This week, former five-star QB Hunter Johnson announced his intent to transfer from Clemson. Purdue and Northwestern are the most likely destinations for the Indiana-native. The news, while disappointing in the simple fact that Clemson loses a very talented young man, was somewhat expected and lends optimism to what freshman QB Trevor Lawrence is showing in practice. The Tigers still have reasonable (though not great) depth at QB with Kelly Bryant, Trevor Lawrence, and Chase Brice. The overall roster is a bit smaller than usual though.
The Tigers have just 78 scholarship recruits on the roster. Of course, the NCAA permits 85 scholarships. They’ll surely give most if not all of the seven spare scholarships to walk-ons, which is nice, but failing to strategically use all 85 allowed scholarships can have negative consequences.
Coach Swinney has said publicly that he tries very hard not to “oversign,” a nasty situation where a program accepts too many commitments and then has to tell one or more of them that are unable to provide them their promised scholarship - sometimes at the last minute. While going the extra mile to avoid this practice is noble and 100% the right thing to do, but also forces the coaching staff to be conservative when projecting how many players will leave early for the NFL or transfer. They obviously underestimated those numbers for this year.
Let’s look at who departed from last years team and who is joining the 2018 team (Josh Belk is not listed on either list as he came and went between seasons).
Departing and Arriving Players
|Position||Departing Players||Arriving Players|
|Position||Departing Players||Arriving Players|
|Tucker Israel||Trevor Lawrence|
|Maverick Morris||Jackson Carman|
|Tyrone Crowder||Jordan McFadden|
|CJ Fuller||Lyn-J Dixon|
|DJ Greenlee||Braden Galloway|
|Ray-Ray McCloud||Derion Kendrick|
|Deon Cain||Justyn Ross|
|Ryan Carter||Mario Goodrich|
|Marcus Edmond||Kyler McMichael|
|Jabril Robinson||Xavier Thomas|
|Sterling Johnson||Justin Mascoll|
|Dorian O'Daniel||Jake Venables|
|Mike Jones Jr.|
18 players depart with only 16 coming to replace them. Depending on how strictly you define it, only half of them were significant contributors last season though. With several players like Tucker Israel and DJ Greenlee coming off scholarship, the decreasing scholarship roster size is a little less dire than it seems - at least for 2018.
Two positions are particularly exposed to depth problems from this situation: defensive back and defensive tackle. At defensive back, the Tigers lose Van Smith as an early departure to the draft. Ryan Carter (a major contributor) and Marcus Edmond (injured most of last season) have exhausted their eligibility. Amir Trapp and Ray Ray McCloud, who had to step up in meaningful snaps at CB against NC State are both also gone. The Tigers bring in just two DBs in this year’s freshmen class, Mario Goodrich and Kyler McMichael. It’ll be crucial that this position group stays healthy and gets contributions from at least one true freshman. Depth was a problem last year when injuries struck and there will be less depth in 2018.
At defensive tackle, the Tigers have loads of talent. Christan Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, the two starters, will both likely be selected in the first round of the next NFL draft. This is likely the best starting duo in the nation.
Behind them, senior Albert Huggins and RS sophomore Nyles Pinckney are poised to be major cogs in a DT rotation that is likely to share snaps generously (the schedule sets up for several blowouts). Behind them things get a little dicey. Following the transfers of Jabril Robinson, Sterling Johnson, and Josh Belk (who was not on last year’s team, but would have vied for reserve snaps as a freshman), RS freshman Jordan Williams and true freshman Darnell Jefferies are the only other options at DT.
2019 is where Clemson’s shrunken 2018 roster could have its biggest impact. Next offseason will see all four starting defensive linemen, second-string DE Chris Register, and second-string DT Albert Huggins depart. The depth at defensive end is superb and should be fine in 2019 - bringing in Xavier Thomas, KJ Henry, and Justin Mascoll was huge - but there could be challenges at defensive tackle. Nyles Pinckney, Jordan Williams, Darnell Jefferies will be Clemson’s only returning DTs (though they’ll be complemented with a new class of freshmen). The development of these players this year takes on a special importance for this reason. Landing an impact player (like Dexter Lawrence) who can come in and play at DT right away would also go a long way! I expect the Tigers to sign several defensive tackles in the upcoming recruiting class.
The Tigers are the most talented team in the ACC and have an easier than usual schedule to navigate to reach 11 to 12 regular season wins. Even playing with seven fewer scholarships than allowed, they are well situated to reach their teams goals. There’s no denying it drains the depth chart though. Clemson is particularly vulnerable to injuries at DB and DT as a result. If they stay healthy, the shrunken scholarship roster should not be an obstacle to yet another return to the playoff, but health becomes and even bigger key to success in 2018 with this unique situation.