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Camp Confidential (Part 2): Clemson Rolls Into the College Football Season

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It is time for football...

Clemson University Football Team Lead Protest March After Death Of George Floyd Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Camp is officially closed and game prep has started for Clemson. Looks like we will have a regular season (or at least the start of one, so wear a mask and continue to social distance like the Clemson football season depends on it!). Check out Camp Confidential Part One here.

Clemson is number one in the nation and favored to win it all, so I keep asking—what could make it all go wrong? I’m not trying to be negative. There is talent all over this team and writing about that is easy street. But what are the main sources of anxiety for the coaching staff?

Number One.

Obviously, the second team offensive line and offensive line depth. Even Dabo Swinney agreed with me! Vindication! Cade Stewart at Center has me nervous. I know folks have said he has improved and, as a 5th year guy, he knows the offense and just needs to hold up at Center, but I’ve been watching a ton of games from last season and there has been a strong correlation between tackles for loss for the offense and Stewart at Center. Against Wake, late in the season, he gave up one for a four yard loss that got Dixon blown up. I need some visual evidence of improvement at Center from Cade, and Rayburn and Trotter as the viable backups don’t inspire a ton of confidence (especially when Rayburn has had to play more Guard because of the lack of interior depth). Paul Tchio was moved back inside and has made strides during camp.

Number Two.

This is difficult. This is obviously a first world problem, but I’m going with wide receiver depth. Last season, even with Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, Clemson struggled to be dominant as #WRU against Ohio State and LSU. The passing game wasn’t as crisp or as explosive as expected after the Alabama champs game and the emergence of Ross late in the season. This group is untested and there are a lot of questions. Ross struggled with drops last season as one of the primary go-to receivers.

Ladson has a ton of talent and made spectacular catches last season, but how does he handle being a primary target? Same for Ngata. Rodgers is solid but hasn’t shown he can been an alpha target. Obviously (hopefully?), Powell is going to breakout, but what about depth at the position? Spector is unproven. EJ Williams is raw and needs more strength. Ajou Ajou has plenty of potential but shouldn’t be counted on early.

Higgins made the offense really hum last season. His absence or inability to play at an elite level was really felt in the playoff.

I do think the offense will be fine, but it might need to go through ETN and use a variety of weapons like Galloway at TE, TL’s legs, and ETN in the passing game to help bring the younger WRs along.

Number Three.

I’m going with DE depth and production. XT is out. Foster is out for now and we don’t know why. Henry is long and talented but unproven as an every down player. Mascoll was a liability at times last season. Murphy should be elite. Bresee will be used. DT is the strength of the Dline, but DE didn’t generate enough consistent pass rush last season.

Number Four.

I’ve come to terms with Nolan Turner as the starting Safety. Turner is fast and has decent instincts. He and Zanders are going to start and play a lot of snaps. Charleston will play a good bit too. If there are injuries, this position group thin quickly. Muse and Wallace were so experienced, and although they got a lot of garbage from folks, they held up over the years. I don’t see a QB on the schedule who can consistently take the top off the defense (maybe D’Eriq King? Ian Book?), so this shouldn’t be huge problem, but something to monitor, especially if there is an injury.

Welp. That is about it. Great problems to have. (and for the record—I think, apart from center, this line has a chance to be one of the best at Clemson. Ngata and Ladson will have some bumps but will be beasts by the end of the season. Venables will generate pass rush and hopefully XT can return to form. Murphy and Bresee will be standout contributors. Safety play should be, at a minimum, decent throughout the season)

Odds and Ends

Wake Forest should be a glorified scrimmage. The loss of Newman and Surratt and Washington and Carney is a lot for a team without a ton of talent waiting in the wings. The D-line is good, but that is about it. Wake and then The Citadel should be an easy transition into the season and allow a lot of players to play and get their feet wet.

Wake has Hartman who is a decent QB and two solid RB’s on offense. On defense you have DE Basham and a decent Dline and that is about it.

DJ Uiagalelei is the future at QB at Clemson. His arm talent is ridiculous. He needs to clean up some decision making and going through progressions, but the talent is there when Clemson rolls into UGA next year (that is going to be a battle). I will be interested to see Chase Brice at Duke. I will be rooting for him but always maintained he was an average QB overall (and the calls for him to start were so ridiculous). Taisun is a better athlete and more of a Kelly Bryant mold. Still needs to improve his mechanics to

Bowman and Pace hit a wall in camp, per Dabo’s own words. I think you might see Bowman as a kickoff guy, although Dabo loves to use taller players and WR’s over the years (TJ Green, Ngata, etc).

Big off-season for Tony Elliott and the offensive braintrust at Clemson. Last year, the offense fell in love with 50/50 balls and wasn’t explosive against top 50 defenses. Even against lesser opponents the offense stalled out at times and Lawrence had the early season interceptions. Defenses caught up to our offensive gameplan and Elliott struggled to adapt at times. Now he is in full control and hopefully we will see more of Streeter’s imprint on the offense as well. Obviously Galloway is staying on the field more but it also means less 4 wide and more 10 personnel, but also look for Galloway and Allen to be on the field together at times. Allen has passed Chalk, thankfully, on the depth chart.

On the defensive side Brent Venables is basically replacing the entire secondary (minus DK). That is a lot of experience and the loss of Isaiah Simmons can be underestimated. One aspect of last year’s defense that was underrated was their collective ability to tackle, particularly in space. Players didn’t break explosive plays often with the sure tackling of Wallace, Muse, and Simmons. Lots of speed and toughness missed.

How do you replace Simmons? Well, of course you don’t really. Venables has three core options schematically to rebuild that position. Go with a SAM (could be more of Dorian O’Daniel or Jaylen Williams type), turn to a Safety body to try and recreate Simmons (this would be a Jaylen Phillips or Ray Thornton), or add a third corner (looking at Malcolm Greene in a Ryan Carter role). Mike Jones Jr is the base package, starting player who will log the majority of snaps. If he can hold up in pass coverage, the coaches will try to keep him on the field but on passing downs and with DIME packages, you will see more DB types on the field. To replace Simmons you also need an improved pass rush, which is where the young guns come into play. Another name to watch is Tyler Venables. Simpson has been backing up Jones at SAM but Tyler has played a bunch of positions (similar to Greene). He is going to play during his career at Clemson.

The big recruiting names on defense have come in and not needed de-recruitment. This is a very humble group that has come in and worked. During Brent Venables interview he almost cracked a huge smile when talking about Myles Murphy as a potential co-starter. Yep, it is happening. Co-starter indeed.

Bresee is listed as a co-starter as well on the official depth chart. Bresee is still learning multiple positions, but they are basically letting him go wild rushing the passer—talent level is too good to keep off the field. Tyler Davis has also improved. We are back to an

One final note, the football team is going to do something on Saturday. They are going to speak with their collective voices. Why don’t we support these athletes and what they feel in their hearts at this particular moment. You might feel like it is political and doesn’t have a place in college football, but before going to a place of division—I want to encourage all of us to take a minute to listen. We get to enjoy the fruits of all the labor that these young men pour into being Clemson Tigers so why not hear what is in their hearts (I’m not saying anyone has to agree, but let’s try to be open, respectful, and compassionate in our responses).

Enough words—on to FOOTBALL!!