With no Clemson game to preview this week, I thought I would provide my season to date assessment. It is a time the coaches spend taking inventory of what has happened, self-scouting, and fortify the plan of attack based on actual game production vs. just projections made from practices. In Clemson’s case, the need to heal is about as big as it has ever been after a rash of injuries in the first five weeks of the season. I thought I would discuss what I feel has gone well and, of course, where improvement is most needed (and assessing how realistic those improvements are). I’m splitting this into two parts with this one focused primarily on the offense. I look forward to hearing what you readers think in the comments as well!
Overall: The big elephant in the room continues to be the offense. The Tigers have not eclipsed 20 points in regulation against any power 5 team so far this year. This led to the Tigers actually dropping OUT of the AP top 25 even after beating a 4-0 opponent with an SEC win (Mizzou) on its resume. The truth is teams that win shootouts get more street credibility with media voters than teams who win with defense and special teams. Nevertheless, Clemson absolutely has to improve a great deal here if the team hopes to contend for the ACC and secure a good postseason destination.
Offensive Line: Clemson’s O-line play against Boston College was extremely encouraging. There was a lot of reason to worry BEFORE the news of starting RG Will Putnam being too injured to play, but Hunter Rayburn stepped in at center and affirmed what I had already been thinking: Matt Bockhorst is way more effective at guard and getting center situated is much more crucial to fixing the O-line than figuring out the left guard.
It will be interesting to see how the staff handles Putnam’s return, as he was playing alright after a poor game against UGA. I think Bockhorst would slide over to his LG home from last season if Rayburn can hold up at center going forward. BC didn’t play a 0 tech (a defensive tackled aligned directly over the center) the way we’ve seen everyone else do this year, so that might be a factor in how much Rayburn can do. The OL created sufficient room, including a huge hole for a long TD run from Pace, and wasn’t to blame for the one sack or BC’s TFLs on the perimeter.
The Eagles are not in UGA’s universe on defense, and NCSU is a better unit by a decent measure, but I feel much better about the prospects of running the football. DJU was clearly in a better place in terms of trusting his line to hold up in this game vs. the two losses as well. This was on full display on that crucial third and long strike to Ngata that led to Clemson’s final points of the night. Staying healthy is going to be huge here because the Tigers have already lost three guys who were in the depth mix, particularly Dietrick Pennington, for the season. Grade: C- (but improving)
Running back: Despite starter Will Shipley being hurt and out for the next few weeks and veteran Lyn-J Dixon’s decision to enter the transfer portal, I feel pretty good about this position right now. Kobe Pace had the best game of his young career (even with the mental gaffe that led to a sideline diatribe from Coach Swinney) and Phil Mafah showed off his impressive size/agility combination in his debut.
Pace and Mafah are built to power through the trash, and that is really what this year’s team needs from the position. Both will need to grow up as pass protectors, but the future is definitely bright in the running back room, particularly when Shipley is able to rejoin the action. Hopefully Shipley will be able to enjoy the improved O-line play as well. Grade: B-
Tight end: Much like the majority of Clemson’s offense this season, the tight ends have been a big disappointment to date. It certainly hasn’t helped that the top two guys in the room were out of the BC game by the second quarter due to injury and a targeting ejection. The one bright side was Sage Ennis came in and made a case that he belongs in the mix going forward with probably the best individual performance of any tight end this year.
Even before the injury, Braden Galloway’s performance has been extremely disappointing. He’s never blocked well in his career and that won’t change, but his supposed strength, being a threat in the passing game has been non-existent as well. He hasn’t shown he can make tough plays in traffic. Davis Allen passed him on the depth chart and Ennis made his case to do the same. Jaelyn Lay didn’t do much to prove he should be seeing the field last week and had a bad drop of his own. Grade: D (Ennis’s big catch vs. BC improved the grade)
Wide receiver: Oh boy. The WRU ship has taken on some serious water so far this season. Justyn Ross’s return has been a plus, but not nearly the boost many (including myself) were counting on. It is probably unfair to expect to see 2019 Ross considering what the guy has been through the last year and a half, but unfortunately this group really needs a guy to carry the group forward the way Amari Rodgers did last season (joined ultimately by Cornell Powell).
Injuries have not helped in the slightest, as oft-injured Frank Ladson has continued to deal with health issues and EJ Williams has multiple injuries slowing him down. Just as the staff was working Will Taylor into the mix as a slot, he went down with a torn ACL.
I was very critical of this group after the BC game, but I wasn’t aware of some of the injury situations to Ladson and Williams. In terms of any considerable game production experience, Clemson only had Ngata left to use in the second half.
Injuries or no injuries, drops have been a big problem, signal communication has been a big problem, and not making the customary 1-3 “wow” contested plays we have been spoiled with over the last decade has been a big problem. So far the best “wow” plays we have seen have all been from opposing WR, even South Carolina State’s! Ross had a ball go right through his hands that he used to snag using one just for fun. Ngata let a perfectly thrown back shoulder pass bounce right off the 1 and the 0 on his jersey. This doesn’t count the issues from the previous games we have seen. DJU has had accuracy problems as we all know, but this group should be good enough to help him out the way we saw Tee Higgins help a young Trevor Lawrence in College Station or Hunter Renfrow help out Chase Brice in that critical Syracuse game comeback in 2018.
Hopefully Ross can rebuild his confidence to give the team a much needed go-to guy who can make plays over tight coverage. Ngata has had some good moments to show he can be a big time guy but needs to be more consistent. We already know Williams won’t be 100% with his hand this season. Ajou Ajou has been a non-factor despite the preseason buzz he had generated. Beaux Collins had 5 targets with 0 catches last week, albeit one was a poor throw when he was wide open.
While DJU 2021 hasn’t been close to DJU in 2020, a major reason is he hasn’t had Powell and Rodgers out there to throw to like he did last year. Coach Grisham has to roll up his sleeves and get this group performing like it should be. Hopefully the health luck will turn for the better as well. Grade: D-
Quarterback: Has there been a bigger head scratcher than the play of DJ Uiagalelei? I was as guilty as most of the nation in believing he was more than ready to be the guy after how he played in place of Trevor Lawrence in 2020. Of course, I also assumed the Tigers would be getting the usually top shelf WR play to help him out. It turns out he is still a young player who is experiencing growing pains without the luxury of a proven veteran ahead of him, not to mention defenses geared to stop him instead of Travis Etienne.
He has shown signs of his immense potential for sure, but he’s also taken bad sacks and been badly off target with throws. He got jittery in the pocket against UGA after their first sack and really didn’t seem to shake that off until this past game. Ironically, his best throw of the season was probably the back shoulder Ngata dropped last week.
The good news here is that he is improving his overall play. If Ross and Ngata make those two sideline catches, he’s got a 300 yard game and Clemson comfortably wins with 24 or more points on the board. I was very encouraged when he stood strong in the pocket and delivered to Ngata for a big 54-yard play over the middle. That is the play he hadn’t been making. Part of the gig is standing strong against the hits that are coming for that extra half second or so that makes the difference between covered and open a lot of the time. I feel he is getting close to that now, and that is very encouraging.
The other step is cleaning up the accuracy and touch problems which have crept up for stretches of every game this season. Grading him is a little tough due to the bias associated with last season and his recruiting ranking. He’s not been helped nearly enough by the WR and TE groups. Grade: C (but improving)
Place kicking: B.T. Potter finally got a chance to be a factor last week and delivered. He is a weapon and even though settling for three is never a great feeling, it is a lot better than getting nothing at all. Potter’s only miss this year was that 58-yard attempt vs. SC State. The defense and special teams need to get him in range more often while the offense grows up. Grade: A
Kick/Punt return: Clemson’s return game showed promise with Will Taylor but now that he is out, it is back to the drawing board to see if a playmaker can emerge. It is very likely the kick return TD drought will continue another season, but thankfully the Clemson defense is limiting kickoff return opportunities. The unit hasn’t made any glaring mistakes beyond Ross not fielding what became a 72 yard punt last week. Grade: C+
Coaching: As a coach myself, I tend to focus on player performance more than play calls and the like, but I know folks want to talk about this. The staff has had challenges thrown at it with injuries in particular, but at the same time, it is hard to deny the team hasn’t seem nearly as prepared to play to its strengths as past units. Being caught off guard by Georgia Tech going to an odd front defense was pretty inexcusable. I will say that getting the O-line righted to the point the team could run the ball last week was a real plus, particularly considering the Putnam injury. Pace has shown growth and Mafah looked ready. The WR play has been the most disappointing. I’m actually more bothered by the missed assignments than I am the drops.
Tony Elliott had a couple of the best calls of the year against BC, especially that screen pass to Pace. Of course, good calls don’t look like good calls unless the team executes the way they did on that play. I want to be fair and say that youth and inexperience make a big difference. Some guys are different on practice fields (or courts) than they are when the bright lights come on, at least for a while. I do feel the staff has a better grasp on how this offense needs to operate, but the execution in the passing game still has a long way to go.
Dabo lamented the speed option call which I felt was easily the worst play call of the BC game. Some might point to the play action pass on the final drive that DJ ended up eating for a sack to keep the clock running, but I could actually see the logic of that call in terms of risk/reward — it’s either an easy completion or DJ holds it to keep the clock moving. Clemson shouldn’t have to get cute in short yardage nearly as much as we have seen when you have two 220 pound backs and a 250 pound QB. The biggest thing is improving the execution where if a play fails, it is because a guy got whipped vs. missing an assignment. With Clemson’s overall talent advantage, there shouldn’t be THAT many whippings.
I’ll give the staff some credit for the improvements we saw vs. BC, but overall the team has vastly underperformed relative to the talent at its disposal, youth or no youth. The 2011 offense was young in a lot of spots also but lit it up most of that season. Grade C-
My expectation going forward is for each unit to improve by a letter grade from now. That might not seem like enough when you have some low grades like we see here, but the defense is good enough that simply playing B or B- offense can be enough for this team to win the rest of its games. It is most important for DJU and the WRs to up their games, especially when they have the highest potential of all position groups. Clemson is going to need to be able to trade some blows with some of the offenses left on the schedule, particularly Pittsburgh’s and to a slightly lesser degree Wake Forest’s. We’re fortunate to catch them in the back half of the year, as long as injuries don’t continue to mount.