Clemson fans know all too well how much can change in only one season.
Last year the Tigers were rolling towards another College Football Playoff and the offense looked like a juggernaut; this year Clemson is out of playoff contention in October and the offense is among the worst in Power 5 football. How did this program flip the script so substantially over the course of one off-season?
Well let’s start with the most important position on the field; quarterback. Trevor Lawrence was a superstar. He made a 40 yard pass look as easy as a handoff to the running back. Insert DJ Uiagalelei. Uiagalelei played admirably during the absence of Lawrence due to Covid last season. Against Notre Dame he threw for 439 yards. Clemson lost the game, but it wasn’t due to QB play.
This year Lawrence moved on to the NFL, and Uiagalelei inherited the QB duties, and rightly so. Uiagalelei was a preseason front runner for the Heisman. Expectations were tremendous for the up and coming superstar. An opening game against UGA provided a great opportunity for the big armed quarterback to explode onto the scene.
Only that’s not what happened. Uiagalelei did make a splash, but not in a good way. The sophomore looked dazed and confused against Georgia’s defense. The offense was overwhelmed and only scored three points. The moment was too big, and it was baptism by fire for the sophomore signal caller. The scoring difference in the game was a pick-6 from Uiagalelei. His confidence seemingly took a tremendous haymaker and he has yet to recover.
Some are questioning if he ever will recover, and even if he will be challenged for the starting job next year. Not having a capable backup to push Uiagalelei hasn’t been fruitful either. The only other scholarship QB on the roster is coming off an Achilles tendon tear that he suffered in the spring. So clearly, roster management could’ve been better in this area. All this likely contributes to the fact that Clemson is near dead last in nearly all offensive statistical categories.
Moving on, the offensive line experienced a disastrous start. Clemson’s running game was able to muster a whopping two yards against UGA. They were outmatched, overwhelmed and taken to the woodshed. Georgia’s defensive linemen stayed in the Clemson backfield almost as much as Uiagalelei. And that certainly didn’t help him.
This has been an ongoing problem for Clemson. Statistically, Travis Etienne had a worse senior season than his previous two. That’s head scratching, considering he was one of, if not the best running back to ever come to Clemson. It isn’t very easy for a running back to get drafted in the first round nowadays, so that tells you the talent he possessed. All that talent in the backfield, and Clemson still struggled to run the football.
Clemson has only had three offensive linemen drafted under Dabo Swinney. Now it’s fair to say that much of that may be due to the fact that Clemson struggled to recruit blue chip offensive linemen for years. Lately, however, the talent is much better at that position. In fact, it’s the best under Swinney. But the production on the field has not improved.
Tight end production is nearly non existent. Blocking has been poor from this group, and they have dropped a good bit of passes. Also, Clemson is missing a true slot receiver. This position has had tremendous production in previous years with Hunter Renfrow and Amari Rodgers. This year they simply lack a player that is game day ready with a prototypical slot receiver body type and abilities. Not to mention that receivers have had several drops at critical times throughout the season.
Unfortunately it doesn’t look as if any help is on the way this season. The best Clemson can hope to accomplish is compete for an ACC Championship, beat UofSC, and compete in a decent bowl game. But help is on the way.
Next season Cade Klubnik will arrive on campus and potentially challenge Uiagalelei for the starting job. Much of that will depend on how the rest of this season unfolds. The QB room isn’t the only position group getting a shot in the arm. Brannon Spector will return from injury to play slot, along with Troy Stellato, who is set to take a redshirt this year. The quarterback needs that security blanket and these guys will provide that.
Lacking a passing game, tremendous pressure has been on the offensive line to improve at run blocking. Last week against Boston College they responded by paving the way for 231 rushing yards. Not having elite QB play thus far will leave the offensive line no choice but to improve, and this will pay dividends for Clemson football going forward. An elite offense needs to be more than a one trick pony, and the rest of this season will force the offensive line to perfect their craft.
Many fans are disappointed with Clemson football after enjoying six straight College Football Playoff appearances. That streak will end this year. Adversity is a good thing though, and it would be crazy not to fully expect Clemson football to bounce back strong in 2022.
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