Clemson's road back to the mountaintop

by - Contributor -
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney is not afraid to adapt and improvise.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney is not afraid to adapt and improvise.

Clemson won 10 games and captured its sixth-straight ACC Championship. The season was a success by any reasonable measure, but following a 21-point Sugar Bowl loss, there’s work to do to get back to the mountaintop.

History of Improvement and Adaptation

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has been criticized by media members for being a “traditionalist.” This characterization should not be taken to mean he is unwilling to make tough decisions and important changes to improve the football program. In fact, he has a history of doing just that.

Following the 2010 season when the offense stagnated and the Tigers finished 6-7, he fired then-offensive coordinator Billy Napier (who went on to become a very good head coach in his own right). Swinney made a bold hire: Chad Morris. The Tigers were on the front-end of the spread revolution and won the ACC the next season behind a high-flying offense.

A year later, after allowing 70 points (35 in the 2nd quarter) in an Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia, Swinney made another tough decision. He let defensive coordinator Kevin Steele go and hired Brent Venables. In 2015, Clemson came up just short in the National Championship game due to poor special teams play and a leaky secondary. In 2016, both areas were vastly better. In 2017, Clemson’s vertical passing game was poor. The next season Trevor Lawrence torched Alabama in a 44-16 National Championship game rout. Swinney has proven he does not bury his head in the sand and ignore problems. So, what deficiencies do the Tigers need to remedy?

Improving on Offense

Clemson finished sixth nationally in passing offense (349 yards per game), so obviously a lot went right, but they also finished just 75th in rushing offense. The rushing struggles came despite having the best running back in ACC history – Travis Etienne – who is now off to the NFL. How do they get better instead of worse without him? That may be the single biggest question facing Clemson this off-season.

Etienne’s two primary backups – Lyn-J Dixon and Chez Mellusi – both finished the season strong and should be expected to split carries next season. Dixon had 103 of his 190 yards come over his last three contests in which he averaged 7.3 yards per carry. Similarly, Mellusi’s two biggest games came late in the season (vs. Pittsburgh, at Virginia Tech). Kobe Pace and Mikey Dukes add depth and upside. Meanwhile, the top all-purpose back prospect in the country, Will Shipley, and impressive four-star Phil Mafah bolster the running back corps. The running back room shouldn’t be a problem, but it wasn’t a problem in 2020 either. The issue was getting a push up front and creating holes for Clemson’s talented backs to burst through.

In 2020, the Tigers were tasked with replacing four starters from their offensive line. While the pass blocking was mostly reliable, the rushing attack suffered. Travis Etienne’s yards per carry dropped from 7.4 to 5.8. The Tigers have to replace their starting left tackle – Jackson Carman, who declared for the NFL draft – but they stand to improve anyway. At least three starters return with another year of experience under their belts (graduate center Cade Stewart hasn't announced yet if he's using the NCAA waiver). Rising sophomore Walker Parks played well as a reserve (199 snaps) and could be an excellent starter at tackle. Freshman Ryan Linthicum, who was rated as high as the top center in the country (Rivals), and Tristan Leigh, the fourth rated offensive tackle, should push for early playing time if the line fails to improve from last season.

Clemson has to replace their top two receivers, Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell but has a bevy of young talent that just needs to stay healthy. Improved offensive line play is the bigger question mark. The pieces are there, they just need to be ready and coaches must find the right places to put them.

Improving on Defense

In 2018, Clemson boasted arguably the best defensive line in college football history. After that National Championship victory, all four starters – dubbed the Power Rangers – and key reserve Albert Huggins went to the NFL. As expected, the defensive line play took a step back the following year. This season, we thought it would recapture its prior dominance. Instead, DE Logan Rudolph unexpectedly chose to conclude his collegiate career. Then, the two defensive ends poised to start, Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas, were hit with health issues that limited their contributions. Foster missed the entire season and Thomas never seemed 100%. They failed to recapture that dominance and the defensive line struggled to pressure opposing QBs. It was most evident in the Sugar Bowl.

It wasn’t all bad though. The Tigers finished 15th nationally in total defense – poor by the insane Brent Venables standards to which we’ve grown accustomed but quite good considering the injuries they faced throughout the season.

The offseason has already brought great news and reason for optimism heading into 2021. CB Derion Kendrick announced he will return for a 4th year. LB Baylon Spector announced he will return for a 5th year, and LB James Skalski and S Nolan Turner will use the NCAA’s COVID waiver and return for their 6th seasons. That means the entire defense will be intact.

The Tigers heavily relied on two freshmen, Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy, on their defensive line. Bresee won the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year award while Murphy led Clemson D-linemen in sacks, but they were only freshmen. They’ll both be back with a year of experience and play alongside Tyler Davis for his junior season. Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams have transferred (the former to Minnesota, the latter to Virginia Tech), but those losses are more than outweighed by the incoming freshmen, added experience, and hopefully the healthy return of Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas.

Some have expressed deeper concerns about Clemson’s defense after surrendering 91 points in their last two playoff games. I believe those concerns will be washed away in 2021 with a rebuilt defensive line and a veteran back seven.

The Future

“The best is yet to come.” It’s a phrase Swinney says often, and I believe there’s reason to believe it remains true. Despite all the challenges and negativity that Clemson faced this season, they won the ACC, made the playoff, and hauled in an elite recruiting class. The college football landscape is shifting with the growth of the transfer portal, bowl opt-outs, and more. Clemson will have to adjust accordingly, perhaps taking the occasional transfer (Danny Pearman’s reported new role makes this appear more likely), but the long-term outlook remains bright.

As for 2021, the offensive line has some issues to address, but experience and improved recruiting should pay dividends. Improvement on the line could outweigh the losses of QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne. Meanwhile, the defense, with so much talent choosing to return, could be the best of the Swinney era. It all sets up for Clemson to restock the trophy case in 2021.

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