2021’s football season was very different than any Clemson fans have experienced since 2014. The Tigers were pretty much out of the running for the ACC title before October, though a slim ray of hope extended into November’s Wake and NCSU games vs. other opponents. The Tigers struggled mightily at quarterback and wide receiver after enjoying the best play in the conference in those two spots for 7 consecutive years. Although the team really did themselves proud to win 10 games, including extending the streak vs. U of SC and winning the bowl game, the season left many outside of Clemson’s sphere casting doubt on the future of the program as an college football elite.
Fast forward to the 2022 draft and Clemson had another unfamiliar experience (in recent terms) of seeing no first round draft picks and only 2 drafted players total from the eligible members from the 21 team. What should we think about all of this? Top rival UGA had five first rounders alone and 13 total drafted. Even if you give Derion Kendrick to Clemson, you’d have to give them Jermaine Johnson (another first rounder). Just looking at those numbers, you might marvel that the Tigers were able to compete with UGA at the level they did in Charlotte.
Of course, there is more to tell from a team’s roster than just the outgoing, draft eligible folks. Clemson fans are pretty aware that many of the top prospects on the roster were either not draft eligible yet or elected to return to school to graduate and/or boost draft stock. The Tigers are about to see the class they signed after the 2018-19 National Championship become draft eligible.
Injuries were a major factor for the 2021 team during the season and played a big part in how the draft went. Top prospect Andrew Booth saw what would have been a sure fire first round situation slip into the second round after he was unable to participate in the combine or pro day due to hernia surgery. No telling what his testing numbers would have been given the otherworldly athleticism he showed the last two seasons.
Baylon Spector was the other Tiger to get his name called when Buffalo made him their final pick of the 2022 draft. Spector tested well and certainly had a productive two seasons as a starter for the Clemson defense. He was the more athletic of the “Bruise Brothers” and was used in coverage a lot more than James Skalski. It is almost a must that modern NFL linebackers show coverage skills to expect to be drafted these days. Skalksi probably would have been a much more sought after prospect in the running back dominated 1980s.
Cheez-It Bowl MVP Mario Goodrich fell to UDFA status after he also battled injury from the Senior Bowl. Goodrich did score one of the most lucrative UDFA deals of anyone in the last few seasons, but it was definitely a surprise to see him not get his name called in Las Vegas after putting together a stellar final season at Clemson where folks were apt to avoid Booth on the opposite side.
The Justyn Ross story got even more attention as he was considered a no doubt first round talent following his path of destruction through the 2018-19 College Football Playoffs. It was understandable that Ross’s nearly unprecedented spinal surgery issues would push him down the boards some, but Ross also had to pull the plug on his 2021 season with a foot injury that would require surgery of its own. Ross had to miss the Combine testing and only put up modest numbers at the Clemson Pro-Day testing relative to his position. However, he has as much of a chance to shine as any considering his landing spot (Kansas City) and how much different of a body type he is from their returning WR corps. They really haven’t had a guy like him during this recent run where Tight End Travis Kelce has represented their one big bodied receiving threat.
Nolan Turner tested very, very well and I thought he might get a late draft selection off of that, but ultimately he signed as an UDFA with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Skalski signed with the Indianapolis Colts.
The Will Spiers-Jack Maddox punting battery got camp invites, which is an even harder road to making a roster than being an UDFA, but they will have a shot nonetheless.
Ultimately the true judgement will come from who makes a mark with their opportunity, however it came. Guys like Adam Humphries and Jaron Brown created NFL careers despite not being drafted, and Humphries is still drawing starts and getting paid in Washington. Dabo Swinney’s program has had a pretty impressive “stick rate” for guys in the NFL. Several guys have either just signed or will be up for signing new deals coming out of their rookie contracts. Just making it to a second NFL contract is nearly as impressive a feat as getting in the league to begin with.
The 2023 draft should be a lot more eventful for Clemson as guys like Bryan Bresee, Myles Murphy, Xavier Thomas, Jordan McFadden, Tyler Davis, K.J. Henry, and Trenton Simpson either become eligible or exhaust their final year of eligibility and automatically go to the draft process. Maybe the most intriguing of all will be D.J. Uiagalelei. It certainly stands to reason that D.J. declaring a year early means he put together a great 2022 season and fulfilled much of the promise that folks figured would have shown in 2021. Both he and new U of SC quarterback Spencer Rattler are hoping for seasons of reparations as former 5 star recruits who hit a rough stretch in 2021.