CLEMSON, S.C. (WSPA) – A national championship appearance has become the norm for the Clemson Tigers in recent years, but the upcoming 2020 season will be anything but normal. However, some key returners on both sides of the ball could ease their transition as they maneuver through uncertain times. Let’s break down the makeup of Clemson Football ahead of the new campaign.
Starting on offense, quarterback Trevor Lawrence returns for his junior season going for a third-straight trip to the national championship game. Lawrence saw steady improvement from year one to year two, throwing for over 3,600 yards and 36 scores in 2019, both ranked inside the top ten in the FBS. His eight interceptions were uncharacteristic, though five of them came in the first three weeks. Still, there’s no team more confident in it’s returning quarterback than Clemson.
“This fall camp, one of my priorities is ‘what can I get better at? Little things,’ said Lawrence. “Because at this point I know the offense, still a lot more I can learn as far as big picture football-wise. But in our offense I know what everyone’s doing, I know all that. So just how can I get a little bit better in all these different areas. And that’s what I’m trying to do right now.”
With Tee Higgins on to the NFL, and Justyn Ross lost for the season due to injury, Lawrence will rely on several receivers including Amari Rodgers, Joseph Ngata, Frank Ladson and Cornell Powell as his primary targets along with returning tight end junior Braden Galloway. Some highly touted freshmen, including E.J. Williams, will be factors as well.
“Just the fact that we’re able to go out and execute and score points in a scrimmage situation with the constant mix-up of receivers,” said offensive coordinator Tony Elliot. “Those guys, you can tell they put in some work over the summer, but all those guys are embracing their opportunity.”
The Tigers will also have to fill a big void along the offensive line as four of last year’s starters are gone, but left tackle Jackson Carman is back and has potential to be a high draft pick next year. Clemson brings back consistency at the running back position with two-time ACC Player of the Year Travis Etienne returning for his senior year. Etienne’s versatility has been crucial to the team’s success. He recorded over two thousand all purpose yards last season, scoring nineteen touchdowns on the ground and another four through the air. He shares one of the more deep backfields in college football with Lyn-J Dixon, sophomores Michel Dukes and Chez Mellusi, as well as five-star freshman Demarkcus Bowman and senior Darien Rencher. It’s a unit that will be a big strength for the Tigers.
“Nothing has changed but the names on the back of jerseys,” said Etienne. “We still have one common goal. We still want to be the best of the best, the best in the country. So we’re still putting all that effort in and work that we always have done, just with different guys.”
“Our philosophy here always has been to develop our depth,” said head coach Dabo Swinney. “To create selflessness, unselfish players, get everybody to buy into the concept that ‘ hey it’s not how much you play, but how you play…’ We’re not going to play you to play, but if you deserve it we’re going to give you an opportunity to play.”
Clemson’s offense in 2019 was among the best in all of college football. Their nearly 44 points per game ranked fourth in the FBS and their seventy nine hundred total yards was second to LSU. They converted 80 of 181 third down attempts, putting them 27th in the nation, and their red zone scoring ranked 40th. Their offensive line was elite in pass protection, giving up just 18 sacks all season, an area the team may see regression in 2020.
On to the defense, a unit that lost several pieces to the NFL Draft, but returns plenty of promise. On the defensive line there’s uncertainty as to Xavier Thomas’ contributions this season, so up and coming prospect K.J. Henry is in line to see significant snaps at defensive end opposite Justin Foster with Myles Murphy firmly in the mix. Nyles Pinkney and Tyler Davis form a duo on the interior with Demontae Capehart and Justin Mascoll providing depth. Top recruit freshman Bryan Bresee may be used in a variety of ways along the line given his versatility. At linebacker, Clemson has a tall task in replacing first round NFL selection Isaiah Simmons. Senior James Skalski will shore up the inside after recording 90 tackles, which was second on the team. Baylon Spector, Jake Venables and Mike Jones will likely form a rotation on the outside. The secondary almost gets a complete revamping after A.J. Terrell, K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse are on to the NFL. However cornerback Derion Kendrick returns and Nolan Turner will step in at safety full time. Mario Goodrich and Andrew Booth are expected to step into key roles.
“It’s been fun to watch those guys,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said of the defensive backs. “It’s a group that’s skilled, and good length, good instincts, good aggressiveness. Really pretty smart. They’ve picked up on things pretty well. It’s a group’s easy to coach, they like to be coached. It’s a humble group. And hopefully as they gain experience that will be a strength for us.”
“Just taking it day by day, working on being better technique-wise and also just knowing my plays, what everyone is doing around me,” said Kendrick. “Just knowing my playbook and trying to get better as a whole.”
The Clemson defense was one of the nation’s best in 2019. Their 13.5 points per game ranked third in the FBS, and they held opponents to an 11th best third down conversion rate. Their defensive pass efficiency, which factors in opponents passing yards, completion percentage, and turnovers, ranked second as did their total turnovers with 30. They have a lot to fill in the back end, but with expected improvement on the defensive line, and with one of the best defensive coordinators in the country in Venables, the Tigers defense may be able to return to an elite level in 2020.
On special teams the Tigers were below average in the return game, and their net punting ranked 35th in the country. Junior B.T Potter returns as the team’s kicker following an inconsistent 2019. Potter converted all his extra points, but made just 13 of his 21 field goal attempts. He showed a lot of promise though, especially from deep as he was a perfect three for three on field goals from fifty plus yards.
While Clemson headlines the 2020 AP Preseason poll, they are also heavy favorites to win their sixth straight ACC title. The Tigers have favorable matchups on offense, as they play only three teams that ranked inside the top thirty defensively in 2019. Just one of them, Notre Dame, was inside the top fifteen. On the schedule, Clemson’s defense has an advantage as well. Only two opponents had an offense rank inside the top forty. Their most difficult stretch comes in the final four games beginning with a trip to South Bend in what could be one of the more highly anticipated matchups of the college football season. It all starts September 12 when the Tigers travel to take on Wake Forest.