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The Power of Competition: Looking at the Clemson QB Battle

Syndication: The Des Moines Register Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

Spring football is getting underway, and many Clemson fans are eager to see if the two biggest weaknesses of the 2021 team can be addressed: quarterback and wide receiver. Offensive line play has been a common scapegoat for Clemson’s shortcomings, but the reality is that QB/WR play returning to 2015-2020 levels would take this program back inside the top 5 and in playoff contention.

If you have read this site for very long, you probably know I’ve been around for a while and am pretty well versed in the modern history of Clemson football. The dark days of the 1990s were predicated upon eroded depth and insufficient QB/WR play. The Tigers still had a lot of good players back then, especially on defense, but beyond 1991’s final ACC title team in 20 years, the “best” season came in 1993 when the Tigers lost to the best two teams on the schedule by a combined 81-0 and had a third loss at home against a Wake Forest team that would finish that season 2-9. That team would move its starting cornerback to quarterback at the end of the season, which should tell you about the status of the quarterback depth at the time.

Tommy Bowden came to town in 1999 and finally modernized the Clemson offense, which in turn vastly improved the program’s ability to get playmakers at quarterback and wide receiver. Unfortunately, depth continued to be the biggest issue. This was probably best seen in 2001 and then again in 2004. Dabo Swinney was coaching WRs in 2004 and I vividly recall his issues with depth at his position. The lack of depth led to a lack of quality competition, which in turn made it harder for him to hold the more talented players accountable. This was best seen when he was struggling with the talented but mercurial Kelvin Grant. When the Tigers shockingly lost at Duke the week after upsetting Miami, Kelvin Grant had a huge drop on what would have been a big play across the middle of the field. Plays like that very well could have opened things up and allowed Clemson to put Duke away, but instead the game stayed close for the Blue Devils to kick a 50+ yard field goal to win it despite barely having 200 yards of offense. I’m paraphrasing here, but Swinney essentially discussed not being able to “fire a guy” because of not having anyone else to do the job. He had Airese Currie as a firm WR1, but after that he had Chansi Stuckey who was just learning the position. He liked Michael Collins, but Collins had a degenerative condition that was eroding his ability to run at the level needed for major D1 football. Perhaps Grant might have figured it out if he knew he had to in order to sniff playing time. We don’t know, but what is certain is that he didn’t figure it out under the circumstances he was in at the time.

There is no substitute for quality competition at a position. The most talented guys rarely reach their zenith if not pushed by guys coming for their job. There are those rare players who are so self driven that it doesn’t matter, but more often than not, you aren’t really going to get the best from a young player without a healthy dose of competition in practice.

Now Clemson should have sufficient competition at the quarterback position for the first time since Trevor Lawrence was a Tiger. We’ve already seen evidence that incumbent DJ Uiagalelei has reshaped his body and put in extra work ahead of spring practice. While there is no doubt that injuries played a role in DJ’s disappointing debut as the full time starter, it is hard for me to imagine that a full offseason with absolutely no threat of competition for his job didn’t play a part. Any slight hope of that went away when primary backup Taisun Phommachanh tore his Achilles in the spring. Now Cade Klubnick is in town with as much, if not more, pedigree out of high school as Uiagalelei had when he arrived. The program also has the history of making this big change if it is warranted, which we saw in 2014 with Deshaun Watson overtaking Cole Stoudt and again in 2018 when Trevor Lawrence overtook Kelly Bryant. In both cases, we saw an offense that reached an entirely new level as a result of this shift.

Now, some may have written the book on DJ and anxiously hope for Cade to win the job. I’m of the opinion that the best case scenario is that Cade’s presence pushes DJ to the level most everyone thought he would be going into last year. There is no substitute for experience, and DJ has gotten a ton over the last two seasons. You also know the potential outcomes if a change is made in the transfer portal era. Obviously, like in 2018, the right move is the right move transfer portal or not, but Cade getting to play in the role DJ played in 2020 would be most ideal IMHO. We saw a much more relaxed DJ in 2020, but how much of that was because Trevor was there? How much did DJ press last season because he knew it was him or nobody? It is impossible to know for sure, but I believe it was a factor in both cases.

The UGA game was nearly a draw when you compare QB/WR play of both teams that day, but the Tigers were clearly outclassed at those two spots in the other two losses vs. NCSU and Pittsburgh. NCSU will be a popular pick from some to win the Atlantic next season thanks to returning Devin Leary. Clemson simply needs its QB/WR play to rebound for the rest of its superiority to shine through.

I recall hearing “help is on the way” during the disappointing 2010 season. That help came in the form of talented newcomers who overtook guys who couldn’t produce and pushed those who could, like Deandre Hopkins and Jaron Brown. Let’s hope that help has arrived on campus in the spots we need it most. I recall Hopkins feeling the coaches has recruited Martavis Bryant to overtake him, and whether that was really true or not, Hopkins used that as fuel to produce one of the most dominant seasons we’ve ever seen in 2012.