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Schedule Preview: Clemson Tigers

How big of a step back will Clemson take?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 12 Florida State at Clemson Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Clemson’s team in 2021 should again be very good; likely another top five squad, thanks to insurance from a relatively easy schedule. However, there’s always more than a little uncertainty when a generational, transcendent talent at quarterback like Trevor Lawrence moves on to bigger and better things. In fact, according to Bill Connelly of ESPN, Clemson returns just 68 percent of their production from last season. The average in college football for the six seasons prior to Covid-19 and the NCAA’s eligibility extension was 62.6 percent so that might seem high, but this season it’s good for just 104th in the country.

Clemson Offense

How do the Clemson Tigers replace Trevor Lawrence? With another five-star, of course, D.J. Uiagalelei (pronounced oo-ee-ANH-gah-leh-lay). In substantial relief work last season, most notably vs. Boston College and a start against Notre Dame in which the Tigers lost in double OT, Uiagalelei threw for over 900 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions. With Lawrence finally gone, let’s take a look at the new guy.

Uiagalelei is an extremely talented young signal caller, but the Tigers coaching staff, especially highly esteemed offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, also did a good job bringing him along. They relied heavily on underneath “ball-control” rhythm throws and Clemson’s dynamic receiving talent, and on those throws Uiagalelei was consistently good at getting the ball out on time and accurately. Despite his size at 6’4” and 250 pounds, Uiagalelei has the athleticism to effectively run the zone read, convert short yardage, and extend plays in the passing game. Their staff did a good job utilizing this and often rolled him out of the pocket, which simplified his progressions to just half-field reads.

Still, he has an absolute cannon for an arm, which allows him to effectively attack the deep field side from the far hash, including on out routes at or outside the numbers. This helps to spread out defenses, and Clemson attacked the sidelines relentlessly. However, he’s got a little bit of the same issue as other QBs with such powerful arms — or just young QBs in general — they can tend to be more of ‘see it throw it’ guys. Uiagalelei was sometimes a beat or two late on intermediate (especially over the middle) and deep throws, which to be fair is normal for a freshman, but his arm strength — and Clemson’s receiving talent — often made up for it.

Still, it would be extremely unfair to say Uiagalelei was careless with the ball or made bad decisions. However, he has a tendency, not unlike Jameis Winston, to throw with too wide of a base which can lead to inaccurate throws, including ones that sail high or behind his receivers and are at higher risk of being intercepted. In general his accuracy, because of its inconsistency, is good but not great.

All of this comes with the enormous disclaimer that we can and should expect Uiagalelei to improve from his performance last season and he should easily be one of the best quarterbacks in the conference.

But Lawrence isn’t the only elite talent Clemson lost from last season. Also gone are dynamic targets Travis Etienne at running back and 1,000-yard receiver Amari Rodgers, who were first and third round draft picks respectively. In fact, Clemson also lost Cornell Powell, who with Etienne and Rodgers were the Tigers’ top three receivers from last season. Their top returning target is tight end Braden Galloway.

Still, nobody but Alabama recruits at receiver the way Clemson does. Waiting in the wings are three former 247Sports Composite top-100 blue-chip receivers in junior Frank Ladson, Jr., junior Joseph Ngata, and sophomore E.J. Williams. Williams had 306 yards and two touchdowns last season while Ladson, Jr. had 281 and three scores.

Dynamic receiver Justyn Ross missed all of last season after having surgery to repair congenital spine fusion and as of the time of this writing still has not been cleared for full practices, though head coach Dabo Swinney stated Tuesday he believes Ross will be cleared soon in plenty of time for the season.

The Tigers’ leading returning running backs are seniors Lyn-J Dixon and Darien Rencher, who combined to rush for 327 yards last season, though five-star early enrollee true freshman Will Shipley will likely steal plenty of carries.

Clemson’s offensive line should also be good and one of the better in the ACC, but likely not an elite unit. That’s mostly because their run blocking was poor last year, and they lost Jackson Carman from that unit, a second round pick of this year’s NFL Draft. It should improve, but that’s far from a guarantee, and all those short quick throws may or may not have also been covering up issues in pass protection.

Clemson Defense

College football’s best defensive coordinator (if you don’t count head coaches Nick Saban and Kirby Smart), the just 50-year old Brent Venables, also unfortunately returns. He also got a raise, to $2.5M annually. Venables stated this week he was close to taking a head coaching job somewhere else but didn’t want to “screw up happy”, and likened himself to FSU’s legendary DC Mickey Andrews. Since he didn’t leave, Clemson’s defense can be counted on to again be very good.

Clemson’s reputation for having tough but relatively unathletic linebackers is well earned, despite some exceptions, though they’re usually in the right spot. However, they miss a lot of tackles. The notorious James Skalski returns, along with Baylon Spector, Jake Venables, and Trenton Simpson.

Thankfully for them they’ll play behind one of the best defensive lines in the country. Clemson’s front should again be big and dominant and disruptive, led by sophomores Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee.

The Tigers’ secondary was good last year and should be again, though as ESPN’s David Hale pointed out, Clemson gave up 8.39 yards per attempt against wide receivers last year. That’s the worst average since Venables took over and 37% worse than the Tigers’ 2014-2019 average. After four draft picks in 2020, including two first round defensive backs, Clemson didn’t have a single defender drafted in 2021, though they’ve recruited too well for that to continue.

Florida State vs. Clemson Final Thoughts

Are cracks starting to show in the armor of the Clemson program? How many elite quarterbacks can Clemson cycle through in a row? Can they keep reloading at running back, receiver, and the secondary? Are the recent struggles along the offensive line and in pass coverage momentary blips or the beginning of a long slide back to earth?

It’s hard to say, but for the purposes of this matchup in 2021 it won’t matter. Unless Uiagalelei goes down with an injury or something similarly catastrophic the Tigers should be multi-touchdown favorites.

If Florida State continues to improve, in the future the two could soon meet on more even ground. While the Tigers have won five in a row, FSU still holds the all-time series lead by seven games.