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Season of Change: Clemson likely to lose Venables, Elliott, and Radakovich in Same Off-Season

Clemson is experiencing far more change than expected. How will they replace them?

South Carolina State v Clemson Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Clemson has had a hectic off-season! It all started when Lincoln Riley abruptly left Oklahoma to take the head coaching position at USC. Although Oklahoma has enjoyed much more recent success than USC, the Trojans are a dormant power in the relatively weak Pac-12. When they have their program running on all cylinders, they should dominate the conference and have their pick of the top recruits across the west coast. Oklahoma is moving to the SEC which means more money and prestige, but it also means replacing games against Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and West Virginia with Texas A&M, LSU, and Alabama. Sooner fans are used to losing just one or two games per season, and meeting those expectations could become unrealistic in their new conference home. Also, the money is outstanding:

Defensive Coordinator

With Lincoln Riley gone, Clemson fans hoped Oklahoma would hire Iowa State Head Coach Matt Campbell or Cincinnati Head Coach Luke Fickell. Instead, they chose Clemson Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables. Coach Venables had been at Clemson for 10 seasons following a 13-year run at Oklahoma. He is widely considered the best assistant coach in Clemson football history. He took over a defense that surrendered 70 points to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl and fairly quickly turned it into an elite unit. Clemson consistently finished inside the top 10 in sacks and scoring defense during his tenure.

Replacing the best defensive coordinator in college football without some drop-off isn’t really possible, but Clemson must minimize the impact while keeping players from de-committing or transferring. Back when Chad Morris left a highly successful offense, Coach Swinney promoted two of his understudies into co-coordinator roles. Given the success of the defense and the potential interest in continuity, we may see something similar.

Cornerbacks Coach Mike Reed is the first name that comes to mind. He joined Clemson in 2008 following five years with the Philadelphia Eagles and six with NC State. Clemson once had a reputation as WRU, but CBU may be more accurate these days. Since 2017, Clemson has had three cornerbacks go in the first three rounds of the NFL draft (2017: Tankersley 3rd round, 2019: Mullen 2nd round; 2020: AJ Terrell 16th pick). Andrew Booth is expected to be their highest selection yet as he will likely go within the top 15 of this year’s draft.

A less-known name floating around the rumor mill is Wesley Goodwin. He is not an on-field coach right now, but according to Morgan Thomas, stepped in for the bowl game back in 2012, and may have earned himself a promotion through consistent excellent work. He is highly-respected by his peers.

Mickey Conn, the current Safeties Coach, is another name that could be in the mix. He joined Clemson in 2016 after several busts in the secondary cost Clemson the 2015 National Championship. Clemson’s defensive backs quickly improved upon Conn joining the staff. I expect an internal promotion at defensive coordinator. Many of these coaching seem deserving and may be ready. Personally, I would also welcome bringing in a big name such as Derrick Mason at Auburn (formerly the DC at Stanford and HC at Vanderbilt) or Manny Diaz (formerly a highly successful DC at Miami before becoming the Head Coach there). There are a lot of good options for Clemson on defense whether they stay internal or look outside.

Athletic Director

If that change wasn’t enough, Clemson Athletic Director Dan Radakovich appears to be leaving for the same position at Miami:

Miami has been a mess for years. They have no on-campus stadium. Fan support is fickle at best and former players seem to have a over-sized influence on the program. They have come into some money recently as big-time donors lined up to buy-out Manny Diaz’s contract, then buy-out Mario Cristobal from Oregon and give him a hefty contract. Evidently, there’s plenty left to give Dan Radakovich a raise as well.

For Clemson, all signs point to Deputy AD Graham Neff taking the job. The loss at AD doesn’t seem nearly as painful as the loss of Brent Venables. Radakovich has been at Clemson for the entirety of Clemson’s miraculous ACC dynasty as he took over back in 2012. There’s certainly been great alignment with Coach Swinney and the football staff. It is key that they stay on the same page.

At the same time, some have been frustrated by the major non-football investments Radakovich’s athletic department has made. The site for the softball field disregarded key parking lots for football tailgating and caused a trickledown effect that made it much more expensive to tailgate on campus. Additionally, expenses were absorbed to add new sports that have minimal fan following. Most recently, the athletic department drew ire from fans for extending the contract of basketball coach Brad Brownell following an NCAA tournament appearance and loss to Rutgers. I expect an internal hire to replace Dan Radakovich, and am not overly concerned about this departure.

Offensive Coordinator

Now, the latest piece of news is that Tony Elliott is very close to getting the Virginia job. A few years ago, this was a brutal job, but Coach Mendenhall has left them in a better spot. They’ll lose star quarterback Brennan Armstrong, but are light years ahead of where they were back in 2016 when Mendenhall went 2-10 in year one.

Evidently, Duke is also interested so Coach Elliott could take that as a fallback, but it sounds like Virginia is more likely at this point.

What does this mean for Clemson?

Clemson’s offenses have been prolific under Elliott. Coach Elliott became a co-OC with Jeff Scott for the 40-6 2014 bowl win over Oklahoma. From 2015-2019 as co-OC, Clemson’s offenses averaged 38+ points every year except 2017 when they averaged 33 points per game with Kelly Bryant as the QB.

In two seasons as the sole offensive coordinator, Elliott’s offense averaged 43.5 points per game in 2020, but just 26.8 this year. How much blame falls on Coach Elliott has been heavily debated for months. I believe it is less than most fans would admit, however there’s no doubt that the offensive scheme and play calling has become a little stale. There have been several head scratching instances this year (e.g., three straight passes on first and goal against Georgia). Perhaps the timing is just right and he can leave right as Clemson’s offense needs a little shake-up.

Many have assumed Brandon Streeter would get promoted to offensive coordinator when Coach Elliott leaves. Had the offense continued to roll has it had in years past, I think that would be probable, but given their struggles an outside hire seems more likely. Streeter has been with Clemson since 2015, but before that was the offensive coordinator at Richmond and prior to that at Liberty. He could be a target for Offensive Coordinator at Virginia with Coach Elliott.

If Clemson goes external with the hire, as it feels like they should and likely would, a couple names come to mind.

Joe Brady was recently dismissed from his role as offensive coordinator of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, but before that revolutionized LSU’s offense in 2019. He won the Broyles Award in his only season there. Prior to his year at LSU, he spent two years with the New Orleans Saints. Before that he was a graduate assistant. He is only 32 years old so his track record is short, but impressive nonetheless. He has not had an extended run of success anywhere, so there’s some risk, but he is certainly a fresh, exciting offensive mind.

Dan Mullen seemed to have lost the culture at the end of his tenure as Florida’s head coach, but he had incredible success before that. He was the offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Florida from 2005-2008. He led the offense for the 2006 and 2008 National Championship teams there. He then moved to Mississippi State where he became the greatest coach in program history. After going 5-7 in his first year, they made eight straight bowl games including the 2014 Orange Bowl. Back at Florida as the head coach, he notched 21 wins in his first two seasons including Peach and Orange Bowl victories. They then won the SEC East last season before cratering this year. Bringing in a two-time National Champion offensive coordinator with extensive head coaching experience at the highest-level seems very attractive.

One name which may not be quite as well-known is Tom Manning. He is the current offensive coordinator for Clemson’s bowl opponent, the Iowa State Cyclones. He has been there three years and each year the Cyclones have averaged 32+ points per game. They are experiencing one of the more successful runs in school history. Another element that makes this hire intriguing is Manning’s history as a player and position coach. He was an offensive linemen at Mount Union from 2001-2005 and coached the position at various stops before becoming the Cyclones’ offensive coordinator. His experience at that position may make him an especially good fit as the Tigers have found that position the trickiest to find consistent on-field success and produce NFL draftees.

Finally, Willie Korn, the former Clemson QB, may be someone Clemson should reach out to as well. He is currently a co-offensive coordinator with Coastal Carolina. Depending on his role in planning the offense and calling plays he could be a coup for the Tigers. CCU runs some interesting QB-option plays so evaluating how they would work in the ACC will be important, but bringing in some fresh ideas from a Clemson alumnus is certainly worth consideration.

Any of these three appear to be an outstanding candidates should Coach Elliott land a head coaching job. Hopefully we get some resolution soon as the Early Signing Period is right around the corner. Clemson has plenty of great options, hopefully they find a great fit.