There is football back in Death Valley! Is anyone else sunburnt? The Tigers returned to a scorching Memorial Stadium with a win on Saturday as they downed the Charleston Southern Buccaneers 66–17. Let’s take a look at the performance of each position group and assign a rating 1–10 based on my opinion of their play and some basic analytics. These numbers are not based on specific metrics, so expect the human element to factor into the scoring. Onward!
Quarterback - 6
Cade Klubnik put up some solid numbers on Saturday, going 28–37 for 315 yards with 4 TDs and 1 interception. Decision making is still a major issue for the young quarterback as he was responsible for a fumble and a pick six in the first quarter, which had the Tigers in an early 14–7 deficit. Give him credit; he responded well, settled in and continued to deliver big throws for the Tigers. But the turnover trend is worrisome as the Tigers will be hosting top 10 Florida State in two short weeks, and it is worth noting that without such mistakes from QB1, the Bucs would likely not have scored a touchdown. There were multiple opportunities to spread the ball to open receivers early in routes, but Klubnik continues to be indecisive and hesitant. He will need to learn to eat the sack as well. Hunter Helms and Paul Tyson both looked surprisingly efficient in cameo appearances, combining to go 8–8 for 86 yards and a touchdown.
Running Backs - 8
Shipley and Mafah showcased their toughness and consistency as they cruised to a combined 132 yards on a mere 18 carries (7.3 yds/att). The two back sets are proving to be an area of strength for the Tiger offense as the zone read with the lead blocker has been successful in the Tigers’ first two games. The backs are also getting some work catching passes out of the backfield in the new Garrett Riley schemes, looking crisp on several plays early in the game. In garbage time, the Tigers threw on a plethora of running back options with some imposing and physical runs, specifically from freshman Keith Adams Jr. and junior Domonique Thomas. This group put up an impressive 14.3% explosive play rate on Saturday – something the Tigers will need to continue as the season progresses.
Wide Receivers - 7
Red alert! There has been a Troy Stellato sighting in Death Valley! The wide receivers bounced back after their dismal display in Durham to accumulate over 300 receiving yards against Charleston Southern (as they should). The receiving corps looked explosive when compared to the last couple of seasons for the Tigers. Beaux Collins tied his career high with 137 yards and a touchdown, arguably his best performance in a Clemson uniform (the early celebration never needs to happen again). Antonio Williams had some great catches in the red zone for two TDs, and Troy Stellato looked shifty and quick as he caught 5 passes for 51 yards, his first contributions since 2021. Stellato adds another dynamic to this receiving corps that has been missing. Senior Hamp Greene had a noteworthy and impressive one-handed grab that brought some excitement to the team. The Tiger passing game exhibited a 66.7% success rate and was moving the ball comfortably all game. This type of performance HAS to be a regular occurrence for the receiving corps if Clemson is to compete against elite opponents.
Tight Ends - 6
Tight Ends accounted for 6 receptions on Saturday with four different pass catchers involved. The tight ends have not been utilized as much as I was expecting in the Garrett Riley system so far, but it is early. It was great to see freshman Josh Sapp haul in a touchdown; he looked big and fast in his first home game for the Tigers. Perimeter blocking will be important for this group, and they have to be physical to create space for the skill weapons in this offense. I also expect to see more tight end and middle-of-the-field usage increase as tougher opponents appear on the schedule.
Offensive Line - 7
The offensive line continued to provide some holes in the ground game for the Tigers as they rushed for 6.5 yds/att against Charleston Southern. In the midweek, Dabo Swinney mentioned that center Will Putnam and right guard Walker Parks are the leaders of the team and set the tone offensively to be aggressive and dominant. The running backs have found success in the inside run game, which can be attributed to great play up front by the O-line. Pass blocking needs improvement. Cade was pressured a handful of times and was sacked once (could have been more). Overall, a good start to the season for the Tiger O-line and a deserving 7.
Offense - 6.8
The Tiger offense sputtered in the first quarter due to some all-too-familiar turnovers in critical situations, but they grew to dominate the game in the second half. The offense was able to garner 679 yards on the day, but Charleston Southern is a team that Clemson should innately dominate based on talent alone. The turnover disease must be cured if this team wants to have any chance of winning against top 10 competition this season. Cade has shown that he possesses the play-making ability and arm strength to deliver big time throws; he just needs to eliminate major mistakes. His decision-making ability should improve with experience, so we will have to be patient. The offensive explosive play rate increased from 7% to 19% this week, which is encouraging to see. Big plays and mistake-free football will be the recipe for success for this offense in this 2023 season.
Defensive Line - 7
The defensive line delivered an impressive performance as they held Charleston Southern to a meager 12 yards on the ground Saturday afternoon (0.4 yds/att). The Tiger D-line contributed to two sacks on the day, one with Xavier Thomas bulldozing the Buccaneer right tackle and bringing Bartalo, the quarterback, to the ground. True freshman TJ Parker continues to steal the show as he led the team in tackles with 4, and an impressive 3 tackles for loss on Saturday afternoon. He seems to be the best run stopper on the edge and must be a starter moving forward. Setting the edge still seems to be a weakness of this group, something Venables used to say is one of the most important aspects of defensive play. Overall, this unit returned to form against Charleston Southern and earned a 7 on the day.
Linebackers - 7
The linebackers had a normal day at the office as they provided the speed and athletic ability to keep Charleston Southern’s attack at bay. Trotter and Carter were flying around, and it was good to see their speed, especially after Carter’s midweek comments saying he felt unprepared in his conditioning levels on Monday night in Durham. The speed option for the Bucs was their only hope of success on Saturday, and the linebacking corps seemed to swallow it up every time there was space. The more gang tackling this group is able to achieve, the better it bodes for the defense. Woodaz’s pick six was the icing on the cake for this group on Saturday (more on that later).
Cornerbacks - 8
The corners played violent and aggressive Saturday afternoon, holding Charleston Southern to only 61 yards through the air. The Buccaneers’ quarterback Bartolo was only able to go 6–16 and failed to deliver in the passing attack. Junior Nate Wiggins had a sack on a huge hit that surprisingly did not turn into a fumble. Sophomore Jaedyn Lukus laid the wood on one Buccaneer receiver which popped the ball into the hands of nearby Wade Woodaz, resulting in a pick six. Lukus has looked solid in the first two games this season and along with Wiggins, Jones Jr., Pride and Terrell, has shown some encouraging signs for this cornerback group.
Safeties - 7
The safeties had a relatively quiet afternoon as they were never really tested on any deep balls or dynamic attacks from the Charleston Southern passing attack. The Buccaneers only had a 2.2% explosive play rate through the air and only took one deep shot that I can remember, which resulted in an incompletion. Andrew Mukuba was out with injury, so freshman Khalil Barnes and sophomore Sherrod Covil Jr. filled in admirably on run support along with senior Jalyn Phillips. No complaints in this department on Saturday.
Defense - 7.3
The defense was able to stifle Charleston Southern at every opportunity on Saturday and gave up just one touchdown, which only occurred thanks to the Buccaneers’ spectacular starting position on our one yard line. The speed and athleticism of this group was too much for the Bucs and made up for any poor alignment or positioning. The speed option attack was able to create some leverage, but the speed of the Tiger defense was able to stop any real threats. The Charleston Southern offense only had a 17.4% success rate and stayed under 100 yards for the afternoon. Energy levels were up from Monday, and the group looked like they were having fun, which was encouraging to see. Overall, a dominant performance against a lesser opponent.
Special Teams - 5
The field goal unit successfully made a field goal on Saturday, which was an improvement upon last week. Banks Pope locked down the left side, and Robert Gunn III was able to build a little confidence as he made a 23 yarder along with 7 extra points. Tyler Brown had an excellent punt return; he was able to shed some would-be tacklers and scamper for 27 yards. If he can become a weapon in the return game, that would work wonders to relieve some pressure on the offense. Charleston Southern was able to recover an onside kick early on, which provided a huge momentum shift at a time when the game was in the balance. I would have liked to see our kick coverage be a little more aware and be able to recognize the situation and recover it.
Overall Team Performance - 6.8
The Clemson faithful were anxiously waiting to see something different from the Tigers on Saturday than what they saw in Durham on Monday night. The Tigers did not do much to squash any fears in the first quarter, as quarterback Cade Klubnik made some (dare I say) characteristic mistakes to give Charleston Southern a 14–7 lead. But from that point on, and especially in the second half, the Tigers really dominated and provided some happiness for those in attendance. The backups showed some intensity and really played well as a ton of Tigers got reps. The wide receivers will need to take the momentum from this performance and use it as a reminder of what is possible. The explosiveness they showed against lesser competition on Saturday has to reappear when the Tigers face the big dogs. The jury is obviously still out.
One thing that was obvious to me while watching the game: This team has a higher ceiling than the last two teams we have seen at Clemson. Cade is dynamic and can make plays. Once he is able to eliminate the damning mistakes from his game, this team has the chance to achieve many of its goals.
Some momentum and confidence were built on Saturday. Let’s see if we can build some more as we look to Florida Atlantic next week under the lights.