3rd & Who? Clemson’s Search for the Next Slot Machine

Editor’s Note: Welcome Kate Jernigan to the site. Hopefully this is the first of many more solid stories to come in the future.

Inches from the sticks, tight-end Braden Galloway drops a panicky pass from DJ Uiagalelei to convert a crucial 4th down in Bulldog territory. All the Tigers needed was 5 yards to remain competitive in the game.

While the infamous Georgia drop may be one of the most frustrating to re-examine, that was just the first of several game-defining miscues during the season. Will Shipley’s devastating drop at Pitt, in what fleetingly appeared as a perfect seam route headed straight toward the end zone, was yet another reminder that the 2021 Clemson offense simply did not have a reliable slot game. 

In previous seasons, Clemson always had that one 3rd down slot guy they could count on. In 2020, it was Amari Rodgers. Before Rodgers, there was Hunter Renfrow. Before Renfrow, there was Adam Humphries. The list could go on. Clemson tried to mold Justin Ross as the slot guy last season, but the Tigers still couldn’t consistently master a successful inside-slant scheme. While Ross is undeniably a talented receiver, his neck injuries from the prior season provided substantial risk in a position that requires extreme elusiveness and quick, shifty movements. 

Shiftiness and dart-like agility are where the Rodgers and Renfrow-type receivers excel. In the past, whenever Clemson has run into big trouble covering other receivers, it’s usually the 5-foot-11, 6-foot, speedy slot guys they can’t seem to get. Look how much Chris Olave of Ohio State and LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase hurt Clemson in the past; they were virtually untouchable 6-foot guys who darted around the defense slant by slant.

Clemson is stacked with an elite line-up of receivers, but who will be filling the slot in the upcoming 2022 season is uncertain. Maybe they look to a healthy Brannon Spector to start or split the role with freshman four-star Antonio Williams or even red-shirt freshman Troy Stellato. Maybe even Will Taylor.

There are many options for slot-eligible guys who are back from injuries, so it will be interesting to see what Dabo Swinney, Brandon Streeter, and Tyler Grisham decide to do with this gap in the offense this coming season. 

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