing half of camp injured, there could be some snaps to be had, despite Kendrick being deemed healthy now. Booth wasn’t an early enrollee but corner is a position that’s a little easier when it comes to making the transition from high school to college.
WRs Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson will both have opportunities to contribute in the passing game. Ngata is already running with the two’s and should see plenty of time as the backup at the boundary spot. He’s another guy the coaches have consistently gushed about since the beginning of spring.
Ladson recently underwent an arthroscopic procedure that’s expected to keep him out a couple of weeks. With one of the nation’s deepest group of wideouts, the team has the luxury of bringing him back slowly, but at some point Ladson will get on the field.
Two freshmen running backs are vying for playing time. The battle for the third and fourth spot probably won’t be settled before the start of the season. Neither Chez Mellusi nor Michael Dukes enrolled early and both are currently looking up at former walk on Darien Rencher on the depth chart. The Tigers have shown a preference to use four backs in recent seasons so at least one of these freshman will be expected to make an impact.
TE Jaylyn Lay is another freshman that could be a factor in the passing game. At 6’6 and 270 lbs, Lay possesses the kind of athleticism and speed rarely seen from TE’s that size.
Tight end is one of the more difficult positions to learn in this offense, and it’s rare that first year guys come in and hit the field running. Lay was an early enrollee and that does give him a leg up as far as learning the playbook. This offense has gotten by the last couple of years without an elite pass catching tight end and could easily do so again. However, this offense is at its best when there’s a TE involved in the passing attack on a consistent basis.
Not so long ago, we didn’t see Dabo Swinney running this many freshman out on the field in crunch time very often. These days it’s become a common occurrence. In 2019 the Tigers are going to need five or six freshmen to step up and contribute in crunch time, not just trash time.