We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. This week we’re chatting with Tom Dianora, a writer over at Shakin The Southland, SBN’s blog for the Clemson Tigers. We took some time to talk about pain, the State of the Tigers, changes to college football, and bronze statues.
TN: Another year, another reload. Are there any cracks in the armor at this point in what is Dabo Swinney’s 12th full season? Any issues recruiting anywhere that could make the Tigers vulnerable over the next couple seasons? Clemson really hit an elite level in 2015 and haven’t come down yet. How long do you think Dabo and the Tigers can keep it going?
STS: I think they can continue this for the foreseeable future. I acknowledge that things can change quickly, so you never know, but all of Clemson’s national success in the past five-plus years, plus star-studded recruiting classes, lead me to believe that the culture, talent, and staff are in place for continued and prolonged success.
My biggest complaint this year—which I think is a common refrain people fall back on whenever they want to complain about their favorite football team—has been Clemson’s offensive line, particularly in run blocking (they are actually fine in pass protection). It does bother me that a program that has risen to become an elite one does not have a dominant offensive line. But in the big picture (i.e., looking over the next handful years down the road), I’m not concerned about it, as I think it’ll be a continued focus in recruiting and coaching.
TN: In the past Dabo has expressed his opinion that he’s firmly against the professionalization of collegiate athletics, but is for the modernization of the collegiate model. He’s also stated he’s in favor of student-athletes receiving benefits from their Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL), which the NCAA recently approved. However, that kind of seems a little bit like both of (long overdue) modernization and professionalization. In part, athletes are now able to retain agents to help them capitalize on these benefits — a strictly professional element. Even though Dabo has drawn a distinction between the two, do you think it’s possible the change could cause issues or culture problems with how it seems Dabo prefers to run his program? And on a macro perspective, do you think these rules will hurt big powerhouse programs or will it do the opposite and help them entrench their status among the elites of college football?
STS: I think that based on his own life, Dabo places a lot of value on his vision of the college experience. Nevertheless, to your point, he’s expressed more openness recently to modernization and certain ways of compensating players beyond scholarships, including lump sums contingent on graduation. So I’ve been happy to see that he isn’t just entirely closed off to the idea of player compensation.
I think that as the NIL change evolves, and the overall modernization of the sport evolves, these notions of “modernization” and “professionalization” will become more and more indistinguishable. My personal hope is that Dabo will continue to evolve in his stance along the way. I am optimistic that he would adapt both his thinking and how Clemson runs its program overall.
Clemson had already hired an outside firm to help with marketing players prior to these recent NIL developments. So that’s definitely a good sign. To your last point, I think that Clemson’s success and extended time in the national spotlight will only help them further entrench their status as one of the elite college football programs. Smaller, less successful programs might now struggle even more to close the gap with the big programs, but we’ll have to see how the experiment plays out. I think that giving the players these rights is the bigger issue to address for now.
TN: D.J. Uiagalelei. He’s ridiculous. In two games holding down the fort for Trevor Lawrence he’s been remarkable. Uiagalelei threw for over 400 yards and over 10 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and no interceptions in a double OT loss to Notre Dame. I don’t put the loss on him. Is that accurate? What are his strengths and weaknesses and how exactly did the Irish manage to take down the Tigers?
STS: Well, you probably won’t see much of DJ (I’m calling him that going forward) on Saturday, as Lawrence will be back. Although, you might see him in garbage time if Clemson has a huge lead. (Personally, I’d rather see Lawrence stay in a little longer, even in a blowout, to pad those Heisman stats, but I digress.)
But anyway, yes, DJ was not the reason Clemson lost. He was spectacular overall, making things happen through the air on a night when Clemson had basically no running game with a struggling offensive line going up against a stout defensive front. Did he miss a couple of throws that might have changed the complexion of the game? Yes. Would Lawrence’s experience have made a difference in a couple of key situations? Maybe. But DJ did everything Clemson could have wanted from him, and then some. I mean, he set an all-time record for most passing yards in a single game against Notre Dame, so Clemson fans really can’t complain. He’s probably the biggest reason Clemson had a chance to win the game.
DJ was a five-star recruit, so we knew the talent was there. He has an absolute cannon of a throwing arm, which was evident on his first touchdown pass against the Irish, where a casual flick of the wrist resulted in a bomb of a pass, and a 53-yard score. He’s also got some major size, standing at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds. He’s actually been banged up with a shoulder injury, otherwise we would have seen more power runs from him.
Beyond the physical gifts, I was just most impressed with his poise and calmness in these games. Much like Lawrence and Deshaun Watson before him, he just does not seem to get rattled, which is a hugely important trait to have as a QB.
DJ seems to have all the tools and no glaring weaknesses based on the two games I’ve watched. He has had some overthrows and a few misses, particularly throwing to his left, but I imagine those will sort themselves out soon enough and not linger on as actual issues to be concerned about.
Getting back to the Notre Dame game, a battered defense (especially by the end of the game) contributed significantly to Clemson’s undoing, as did the aforementioned pitiful rushing attack due to an inability to create space in run blocking. The Tigers also had two awful turnovers—a fumbled pitch by Travis Etienne and a fumble by Amari Rodgers following a completed pass—that led directly to 10 points against, digging themselves a hole in the first half. Despite all that, though, Clemson led 33-26 with under two minutes to go. But the Tigers horribly mismanaged a late possession, burning very little time and forcing Notre Dame to only use one timeout, thanks to some overly conservative play-calling, a penalty, and a mental error from Etienne in running out of bounds. Then the decimated defense gave up a huge passing play that set up the Irish’s tying score that forced overtime. While the loss should not matter if the Tigers win the rest of their games, it was still unsettling to see them squander a late lead in a marquee game, as they typically find a way to seal the deal.
TN: FSU and Clemson play every year, but it’s still good to familiarize ourselves with each other. Besides the quarterbacks and Travis Etienne, give us a couple more names on offense everyone should know. Does Renfrow have any brothers out there that could haunt the ACC for the next 12 years?
STS: Ha, no more Renfrows on the roster, but Clemson has what has become a tradition of giving the number 13 to Caucasian slot receivers. Besides Renfrow, we’ve seen Adam Humphries and Tyler Grisham in the past. Now, it’s Brannon Spector, so if you see him in action, you might get some Renfrow PTSD. That said, he only has 12 catches for 84 yards on the season, so he hasn’t been a major part of the passing game.
Regarding Etienne, while you are already very familiar with him, one thing I will quickly mention before moving on is to look for him to be a threat in the passing game. He’s really emerged in that aspect this year; his 37 receptions already match his career-high from last season, and his 491 receiving yards have eclipsed it.
Offensive players to really keep an eye on besides the quarterbacks and Etienne are Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell. Rodgers is playing the best football of his career, having fully recovered from the ACL tear he suffered before last season. While he rehabbed freakishly fast and played in most games last season, it’s obvious that he’s hit another level this season. He’s not a tall receiver, but he’s extremely quick, versatile, and crafty. He leads the Tigers in receiving by a wide margin, with 48 catches for 720 yards, and six touchdowns.
Fifth-year senior Cornell Powell has also really come on as of late to help solidify the receiver position, so he’s another one to watch. I’m also curious to see if sophomore Joseph Ngata, who Dabo Swinney never stops raving about, is going to be healthy enough to finally play a meaningful number of snaps and make an impact, but I’m not holding my breath. Besides them, I’d look for the Tigers to increase the involvement of their tight ends (Braden Galloway and Davis Allen) in the passing game.
TN: On defense, coordinator Brent Venables is a shocking 49 years old (I thought he was like 60). From a schematic standpoint, what has Venables done that has made his defense so good over the last several years? And the Tigers have had great talent recently with Dexter Lawrence, Isaiah Simmons, and many more. Who stands out from this year’s unit?
STS: Haha, Venables has a lot of energy, but perhaps high stress levels have made him appear older. In any event, Clemson hiring him in 2012 honestly ranks right up there with the interim appointment and ultimately full-time hire of Dabo as one of the best moves the Tigers have ever made.
I think one of the biggest reasons for Venables’ success is his flexibility in shaking things up based on his personnel. He typically runs a 4-3 base defense. But last season, with an inexperienced and unproven defensive line after the departure of all four of the Power Rangers (Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell, and Austin Bryant), Venables made an exception and used a 3-3-5 base instead, leaning more on linebackers (having Isaiah Simmons helped) and the secondary. It worked brilliantly (until the national championship game against the LSU juggernaut, but we don’t need to talk about that).
Within schemes, Venables also does a great job of disguising his blitz packages and bringing a plethora of different types of pressure. The variation he is able to dial up makes it very difficult for opponents to game-plan against Clemson’s defense. Former Syracuse quarterback Zack Mahoney summarized it very well:
“The majority of defenses that I played against, if you study them enough on film, you see a defense in a certain package or a certain formation, there’s really two or three options that that defense can run. When you’re playing Clemson they can come out in the same thing and run seven different things. And it sucks the most because they have the athletes to do it.”
This season, the defense has actually faced a ton of injuries, and the absences were noticeable in the loss to Notre Dame. Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas, who were both expected to be starting defensive ends, have dealt with COVID-19 complications stemming from the offseason. Foster has not played at all this season, and Thomas has needed some time to get back into playing shape, but is gradually rounding the corner. Defensive tackle Tyler Davis, who is perhaps the most important player on Clemson’s defense, has missed all but three games this season with various injuries. The Tigers are hoping for his return this Saturday, as he has not played since Oct. 17 at Georgia Tech. Linebacker James Skalski, who is the alpha leader of the defense, has also been out of action since that Georgia Tech game with a groin injury, and has been ruled out against Florida State. Fellow linebacker Mike Jones, Jr. also missed the Notre Dame game.
In that Notre Dame game, star freshman defensive tackle Bryan Bresee left with a leg injury in overtime. Safeties Lannden Zanders and Nolan Turner, as well as cornerback Sheridan Jones, also suffered injuries. So, yeah...it wasn’t a great night! But the word is that most of these injuries are not serious, so hopefully most of these players will be back on the field against Florida State, or at least soon thereafter.
Anyway, apologies for that aside on the injuries, and this long overall answer, haha. If they play, Davis, Bresee, and Turner are definitely players to watch. Davis should shore up the run defense at the line of scrimmage, and Bresee has been fun to watch. He was the top recruit in the 2020 class per 247Sports Composite, and we’ve seen flashes of his incredible combination of strength/power and speed/athleticism. Turner is a senior safety who has become a real leader on the backend, and has a knack for finding the ball and coming up with timely interceptions (just ask Justin Fields and Ohio State).
Linebacker Baylon Spector (yes, he’s Brannon’s brother) has been excellent for the Tigers this season as well, leading the team in tackles by a healthy margin. Freshman defensive end Myles Murphy, another highly-touted recruit, has had a great debut season as well; his 3.5 sacks lead the team. In the secondary, while there have been some occasional breakdowns for the unit overall, cornerbacks Derion Kendrick and Andrew Booth are typically tough to beat in coverage.
TN: Clemson has somehow never had a Heisman trophy winner despite the award being named after a Clemson coach. It seems unthinkable (and a crime) Trevor Lawrence could leave for the NFL without having ever won it. Do you think it will happen this year and if not, do you think D.J. has the stuff to finally bring it home?
STS: Well, Deshaun Watson never won it, so sadly, it’s not that unthinkable. Of course, he won a national championship, and Lawrence has already done so as well, so that’s what matters more. Still, it would be nice to see a Clemson player finally take home the Heisman.
Early in the season, I figured the trophy was bound to go to Lawrence. But with him missing a couple of games with COVID-19, and Florida’s Kyle Trask putting up incredible numbers, along with the threat of Justin Fields (even though he’s played far fewer games), it’s going to be more difficult for Lawrence to win it now. I think if he can put up some gaudy numbers over the rest of the season, he can still have a decent shot, but I’m concerned the narrative has already turned against him too much.
Whether or not Lawrence wins it, DJ definitely has the stuff to win the award next year or the year after. He has all the physical tools and the leadership/charisma to be a significant contender for the award. And if he improves upon what we’ve already seen from him during his freshman season...watch out.
TN: Clemson is a massive favorite and we already know how the game is going to end. So tell us how Clemson’s season is going to end. Recent history with Clemson winning and then losing the following year and vice versa says the Tigers will once again win it all. What do you think?
STS: I definitely think that Clemson has a great shot to win it all this year, but based on recent weeks, I do have some qualms. The biggest one is what I’ve mentioned before: the offensive line not being able to run block effectively. The stats underscore this issue as well: Clemson is averaging only 4.1 yards per rushing attempt this season, compared to 6.4 last season. This inability to create holes for the running game won’t fly against elite teams, and needs to be improved, even to an average performance. If the line can just be...not terrible...in the running game, then that’s all Etienne and the passing game will need.
Another issue is finding a consistent deep threat at wide receiver, especially with the absence of Justyn Ross. Constant injuries to well-regarded sophomores Frank Ladson and Joseph Ngata have not been helpful either, but Amari Rodgers is as versatile as ever, and Cornell Powell has really stepped up lately. So I think the Tigers, while not as dangerous in this area as they have been in past years, can make it work with this WR group. Having Lawrence at QB also helps the cause.
I’m a bit less concerned about the other issues that have cropped up; I think the fumbles can and will be cleaned up, and that the defense getting healthier will be the biggest factor in solidifying that unit’s performance. But between the consistently poor run blocking and some uneven performances I’ve seen this season, I’m definitely a bit uneasy and less confident than I was early on.
All of that being said, this staff and program have shown too much in recent years to be doubted. So I’ll still go ahead and say (whisper?) that Clemson will get healthy, pull it together, and play its best football down the stretch en route to another national championship this season. If that doesn’t happen, I’ll just blame it on 2020 and this being an illegitimate season. ;)