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 Ryan Kantor, a senior writer over at Shakin The Southland, SBN’s blog for the Clemson Tigers. We took some time to talk about, well, what else but Clemson’s struggles? Could the two programs be on even footing in the near future?
TN: Really looking forward to a Clemson fan’s perspective on the obvious elephant in the room – is this the beginning of the end for the Tigers’ dynastic run? Or just a down year?
STS: Clemson has always tried to take the high-road in the nasty world of college football recruiting. They’ve been careful not to take too many commitments and have to renege on an offer or run off a current player. This led to small recruiting classes and some unused scholarships that would end up getting rewarded to walk-ons that often didn’t contribute on the field (Hunter Renfrow being the big exception). This didn’t cost them for a couple of reasons.
Clemson had an incredible run of recruiting hits. Recruiting is a bit of a crapshoot – like the Major League Baseball draft – but Clemson was having good luck picking the right kids and developing them very well. Even the guys that took longer to develop eventually paid off. Looking back at the 2013 recruiting class, all but five players of that 22-man class eventually contributed on the field in a meaningful way. The more recent classes had star power like Trevor Lawrence, but were smaller and had more players that didn’t work out.
Clemson was also blessed to avoid crucial injuries. In 2015, they lost WR Mike Williams in the first game of the season and CB Mackensie Alexander in the National Championship Game. Those injuries cost them a title, but then from 2016-2018 they stayed remarkably healthy. That is now reverting to the mean as last year and this year the injury bug has hit Clemson very hard.
Finally, what I’ll call “transfer portal culture” has hurt Clemson. Other top teams like Georgia are using the portal to significantly improve their roster while Clemson isn’t taking players and more importantly is losing more players than before. Since most of the transfers come after the December early signing period, many aren’t replaced and those scholarships are given to walk-ons. Clemson has lost nine players to the portal since January 1st, 2021.
All of this has sapped Clemson’s depth and weakened the roster. Clemson is at a cross-road. Either they’ll adjust to the new reality of college football and get back to being consistently elite in a year or two, or they won’t adjust and they will consistently be at a depth disadvantage to other top-tier teams. I wrote a detailed breakout of this issue here that you can check out if you’d like to dig deeper.
TN: What a great answer, and I appreciate the link. That begs the question - what is wrong with Clemson’s offense, which is currently ranked 74th by FEI? We’ve heard some pundits state they believe Clemson’s scheme has become stale and predictable. When I watch, I see lots of throws outside the numbers, lots of quick stuff, and screens. There’s not a whole lot attacking the middle of the field. Is it D.J. Uiagalelei or the talent around him at receiver and along the offensive line? The coaching? Does Clemson miss Jeff Scott?
STS: Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott has had a couple of vexing decisions such as calling three straight passes on first-and-goal on the five-yard line vs. Georgia or refusing to run DJ when it was somewhat obvious that doing so was necessary to open up the offense. That being said, play calling isn’t the primary culprit.
It’s execution by the WRs, TEs, and offensive line. The wide receivers aren’t blocking on the outside. This blows up a lot of the quick screen passes which are a big part of the playbook. They’ve also had a lot of drops and don’t seem to fight for contested balls. The tight ends haven’t been a pass-catching threat and the offensive line has had a lot of issues. At times, defenses have dropped into coverage and invited them to run against a five-man box, but Clemson only had marginal success.
DJ Uiagalelei has disappointed, but he is not at the top the list of this offense’s issues. I think errors going on around him are making him look a lot worse to those quickly checking box scores.
TN: Trent Dilfer recently criticized Clemson’s quarterback development, saying that both Trevor Lawrence and Uiagalelei regressed in their time at Clemson. What are your thoughts on Dilfer’s comments and your assessment of Uiagalelei’s development and potential?
STS: I’m not sure I buy that. Trevor Lawrence was sensational as a freshman, but he developed as a runner the next year and then improved his ability to pass over the middle the following year. DJ has a lot to overcome with other issues on the offense right now so I’m not close to ready to throw in the towel on him. I think he can still be an above average QB. It is not normal for QBs to step in and immediately be transcendent. We’re spoiled. Look at what Pitt is doing with super senior Kenny Pickett after several years of him being up-and-down. DJ will either improve or be passed on the depth chart by incoming five-star Cade Klubnik. The QB play isn’t great, but it is not the primary area of concern for this offense right now or looking ahead.
TN: That’s fair. Let’s talk about all the injuries. Clemson has lost something like a whopping 17 scholarship players this season, which is ridiculous. In what ways has all the injuries impacted the position units this year and how big of a blow is losing offensive lineman Matt Bockhorst, who tore his ACL last week? We hear TE Braden Galloway is also hurt. Will Clemson be getting any players back from injury this week?
STS: Clemson was without their top wide receiver Joseph Ngata last week due to COVID-protocol. He is expected to return, but running back Kobe Pace is now out for the same reason. Clemson has better alternatives at running back than wide receiver so this is a positive swap from purely a football perspective for the Tigers. Obviously, we hope this is just a safety precaution and that Kobe Pace is fine and doesn’t have any sort of serious illness.
Losing Bockhost is another blow in a year full of them. For the first few games of the season, he moved over to center while expected starter Mason Trotter was injured. The Tigers started a true freshman, Marcus Tate, at Bockhost’s usual left guard position against Georgia. Tate is a talented kid with a bright future, but he wasn’t ready. That situation is a microcosm of the broader depth/roster management issue described above. Bockhorst struggled at center and was eventually moved back to guard where he was more effective. With him now out, Marcus Tate will likely return to the starting lineup. It’s not a devastating loss, but these injuries are death by 1,000 cuts.
TE Braden Galloway has had a tough season with only had four catches and about the same number of drops. He will be out with a separated shoulder. DT Tyler Davis surprisingly returned last week which resulted in Clemson playing more of their traditional 4-3 defense. I think having him back will be impactful against Florida State’s run-first offense.
TN: So, Clemson has suffered injuries to very talented players on both the offensive and defensive lines. Will Clemson still be able to dominate the Seminoles up front on both sides of the ball as they have in recent seasons, or will it be a more even match-up? If you were FSU, how would you schematically attack the Tigers’ defense, which ranks 4th in FEI?
STS: Clemson’s defense is 10th in yards per pass attempt allowed and 19th in yards per carry allowed. Before the spate of injuries, they were super-elite, but even after them they’re very good and pretty balanced. Florida State isn’t going to flip a switch and start passing the ball well against this defense. I think FSU needs to stick with what they do well and hope to be the team that makes the 1-2 game changing plays that gets them the win.
TN: Clemson opened as 10-point favorites, though FSU beat UNC earlier this year as 18-pt underdogs. This game is in Death Valley. What’s your score prediction? Can you also give us a year prediction for the next time you think FSU wins the ACC?
STS: I still believe in Clemson’s defense and struggle to foresee such a run-heavy offense putting up big points. I think Florida State ends up in the 14 to 17 point range and Clemson ends up in the 17 to 24 point range. I’ll be optimistic and go with the Vegas spread of 10 points for a 24-14 Clemson win.
As for Florida State’s next ACC title, I think next year is too soon and I think 2023 could be a good year for Clemson if they rebuild their depth and have either a senior DJ Uiagalelei or a sophomore Cade Klubnik at quarterback. 2024 feels like a fair timeframe for when FSU can get back to truly contending.
A big thank you to Ryan for taking the time to chat with us! Click here to read our answers to Ryan’s questions. You can also find him on Twitter @Ryan_Kantor. Don’t forget to check out Shakin The Southland for your Tigers coverage needs.