We’ve talked about all the big picture college football news, now let’s have some fun looking at this 2022 Clemson football team.
Clemson finished 10-3 last season so by no means were they bad, but they were far from elite. The defense was outstanding, but the offense was well below average. What specific 1-2 areas of the offense do you think will improve the most in 2022?
Ryan: I think the intermediate passing game, especially over-the-middle could get a lot better. I really like Clemson’s duo at tight end with the veteran Davis Allen and high-upside youngster Jake Brinningstool. It should be Clemson’s best TE group since Leggett departed. Tight end isn’t a sexy position so it didn’t get talked about much, but TE Braden Galloway had an almost unthinkably bad season with really ugly PFF metrics last year. I think Allen and Briningstool will make a mark this season.
The slot receiver position should be a lot better too. The experiment to move Justyn Ross to the slot didn’t work. By the end of the season, Drew Swinney was starting in the slot. Entering 2022, Troy Stellato, Brannon Spector, and Will Taylor are all healthy. I’m not opining that they’ll all be stars, but I think one of them will be at least a solid slot receiver next year. Plus, Antonio Williams joins the team as a true freshman for even more depth. This group went from no depth to a ton of it!
I also think the QB play is bound to improve. DJ Uiagalelei returns with more experience and some better options in the passing game as described above. Plus, if he doesn’t show some improvement then Cade Klubnik is there as another option.
Will: Like Ryan, I look to see DJ Uiagalalei take a step forward from his less than stellar performance of 2021. Clemson struggled mightily by most metrics through the air, and while I’m not expecting DJ to suddenly turn into 2016 Deshaun Watson, I certainly hope to see a bounce-back junior campaign from him. The receivers (if healthy) and tight ends have the potential on paper to be a strong unit, although Clemson would benefit greatly if some of the underclassmen are able to contribute significantly to provide quality depth.
Regardless of WR performance, I really am hoping to see DJ improve with accuracy, decision-making, and consistency. We’ve seen flashes of high-level play from him, but he needs to raise the bar in multiple areas of his game to really step up here.
However, I expect the offensive line to be much more consistent with its play, something that would greatly help DJ have a strong season. Keeping in mind that despite Hunter Rayburn announcing he would be medically retiring from playing football, the Tigers return four of their top contributors along the line (McFadden, Parks, Putnam, and Tate). Add in some growing depth players, and this could be one of the stronger years for Clemson’s often criticized OL.
C_Craft: Good old Danny Ford would tell us that if you are winning up front and running the ball, you have all you really need. That is still mostly true and I expect the Tigers to have an elite running attack after having to transition to younger backs and linemen last season. All three backs are veterans now and, if healthy, provide a stable usually seen in Athens or Tuscaloosa.
Health is always a major variable, but I expect the Tigers to be significantly better between the tackles this year with Pennington healthy and guys like Tate and Howard a year older and stronger. As long as Will Putnam can solidify the center spot, I expect the Tigers to force teams to load up on the run and provide more chances for explosive plays behind that.
Of course, that won’t matter nearly as much if the QB-WR play is what it was last season. Fortunately, Clemson is elite defensively and simply needs 2017 levels of QB play to win this league and make the playoffs once again. B.T. Potter being back is an underrated aspect for the close games that the Tigers could see. So I expect the running game to be 200+ YPG and explosive plays to increase by 50% from last year.
And what 1-2 aspects of the offense that need improvement do you feel has a high chance of falling short again in 2022?
Ryan: While I like the tight end and slot receivers, I’m not sure the outside receivers are a lock to return to championship-levels. Joe Ngata has shown flashes, but can he stay healthy? The same is true for EJ Williams. He has a ton of upside, but I could see him finishing the season with under 100 receiving yards just as much as I could see him eclipsing 1,000 yards. I liked what I saw from Dacari Collins and Beaux Collins last year, but it is unwise to just assume they take a big step in their progression as sophomores. Having Adam Randall healthy would have been a nice boost. His torn ACL hurts. I felt that should have been the prompting for the staff to go out and sign a veteran from the portal, but they did not. Hopefully this group stays healthy and it proves to be the right call, but I’m worried this group could be a little thin.
Will: If I’m being perfectly honest I don’t foresee the wide receivers having a massive improvement. I think there are some deeper-rooted issues with this unit at the moment, from blocking and route-running, to just lacking top-end talent. Injuries have plagued this group for quite a few seasons now as well (we’ve been waiting all of Ngata’s career for him to have a healthy season), and I just don’t have a ton of faith right now. I would love to be wrong on this one, but for now I’m in a see-it-to-believe-it mode.
Clemson desperately needs one (or more) of Ngata, Williams, or Collins to step up and dominate for DJ and this offense to run smoothly. The running game is there: we know there is a proven trio of backs ready to churn out yards on the ground, but can the receivers earn back some of the lost WRU identity?
C_Craft: The WR unit is still manned by potential versus production. Beaux Collins came on late in the year and Ngata had good moments but couldn’t stay healthy. Everyone else has simply just flashed a few times, if at all, and has a lot to prove. While I’m hopeful that Putnam will work out at center, I certainly have to see it in a real game to fully believe it after seeing how badly Bockhorst struggled there last season.
DJU was light years better in 2020 than last year, as we all know, but I’m convinced that having Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell was a huge factor in that. Clemson proved it could take the top off of defenses with those two guys and it affected how teams tried to defend. Etienne’s presence was huge as well, but as noted earlier, I expect the backfield talent to at least get in the ballpark of what #9 could bring individually. Wake Forest and U of SC learned what can happen when the Tigers get that running game rolling even with far below-standard play from the QB and WR.
Clemson’s defense should be as good if not better than last year, which will give them a good chance in every game they play even if the offense only makes incremental improvement. How good should this defense be? Any potential weaknesses you see?
Ryan: The front seven for this defense should be absolutely ferocious. The D-line was missing Bryan Bresee and Tyler Davis for big chunks of last year. They get them back in the interior along with Ruke Orhorhoro and Tre Williams who got valuable reps last season. On the edge, Myles Murphy, Xavier Thomas, and KJ Henry all return. That’s an incredible group.
Losing Sklaski at linebacker obviously stings, but I’m really excited to see Barrett Carter at SAM and Trenton Simpson at WILL. Clemson has plenty of options for the MIKE, but I think that Carter-Simpson combo has the potential to be one of the best Clemson has had in a long time.
The area of concern is the secondary. The Tigers lost both All-ACC starting cornerbacks (Andrew Booth and Mario Goodrich) and veteran starting safety Nolan Turner. Safety Andrew Mukuba and cornerback Sheridan Jones give this group a high enough floor that — with an elite front seven — I’m not too concerned. I think Clemson will have a top 5 defense in 2022 barring a terrible spate of injuries.
Will: This season feels like 2018 - a veteran group of playmakers on the line to anchor what should be a solid defense all around. I want more than anything for XT to have a dominant year and really boost his draft stock; Tyler Davis and Bryan Bresee are likely gone along with KJ Henry and Myles Murphy. This is a stacked front, make no mistake.
Behind them, the linebackers are incredibly talented but somewhat green. Trenton Simpson is the most experienced and will undoubtedly be a leader on this defense. I wish we had Skalski for one more season to be that vocal, old-school bruiser, but there is more than enough talent ready to step up in his place.
Like Ryan, I’m not terribly concerned for any one position group on this defense. The secondary has playmakers waiting to shine and should produce another star in what is an impressive DB track record for Clemson recently. This could be one of the best defenses we’ve seen over the last ten seasons and it should be a blast to watch them play this year.
C_Craft: I see no reason why this defense can’t be as good as any Clemson has fielded in the Dabo Swinney era. The only variable to me is health. There are absolute difference makers across the front four, an uber-elite LB behind them in Trenton Simpson, and one of the most talented DB’s Clemson has had in Andrew Mukuba, flanked by guys who have now had a lot of experience in Phillips, Greene, Mickens, etc.
My one concern, beyond health, would be replacing the two top-shelf corners from last year: Booth and Goodrich. There is talent in the room for sure with Fred Davis, Sheridan Jones, Nate Wiggins, and the Lukas/Pride combination, but only Jones has really seen a lot of bright light action to this point in that group.
Let’s end with a speed round. What is the...
1) Game you’re most looking forward to 2) Game you’re most worried about 3) Biggest X-factor player for Clemson’s overall success?
Ryan: I’m most looking forward to Georgia Tech in the season opener because it is our first chance to see if this offense is markedly better. Georgia Tech is not good, but they weren’t great last year and they still stymied Clemson’s offense. A 45-7 type of beatdown would totally change my perspective on this 2022 Tiger team. I also look forward to visiting Mercedes Benz Stadium, which is an excellent site for football. I’m also really looking forward to the Textile Bowl and some serious revenge.
Miami and Notre Dame are the two games that right now I’d posit have the highest probability of a loss. If Tyler Van Dyke is as good as he looked for much of last year, Miami may have the answer at QB and they have some good talent around him. They could be quite dangerous. Notre Dame doesn’t always have the top QB play, but you know they’ll be tough in the trenches. Going to Indiana in November makes that tough. I can see a scenario where an undefeated Clemson loses both of those games in heartbreaking fashion.
WR Joe Ngata could be the team’s biggest X-factor. I’m worried about the outside WRs. If Ngata stays healthy and really has a breakout 1,000-yard campaign that totally changes the look of the offense. There’s no denying that last year’s QB play was poor, but having an outside wide receiver the QB can trust to win jump balls changes a lot. Ngata has the potential to provide that.
Will: I’m most looking forward to the NC State game for sure. It’s a critical matchup that could very well determine the division, plus that loss was so painful last year, and I would love to see us repay the favor at home in a few months.
I’m most nervous about facing Notre Dame in their stadium. The last time Clemson visited South Bend, DJ had one of the best debuts for a freshman college QB in years, setting multiple records against Notre Dame in the narrow loss. It will be an inevitable comparison made when early November rolls around, and perhaps rightly so — by that point in the season we should have a pretty good idea of where DJ is in his junior year, and the game could serve as a barometer of sorts for his career.
I believe the defensive line is this team’s X-factor, but more specifically Xavier Thomas. He has been steady every year but really needs to play like the DE we know he can be to elevate this defense to championship-caliber. There are a number of quality players on that front but I think XT can take them to another level if he has a standout season.
1) Game you’re most looking forward to: It is easy to say at ND, but I’m going to go with the NCSU game. They are easily the biggest threat in the division and, really, in the league in my mind. They have a veteran, high-level QB which makes a world of difference. They are good enough defensively to force DJU (or Cade) make plays to beat them. Almost every Clemson loss over the last six years has been when the opposing QB/WR units outplay the Tigers. It certainly was the case in the two ACC losses last year. I also hate NCSU and expect the stadium to be at peak levels for what hopefully will be a 1989-type vengeance game.
2) Game you’re most worried about: I guess I worry most about a game that you really feel should be a win but for whatever reason could be an upset situation. Those are always the most painful games to swallow in my opinion. I’d say the game at BC worries me the most in that regard. Like NCSU, they should have a capable QB even though they are completely retooling their OL. They gave the Tigers all they wanted in 2020 and 2021. That game also comes after the huge showdown with the Wolfpack. Dabo has been as good as any coach could reasonably be at preventing letdowns, but the team is still made up of young men who could fall victim to what we saw the 2017 team suffer at Syracuse. Clemson is still the superbowl for every team on its schedule.
3) Biggest X-factor player for Clemson’s overall success?: I have to go with DJU. If he can play somewhere in the range of what we saw in 2020, this team will be elite. I feel a lot better now that he has legitimate competition behind him this season, but unless Cade just shows undeniable ability the way we saw Watson and Lawrence show when they ascended as freshmen, DJ still holds the ultimate keys to “top 5 status” vs. “good but flawed team” like 2021. When the rubber hit the road last year, both Kenny Pickett and Devin Leary made the plays that DJ and his cast simply couldn’t — or didn’t. There are going to be games where the Clemson QB has to make it happen for this season to be special.