The Tigers ran roughshod through the ACC with only North Carolina providing a scare. In doing it, Clemson went deep into their depth chart getting contributions far and wide. Here we highlight just a couple special players who made a huge impact on Clemson’s ACC and Fiesta Bowl Championship season.
Offensive MVP: RB Travis Etienne
Travis Etienne is well on his way to CJ Spiller-level legend status. He posted his second straight 1,600 rushing yard season (Spiller’s career-high, albeit with much less talent around him, was 1,212 rushing yards). Etienne’s 7.8 yards per carry highlight his dominance.
On top of that, he greatly improved as a pass-catcher. He came into his junior season with 135 career receiving yards, and more than tripled it by reeling in 432 in 2019. His pass blocking also improved, though there’s still room for more growth there. With no clear weaknesses left in his game, he seemed likely to head to the NFL, but after getting a 2nd-round draft grade, he instead decided to return so we could leave feeling complete with a bachelor’s degree and 1st-round draft grade in hand. If he has another big season, he’ll cement his legacy as one of the greatest players Clemson Tigers of all-time.
Defensive MVP: LB Isaiah Simmons
Simmons was the do-everything Swiss army knife for Brent Venables’ defense and one of the big reasons they were able to replace four NFL draft picks (three first rounders) along the defensive line. His 818 snaps are evidence of how heavily the defense relied on him. He had a team-high 107 tackles along with 16 TFLs, 8 sacks, 10 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions.
Isaiah Simmons’ tremendous season earned him the Butkus Award (top linebacker), ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and a spot on the All-American roster.
Rookie of the Year: DT Tyler Davis
Coming into the season, the freshmen I was most excited to see were WRs Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson and CB Andrew Booth. In Fall Camp all the chatter was about DT Tyler Davis though. Soon enough he was starting in the middle of Clemson’s defensive line. He would end up starting in 13 games, playing in 15, and accumulating 539 snaps. He tallied 51 tackles, 9 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, and a fumble recovery. His emergence mitigated what could have been a tremendous drop-off in performance along the defensive line.
Most Underrated: Tanner Muse
In 2018, Tanner Muse was a solid run-stuffing safety that got burned deep on occasion. In 2019, he was a major reason Clemson had one of the best secondaries in college football. He led the team in interceptions (4) while contributing 5.5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks. While the media often focused on him as a weakness for opposing offenses to target, particularly after a less than stellar game against Virginia, he was good in the big moments. His run-down shoestring tackle of Ohio State’s JK Dobbin’s may have saved the Fiesta Bowl. In the National Championship game, he played a new role, mostly starting off in the box, and tallied 5 tackles. Tanner Muse was a big time contributor and will be missed. Kudos to him for putting together a great senior season.
Surprise Contributor: Chad Smith
Chad Smith was a big time recruit that until 2019, didn’t make much of an impact on defense. Coming into the season, folks were high on Shaq Smith leaving Chad as a fifth-year senior back-up. Then, Shaq Smith unexpectedly transferred to Maryland and thrust Chad into the starting role with no experience behind him. The Tigers needed Chad Smith to come through for the defense in a big way.
He did. Playing in all 15 games and starting 14, Chad Smith made 80 tackles. He got 3.5 sacks, an interception, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. He was the defensive MVP of the Fiesta Bowl as he posted a career-high 12 tackles.
Play of the Year: Trevor Lawrence’s 67-yard TD-run vs. Ohio State
You didn’t expect Trevor Lawrence to juke two defenders and then outrun a third, but down 16-7, this play brought Clemson within two points going into halftime of what would be the win of the year for the Tigers.
Several other players deserve mention. Tee Higgins at times looked like Clemson’s best player, winning jump balls and proving to be a dominant WR1. He earned his way into the discussion with Nuk Hopkins, Mike Williams, and Super Bowl Champion Sammy Watkins as greatest WRs in school history.
James Skalski, Justin Foster, and Jackson Carman were also huge contributors that deserve recognition. Skalski plays a brand of football reminiscent of Ben Boulware - a physical big-hitter who got to the QB for 3.5 sacks. Justin Foster stepped up at DE and played a huge role in replacing Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant. Jackson Carman, tasked with replacing an all-time great, Mitch Hyatt, became an excellent left tackle and held Ohio State’s Chase Young in check in the Fiesta Bowl. These guys and so many others gave us another season of awesome memories. I’m already looking forward to the next one.