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An Early Look at the 2018 Clemson Tigers

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NCAA Football: Florida State at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

The Clemson Tigers are amid the greatest stretch of football in school history. In what was a retooling year after losing a bevy of exemplary student athletes to the NFL, the Tigers exceeded all expectations by going 12-2 winning the ACC and and appearing in the Sugar Bowl.

Those 12 victories included a fifth-straight win over Virginia Tech, a fourth-straight win over Auburn, a fourth-straight win over South Carolina, and a dismantling of the best Miami team in nearly 15 years. The Tigers have a chance to be even better in 2018 with key juniors electing to postpone their NFL careers and a historically good freshman class joining the fray.

In this article, we discuss what some of the key storylines will be for Clemson in 2018 and analyze the Tigers projected strengths and weaknesses.

Storylines

The one folks are already talking about is the QB battle that will ensue in camp. Last year, Kelly Bryant, Hunter Johnson, and Zerrick Cooper competed for positioning on the depth chart. Bryant had only a little in-game experience while the others had none. Bryant began the season as the starter and cemented his spot with an excellent performance at Louisville. He also played well in big wins at Virginia Tech, at South Carolina, and vs. Miami. Although he struggled against NC State and FSU, he did just enough to get the Tigers wins. In a very Jalen Hurts-esque season, he led Clemson to 12-2, often using his legs to move the offense. Here he is using his legs to slice through the middle of Miami’s defense.

In the Sugar Bowl, this wasn’t enough. Clemson’s offense was completely halted. Many feel that while Bryant clearly has what it takes to guide this team to another ACC crown, he’ll have to improve significantly to get them past the dynastic Crimson Tide. With that, the QB competition gets super-charged.

Bryant returns with 14 starts now under his belt. Meanwhile, Johnson and Cooper have another year in the system and the #1 QB recruit in the country, Trevor Lawrence (highlights), joins the fray. Tucker Israel and Chase Brice are in the QB room too.

We’ll likely see at least one transfer from this bunch, but no matter, with so many talented options at QB, the Tigers should enjoy a bolstered passing game in 2018. (Update: Zerrick Cooper has transferred.) Will the competition push Bryant towards improvement as a passer? If not, does the coaching staff have the gall to take snaps away from a senior starter who has played fairly well and conducted himself with nothing but class in leading the Tigers to an ACC Championship? It certainly makes for an interesting storyline entering 2018.

In front of Clemson’s QB will be two new offensive guards. The Tigers have to replace Tyrone Crowder and Taylor Hearn while losing versatile backup Maverick Morris. Fortunately, there are some young players that could make a big impact. John Simpson was a big four-star recruit from North Charleston and will be a junior in 2018. After backing up Hearn at LG, he has an opportunity to become a starter. Jackson Carman, the five-star recruit from Ohio, will vie for major playing time right away. Could he start at RT and shift Sean Pollard to guard? Could he play guard himself? Noah DeHond and Blake Vinson also could battle for positioning on the depth chart.

Losing two starters is seldom good news, but because LT Mitch Hyatt decided to return for his senior year, there is solid depth. It’s not unrealistic to think line play could be better in 2018, at least by the postseason. How the starting lineup shakes out for opening day will be another interesting storyline to keep an eye on in camp.

Projected Strengths

We talk about #ClemsonFamily a lot, and many of us had very special personal experiences while we were in Clemson (I met my future wife). It seems that extends to football players as well. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that all three of Clemson’s junior starters on the defensive line would delay their entrance into the NFL (they were all likely to be picked in the 2nd - 4th rounds) for another year. This gives Clemson the best defensive line in the nation. The starting lineup is impressive and the depth is astonishing.

Behind Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant at DE, the Tigers have Logan Rudolph and Richard Yeargin returning from injury and five-star freshmen Xavier Thomas and KJ Henry joining the fray. They also have talented rising sophomores Justin Foster and Xavier Kelly and the veteran Chris Register. All of them could probably start elsewhere in the ACC.

In the middle, the Tigers will have Dexter Lawrence, a projected top 10 draft pick in 2019, and Christian Wilkins, the leader and arguably the best in the bunch. Here’s Wilkins slicing through the offensive line of the ACC Coastal Champions and blowing up a run play:

And here he is tearing up a pass play.

And there is depth behind them too. Albert Huggins, Jabril Robinson, and Nyles Pickney have already proved to be more than capable reserves. The depth at DE is greater, but it’s very solid at DT too.

Clemson will rotate their D-line liberally, keep their starters fresh, and dictate opponents’ game plans. It is no hyperbole to say that - with a great deal of hard work and dedication - this could be the best collegiate defensive line in decades.

Projected Weaknesses

The Tigers don’t have any glaring weaknesses on defense. Thanks to the return of LB Kendall Joseph and CB Mark Fields there’s depth behind the outstanding defensive line too. The biggest challenge the defense faces will be replacing SAM linebacker Dorian O’Daniel. O’Daniel could routinely be found tracking down ball carriers like in the play below.

O’Daniel’s versatility allowed DC Brent Venables to keep him in during obvious passing downs rather than always substituting in a defensive back. Replacing him will be tough and likely take multiple players. Fortunately, there are a handful of Tigers who could fill the role. Isaiah Simmons possesses great speed and was impressive as a RS freshman. He could get an opportunity to move over from safety to nickel. K’Von Wallace who thrived at multiple positions could also get a chance there. Then of course there is Jalen Williams, who will be a rising senior. He got 191 snaps last season as the backup SAM and should see plenty of snaps, but will need to improve in coverage to keep the Tigers out of Nickel formation. The wild card is former five-star recruit Shaq Smith, who will be a RS sophomore and has been buried on the depth chart at WILL.

While Clemson’s defense ranked #2 last season, the offense ranked just 45th (S&P+). As such, there are plenty more weaknesses to discuss on the offensive side of the ball.

Firstly, pass protection from the running backs has to improve. We broke this down in detail in our running back review, so we’ll stay high-level here. Suffice it to say, although the young RB duo of Feaster and Etienne are outstanding and explosive runners, there is improvement to be made in pass protection.

This was one thing that hurt the passing game which finished the year with the fewest passing yards in a Clemson season (3,297) since 2010 (2,543). There are several other reasons for this. The improved running game and the proclivity to rely on it in a conservative offense was part of it, but another reason may be the lack of a receiving threat at TE. Clemson didn’t utilize the TE position in the passing game nearly as much as they have in years past. Tiger TEs only combined for just 25 catches for 348 yards. The Tigers have not had so few completions to tight ends since 2008.

Fortunately, TE Milan Richard will return for his senior season. Now with a full year as a starter under his belt, he has an opportunity to make a bigger impact in 2018. He’ll also have Garrett Williams returning from knee injury to push him and provide depth. Between the two of them, the production at TE should improve, but maybe not to levels we’ve become accustomed to with players like Jordan Leggett, Brandon Ford, and Dwayne Allen.

The schedule eases up next year with Duke replacing Virginia Tech and Texas A&M replacing Auburn. The path back to the playoff is clear. If the Tigers can get better pass protection from RBs, more production from TEs, and improved QB play, they have a great opportunity for a fourth-consecutive ACC crown and maybe more. 2018 is going to be a lot of fun.

It’s morphin time!