Was it a wise move for Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney to dismiss Brandon Streeter and hire Broyles Award Winner Garrett Riley as Offensive Coordinator? Yes.
Was it a wise move to replace DJ Uiagalelei in the ACC Championship Game vs. North Carolina and hand Cade Klubnik the reins moving forward? Yes.
Were those two the root of the problem with Clemson’s offense? Were they the reason Clemson was and still is in decline? Now that we have the benefit of hindsight, we can say absolutely not!
As Clemson endures possibly their worst season since 1998, when they were coached by Tommy West and quarterbacked by (ironically) Brandon Streeter, it’s now obvious that Coach Streeter and QB DJ Uiagalelei were not the two biggest reasons for Clemson’s struggles.
You have to go all the way back to the 2018 National Championship season to see a tiny seed of decline planted that eventually grew into today’s struggles. It was the first year the NCAA allowed a 10th on-field assistant coach and Coach Swinney awarded the coveted spot to Lemanski Hall. Todd Bates had previously coached the entire defensive line, but now Hall would handle the defensive ends and allow Bates to focus on defensive tackles.
Lemanski Hall was a former teammate of Coach Swinney at Alabama and a linebackers coach and fitness instructor at a high school in Tennessee. After just three years as an analyst, he received this speedy promotion. Coach Swinney was literally the best coach in college football at the time. Everything he touched turned to gold so nobody — including me — gave this any criticism. After the success of Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott being promoted to co-offensive coordinators, the internal promotion train had left the station.
That season, Clemson won the National Championship with defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant playing a major role. While Coach Hall didn’t need to develop the senior superstars, the team’s success seemed to validate Coach Swinney’s methods.
It was also during the 2018 season that the NCAA created the transfer portal. Clemson was on top of college football though and chose not to destroy anything they were doing creatively. Why fix what’s not broken? The Tigers were on top!
After the 2019 season, which nearly resulted in another National Championship, Jeff Scott took the head coaching position at USF. Swinney promoted analyst Tyler Grisham. He had worked in the program for six years (twice as long as Hall) and was well-liked by fans as a player.
2020 was a weird year in more than a few ways. Clemson looked like a lesser team than in the prior five seasons. Nevertheless, they won the ACC and made the playoff so criticism was tempered and life was good.
The transfer portal’s impact on the game continued to grow and Clemson continued to eschew the opportunity it offered. Their next opponent, the Georgia Bulldogs, took a different route. They used it strategically to add the last few pieces they needed to build the best defense of the modern era. In a painful dose of irony, one of those pieces was former Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick.
In the opener of the 2021 season, Derion Kendrick and the Georgia defense shut down Clemson’s offense. We didn’t know it then, but this was a big step in Clemson’s decline. The offense struggled all season and many fans were quite content when Offensive Coordinator and Running Backs Coach Tony Elliott left for the head job at Virginia.
To fill the on-field coaching position Coach Elliott vacated, fan-favorite CJ Spiller was promoted to Running Backs Coach after just one season as a graduate intern. Meanwhile, Brandon Streeter was promoted to Offensive Coordinator. Additionally, former Clemson center, Thomas Austin, was named the new offensive line coach, replacing veteran Robbie Caldwell. Austin had two years of experience as a college offensive line coach.
Fans were starting to question Swinney’s methods and wondering if he was lowering the bar based on personal relationships. The Streeter promotion was not popular and while criticism of Swinney was becoming more prevalent, 2021 felt like at least somewhat of a fluke. A return to the playoff was expected for 2022.
Streeter took over a broken offense. While they managed to piece together 10 wins the season before, it was done almost solely thanks to a great defense and a team culture that still carried the cliché but true “know how to win” skill from the National Championship runs.
To his credit, in 2022, Brandon Streeter’s offense improved from 2021. Streeter had prior experience at other schools before coming to Clemson and did not appear lost in the role. The offense was more creative and used more tempo than it did under Elliott. It had its flaws, namely forgetting the tight ends and middle of the field. It also fell victim to overly allowing defenses to dictate to them and get away from what is working. Nonetheless, it was better despite massive limitations outside his control.
Unlike the Clemson coordinators from 2015-2020, Brandon Streeter was not blessed with elite playmakers on the field or experienced assistant coaches under him along the sideline. He had a banged-up wide receiver corps that badly needed help from the transfer portal. We’ll never know if he asked Coach Swinney for help from the portal and was denied, but if so, it is even harder to blame him for the team’s struggles. He didn’t have veteran coaches like Jeff Scott as a co-coordinator or Robbie Caldwell as an offensive line coach. Due to the aforementioned spate of turnover in the preceding years and junior coaches promoted from within, he had a very young offensive staff reporting to him. He was not put in a position to succeed.
Likewise, DJ Uiagalelei looked to have a bounce-back year after a poor 2021 when he was inaccurate and struggled to know when to get rid of the ball. Fans were cautiously optimistic he’d start living up to his 5-star billing. Obviously, his 2022 season at Clemson was up and down. He was marvelous in leading Clemson to a shoot-out win over Wake Forest, but seemed completely lost against Syracuse (he was pulled), Notre Dame (Clemson was blown out), South Carolina (Clemson lost), and UNC (he was pulled early and lost the starting job leading to his transfer). Still, they managed to win 11 games and capture the ACC title.
Now at Oregon State, DJ Uiagalelei has the 8th-best QBR in the country! He is averaging 224 yards per game and has a 17-4 TD-to-INT ratio. Meanwhile, back at Clemson, former five-star, Cade Klubnik and one of the brightest offensive minds in the game, Garrett Riley, can’t solve Clemson’s woes. It is now abundantly clear the issues run much deeper and Coach Brandon Streeter and quarterback DJ Uiagalelei shouldered much more of the blame than they deserved.