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Despite Returning Stars, Youth will Determine Clemson’s Ceiling

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Clemson’s upside will ultimately be determined by how well their young players perform down the stretch

NCAA Football: Georgia Southern at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Ask 100 different people on game-day about their opinions on the QB battle and you may hear 100 different opinions. “Kelly Bryant led Clemson to the playoff last season, he has earned the right to be the starter!” “Trevor Lawrence gives the team the best chance to defeat a team like Alabama!” In games against Texas A&M, and even at times against Georgia Southern, people were left underwhelmed by the Offensive unit’s performance. The Quarterback position seems to be what is being viewed as the reason holding back Clemson from performing to its maximum ability, but the position battle is more of a microcosm for the Tiger’s struggles rather than its direct cause.

The fans have expected more from the Tigers so far this season, which is a perfectly valid point when you consider who’s returned from a team that’s made the playoff 3 years running. Clemson’s perceived struggles have only been exacerbated by the absolutely murderous performances of the Alabama Crimson Tide. In Pre-season there was talk about how only Clemson was capable of beating Alabama, and right now it’s difficult to make a statement like that without someone looking at you funny. But maybe we should not set the bar impossibly high so early in the season? It’s true that Clemson did not lose many players from last season’s team, however, the quality of those losses was immense.

On Offense, Clemson lost both of its starting Guards including one 3-year starter in Tyrone Crowder. So far both John Simpson and Sean Pollard (the latter of the two may not be young, but he is playing his first season at the position) have shown their inexperience along the OL. Losing two 5th year Seniors on Defense in Ryan Carter, and especially Dorian O’Daniel was bound to negatively impact the defense. It was blatantly apparent when the Tigers traveled West to Texas. There were coverage busts that made you question new CB starter AJ Terrell, and new SAM LB starter Isaiah Simmons who even played quite a few snaps at Safety in the past. You could argue WR is the only position where the Tigers have not experienced a drop-off, and that’s thanks in large part to the swift growth and impressive maturity of both Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers.

Higgins’ and Rodgers’ rise to fame was almost expected this offseason. Similar can be said about Simmons and Terrell. The latter pairing, however, is not performing at the level many expected headed into the season, but that is more normal than what the 2 young WRs are currently doing. Even though the players replacing the departed talent might be more talented on paper, they are still young. Expecting first year starters to immediately come in and play at the same level as the departed players just isn’t realistic. They aren’t going to be fully ready right now, and that’s OK. Clemson owns an advantage that few others throughout the country possess, and that’s having a schedule that provides plenty of leeway to bring along its youth.

You’ll see flashes of the talent every game, but being consistently elite is ultimately what will have the Tigers enjoy their full potential. The more experience this young talent gains over the course of the season, the more polished they will look, and the more talent they’ll be able to show off. So no, Isaiah Simmons doesn’t look like Dorian O’Daniel right now, and yes Clemson’s depth in the secondary is extremely young, but by the end of the season when it really matters expect that talent to be a night and day difference from the present.

No matter how much veteran talent you are returning, the development and maturity of your younger players will always be the determining factor of your team’s ceiling. You’re going to see these growing pains throughout the season, and week by week the inconsistencies, coverage busts, and youthful mistakes will slowly disappear. You’ll also see flashes, like Trevor Lawrence’s first throw in primetime, and Justyn Ross’s TD against Georgia Southern. If Clemson wants to defeat Alabama and/or win the CFP, it will need these flashes of talent to become the consistent norm.

It’s so hard to be patient when you know the talent level the team is capable of achieving, but it’s usually necessary to see the best results. You might be disappointed in the team’s performances 3 weeks into the season, but there is still so long to go. Trevor Lawrence will be a future 1st round draft pick, but he isn’t that yet. The Tigers will bring along and nurture their young talent all year; a luxury they can afford. Clemson’s overall play isn’t where it needs to be yet, but the Tigers know how much potential this team has, and unlike others they can afford to wait on the finished product. So be patient Tiger fans, the future is incredibly bright.