I think it is safe to assume that most would call 2017 a down season for the Clemson TE’s. Jordan Leggett left some huge shoes to fill once he headed off to the NFL after the 2016 season, and most knew that it was going to be extremely hard for the Tigers to not see some kind of drop off in production at the position last season, and that is exactly what we saw. Leggett accounted for 86 catches, 1261 yards, and 15 TDs in his final two seasons as a Tiger. Those are the kind of numbers that can spoil fans.
With Garrett Williams injured, Milan Richard and Cannon Smith were the guys tasked with the difficult job of filling those huge shoes Leggett left behind. The two would combine for only 21 catches, 234 yards, and 2 TDs. To be fair, the 2017 offense was not the explosive juggernaut it had been in the Tajh Boyd or DW4 years. With Kelly Bryant taking over for Watson, and with one of the nation’s best defenses, the offense was much more conservative and much more run-oriented by design. Less emphasis was put on pushing the ball downfield so a decline in production under these circumstances should not have been surprising. The size of that decline was a little greater than most expected though.
With Williams returning from injury, Richard a year more experienced, and highly touted freshman Braden Galloway joining the mix, this group looks to get more involved in the passing attack than it was a season ago. They’ll need to be if the offense is to improve as much as many are expecting.
The battle between Williams and Richard for the starting role has been a tight one. Coming out of spring, the two were listed as co-starters atop the depth chart, and that battle has continued into fall camp. Listening to Dabo after Thursdays scrimmage, it seems like the two are still neck and neck. He talked about how much the game had slowed down for Richard and how much more confident he is now, saying he is playing at a whole other level now compared to a season ago. He also pointed out how much Williams has improved as a pass catcher and praised his consistency since the start of spring ball.
Like the QB battle, this is one that likely carries over into the season. However, regardless of which guy ultimately wins the job, the Tigers are going to need contributions from both guys throughout the season. Let’s take a closer look at the 2 guys competing for the job.
After redshirting last season due to a torn ACL, Williams looks to have the type of breakout season that most were hoping to see in 2017. After having been used mostly as a blocker in his first two seasons, as evidenced by his having only caught two passes in his first two seasons, the staff is hoping he can now make a mark in the passing game. Tony Elliott had nothing but praise for Williams back in the spring, noting his improved route running, and saying he had probably had the best spring of all the TE’s. Don’t let the two career catches fool you though, he is battle tested. He has appeared in 30 games, and logged over 250 snaps, so experience is not an issue for him. The only question with him, is can he become a reliable pass catching option. No highlights for him as a Tiger, so I included some from his high school days.
Last season Richard hauled in 18 passes for 210 yards and 1 TD as the Tigers starting TE. The former 4-star recruit out of Georgia will not wow anyone with his speed, but is still fast enough and strong enough to create matchup problems for many of the LBs and safeties in the ACC. With a season under his belt, Richard will need to take the next step in his development this season, and become a more reliable target for whoever is throwing passes for the Tigers this season. Listening to some of the comments from the staff throughout camp, it would seem that is exactly what he is doing. Here is his first career TD catch that came vs GT last season.
An X-Factor could be incoming freshman Braden Galloway. Not that he is going to be pushing anyone for the starting job, as he still has a lot to learn, but the coaches love this kid and rave about his potential. He is the most athletic of the bunch, and with the new rule allowing a player to appear in up to 4 games and still be eligible for a redshirt, it is quite possible we see him some this season. I wouldn’t think he will see a whole lot of snaps, but possibly a few in certain passing situations.
In 2015 and 2016, the TE’s were responsible for about 13% of the team’s completions. Last year it dropped to 8%, and that was one factor in the Tigers scoring offense dropping from 14th in 2016, to 32nd in 2017. I’ll say it again, for Clemson to have the season that most are expecting, it is crucial for the offense to get more out of the TE position, especially in the red zone. The TE has become a key cog in this offensive system in the Dabo Swinney era, and the staff is hopeful that last season was just an anomaly. Whether it is Kelly Bryant or Trevor Lawrence playing QB, having a dependable TE that can be counted on to produce in the passing game, can make all the difference in the world.