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The Offseason Is Long And Dark: Clemson Summer Storylines and Cookout Recruiting Update

NCAA Football: ACC Media Days Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

I thought I would weigh in on the major storylines and things I am paying attention to as the summer finally comes to a close and we head into Fall Camp. I’m mostly interested in identifying potential potholes or what the French call ‘soucis’ (literal translation is troubles).

  1. Run Defense:

One of the major question marks entering next season is defending the run. The past four seasons and almost all of Brent Venables tenure, the defense has been able to shut down the run first and foremost. Stopping the run will be more difficult this season.

Last season, Clemson consistently shut teams down on third and short and on fourth downs. Clemson’s Stuff Rate and Rushing S&P+ were tops in the country (check out Bill Connelly’s excellent work) along with every run defense metric. But life without Christian Wilkins begins this year and I think we will appreciate his impact more after next season. Wilkins was able to consistently penetrate and knife into the backfield for tackles for loss, rarely moving backwards. Dexter Lawrence was a rock in the middle of the defense with Huggins as the backup. Bryant and Ferrell were able to consistently set the edge and play with leverage, while also playing sound assignment defense.

After watching all of the games from last season way more than I want to admit, there were many times when the reserves were inserted for a drive—only to be pulled when the team got past midfield and the starters came back and shut things down. BV won’t have that luxury this season.

Xavier Thomas is a pass rushing threat, but will be challenged to be a consistent run stopper (I think he will be up for the challenge). Justin Foster has also shown he can set the edge, but will need to be able to get off blocks consistently at the point of attack.

The real question is at defensive tackle. Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams are both stepping into full time roles. LBs were kept very clean with the previous defensive line. Again, it all starts with controlling the line of scrimmage. Tyler Davis is already in the two deep, but Nyles and Williams must stay healthy (that has been a problem for Williams thus far) and you need some help from Xavier Kelly.

On the positive side you have physicality returning in the secondary. Tanner Muse has had his share of busts in coverage, but he has evolved into one of the better run stoppers at Safety in recent memory. His ability to plug a gap is underrated. Simmons and Terrell are physical at their positions and Simmons gives you added ability to blitz and I expect Derion Kendrick to also be physical at corner.

Clemson will be able to stop the run, but won’t be able to rely on the front four to shut everything down. This leads us to talk about the LB’s.

2. Enter Skalski:

By now you have heard that James Skalski is the starter at MIKE LB and will be a key piece of the upcoming defense. Last season entering the year I said that Skalski was basically going to be a starter (which turned some digital heads in the comments), but now you see the amount of praise Venables and Swinney are heaping on him entering the season. Last year Skalski would’ve played in a kind of three man rotation, taking snaps from Lamar and Joseph.

Skalski is a potential upgrade at the MLB position. He can run, hit, and fill the hole, but is also athletic enough to do more in coverage. His quick feet and decision making allow him to find the ball and he doesn’t shy away from contact. The only question is whether Skalski can stay healthy all season. If not, the depth at LB doesn’t look as good. Chad Smith gets his chance to start at WILL. Spector is another rising star at LB, but after him the depth is unproven with the departure of Shaq Smith and Tre Lamar opting to enter the draft. Look for Mike Jones Jr. to make a splash as a WILL and SAM/Nickel. He will take the snaps of Jalen Williams and had a lot of positive reviews in the Spring as the heir apparent to Simmons.

Skalski and Jordan Williams (but really everyone at DT) need to stay healthy for a full season after dealing with various injuries over their careers at Clemson. If they can do that then Clemson is fine, but if not then stopping the run gets dicey.

3. Who Punts?

This seems ridiculous as a potential trouble, but Spiers was not a good punter by pretty much all statistical categories last year. Moving on to Aiden Swanson also has the added benefit of encouraging Spiers to give up his scholarship for his senior year. Swanson and Potter can both kick it farther, but have to work on consistency. Spiers, for all his faults, usually doesn’t give the opposing team much of a return. It is a storyline to watch. The other area of special teams to improve is long snapper, which was not good last year. Too many times Will Swinney showed his value with his holds on marginal snaps (and you also had the unfortunate bulldozing in the Notre Dame game that resulted in the blocked extra point although it was most likely a penalty). DK should make returning punts fun to watch.

4. Jordan McFadden and Tackle Depth:

Jordan McFadden is someone to watch during camp (not as a potential problem himself but someone who solves a potential problem). Jackson Carman and Anchrum are your starters and Carman needs to continue to progress, but he is looking like the 5 star LT we projected him to be when he signed. If he can keep his weight down and not get injured, he will be special. Anchrum is one of the vocal leaders on the offense. He had some rough patches in 2018, but is a quality overall player. McFadden is a redshirt freshman and it was great to keep that redshirt year while playing in four games (this is going to be the norm across college football for Olineman).

Clemson needs McFadden to play well and provide quality depth on both sides, especially as Carman transitions into playing entire games. The Chandler Reeves experiment now has him moved to guard. I was skeptical of his ability to contribute at Tackle, but the roster needed him to stick at Tackle. His move inside makes the decision to take 4 interior lineman in the 2019 class look even worse. The only other possibility is Blake Vinson who is passable as a redshirt sophomore, but really should play RT. This is a big fall camp to see progress from him. After those four you might be able to move Pollard back out in a pinch, but he is your starting center right now. Thank goodness Walker Parks looks to be the steal of the recruiting season and will provide immediate Tackle depth.

5. Running Back Depth:

We know ETN is legit and a potential dark horse Heisman candidate (although my money is on Trevor Lawrence). But, without Feaster and Choice he is going to have to shoulder more of the load in his Junior season. That should be fine, but ETN is going to have to pace himself throughout the year. Lyn-J Dixon sported a whopping 8 yards a carry last season, but did it against tired legs, late in games. Make no mistake, he was electric, but will need to learn to run a bit less upright and grind out runs on short yardage plays. This leaves the door open for a Freshman or Rencher to take the third team reps that will be available. If either ETN or Dixon go down with injury the departure of Feaster will be a loss for the team. Watch the progress of Chez Mellusi in Fall camp.

A few other storylines to watch: JC Chalk, Jaelyn Lay, and Davis Allen at TE and the decision to stay with 11 personnel or shift more to 10 personnel. Losing Galloway leaves a bigger hole than expected with the departures of Williams and Richard. Who seizes the reps at DE behind Foster and XT? Rudolph looks poised to breakout, but KJ Henry has the bigger upside and Mascoll is ahead of schedule. All will play a bunch. Who separates at the ‘5’ WR position and takes the place of 3rd and Renfrow? Hunter’s third down ability will need to be replicated next season by the entire squad, but Overton and Powell get the first crack at the 5 as Rodgers works back from his ACL injury (he will start cutting at the beginning of camp). Can the experienced pass defense cut down on the only flaw in last years defense—giving up explosive pass plays?

Recruiting and Cookouts

This year the ALL-IN Cookout is actually very consequential. In the past few years with the recruiting timeline getting earlier and earlier, the event has mainly served as a way to retain existing commitments and help the entire class to bond. This year some actual recruiting is going to happen.

Clemson currently has 18 commitments with only 14 free scholarships coming off the books (this includes Kyler McMichael’s departure). When you factor in ETN, Simmons, Terrell, and Higgins leaving early to go pro—you get to 18. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room in the class. You have Dawkins Jr. as a redshirt junior and a number of walk-ons with scholarships who could give them up such as Spiers, Rencher, Upshaw, Swinney, or Batson in a pinch.

Clemson has plans to take three more players for sure and then has oversign slots for two to three additional players.

EJ Williams (6’3, 185) from Phenix City, AL will be at the cookout. He isn’t going to announce until August 24th, but we have had this one in the Clemson box for quite some time. The cookout should just reinforce the upcoming public declaration.

Ajou Ajou (6’4, 200) from Clearwater, FL (and Canada) will also be in attendance. He made a splash at the Dabo Swinney Camp where Clemson offered. Clemson has battled primarily with Nebraska for his commitment. Over the Spring and Summer a number of big schools offered Ajou as his profile rose. Texas A&M started with Alabama, Florida, Florida State and many others giving him an offer. I said this is down to Clemson and Nebraska, which means that Clemson will land Ajou barring any unforeseen twists.

Ajou is an interesting prospect who is a quality basketball player and high jumper with really long arms. He is a take at WR, but could grow into a TE or Safety down the road. I wanted this slot to go to the younger Ngata who could play RB/WR/Returner, but understand not wanting to pass on Ajou’s potential.

Xzavier Henderson (6’3.5 180) still has a committable offer despite the two above. Clemson continues to lead here with Florida lurking. Henderson recently saw a ratings bump that put him at number 100 overall in the composite.

DE Jordan Burch remains the toughest read of this cycle. Following the visits you would think that UofSC had a commanding lead, but we’ve maintained that Clemson wasn’t out of the picture and that UGA had also wedged itself in as a dark horse candidate. This week represents an opportunity for Clemson to reestablish its footing with family members. Jordan has always liked Clemson and Burch wants to play for a winning program. I’ve maintained that the longer the recruitment goes on the better Clemson’s chances to land him. Right now I have the same position I’ve always had—Clemson has a slight edge, but there is still a lot of work to be done. He will be at Clemson and then head to UGA for the rest of the weekend. Game on.

LB Justin Flowe (6’2, 225) from Upland, CA is the best story of this cycle and perhaps the most impressive recruiting job by Brent Venables this cycle. Everyone was basically gone when Flowe decided to stop by for a visit and BV unlocked the facility to show him around. What folks don’t realize is how close DJ and his family are to Justin. There was a pre-existing bond outside of football. Clemson has a solid lead here thanks to the work BV has put in to augment that bond. The cookout, however, is a really important function in this recruitment. Flowe has family from North Carolina that will come down for the visit, which will also be important. USCsr is still in the hunt. If they can show marked improvement or hire a big name coach then they could use the home field advantage to get back into this recruitment. Right now the cookout serves as the groundwork for building a foundation that isn’t going to be overcome easily. I’ve had some intel here and Clemson has a sizeable lead that should extend this Friday.

The other 5* recruit in attendance is supposed to be TE Arik Gilbert. He is all Dawg right now (Tennessee has wedged their way in by telling him he can play WR for them) and I’ve seen no real evidence to change that view. Still, Clemson is positioning itself for an official visit and Dabo has beaten longer odds.

From this we can reasonably conclude that the total recruiting count will be somewhere between 21-23. We said to begin the recruiting year that we would be in the 20-21 range, but wanted to be at 23. When two of your final recruits are both in the top 5 nationally, you can’t pass that up. Good problems to have.