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Duke Game Review: Position Group Ratings

Clemson starts the year 0-1 as they go down in Durham with a 28-7 loss to the Duke Blue Devils.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Duke Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson Football is back! And it’s time to introduce a new weekly feature that I get the honor of writing for STS this fall. We will take this time to sift through each position group and assign them a rating 1–10 based on my opinion of their performance and some basic analytics. These numbers are not based on specific metrics, so expect the human element to factor into the scoring. It should be fun, so let’s get to it!

Quarterback - 5

Cade Klubnik went 27–43 for 209 yds with 1 touchdown and 1 interception in his second game as the starting quarterback for the Clemson Tigers. You can tell he has play-making ability, but there are still question marks around his situational awareness and decision making. Those types of attributes can only come with experience. He was likely at fault for the first fumble in the red zone but made an incredible play to run down the Duke player on the Mafah fumble. He has to be more aware and get the first down late in the 4th quarter by diving forwards instead of sliding towards the chains. It was a rough game for the young quarterback.

Running Backs - 7

Shipley and Mafah combined for 179 yards as they were a focal point of the first game in the Garrett Riley offense at Clemson. Shipley continues to be a warrior for the Tigers and took a beating as he battled for every one of his 114 yards. It seems he will have to be relied on for explosive plays, as he had 4 rushes of 10 yards or more. It was great to see Mafah bust loose on the 49-yard run as well, but his fumble in the red zone was incredibly costly for the Tigers. There is a lot to look forward to with these two backs at the center of the offense for the rest of the season.

Wide Receivers - 3

The wide receivers continue to be a massive step down from the likes of receivers Clemson has seen when its offense was dominant in the CFP years. Save for Antonio Williams, this receiving corps plays like they would be a better fit in a Wing-T scheme at a service academy. The lack of explosiveness is limiting the Tigers’ ability to take the top off of a defense. I was looking for receivers like Beaux Collins and Adam Randall to take a step up from last season, but for the most part, they continued to display little dynamism with a combined 6 receptions for 58 yards. I thought the perimeter blocking was improved from the last two seasons, but overall, another underwhelming performance from this group.

Tight Ends - 6

The tight ends cannot be criticized too harshly because their numbers were not called very much Monday night. Brinningstool was the only TE to catch a ball with 1 lowly reception for 10 yards. I did think his blocking on the perimeter was aggressive and it was good to see him getting physical. For that, I will give them a 6. We will overlook Banks Pope getting overrun on multiple field goal attempts...for now.

Offensive Line - 7

To be honest, I thought the offensive line was a bright spot on the night. If Clemson had found a way to win, I think we would be saying that was one of the best O-line performances in recent memory. The big uglies paved the way for the backs to gain over 210 yards and average 5.3 yards per carry on the ground. However, the O-line gave up 2 sacks and did not look quite as confident in pass protection. Pass blocking as well as conditioning will be some of the areas to improve upon as this line continues to gel.

Offense - 5.6

Overall, the offensive had a successful night in terms of moving the ball on the Duke defense. They were able to run and throw for over 200 yards; Clemson is 108–0 all time with that yardage breakdown (this makes the loss even more inexplicable). They also had a success rate of 56% as opposed to Duke’s 48%. However, in the major indicator of success—points—the “Tiger O” had a mere 7. There remains a missing element, a lack of explosiveness, that has been gone for almost 3 years now. The Tigers had a big play rate of 7% on Monday night, which is lackluster. For a program that was synonymous with big-play ability for its historically successful seasons less than 5 years ago, there seems to be no one on this roster who can scare a defense with speed and decisiveness. Crucial mistakes, turnovers and drive killers all lead to an incredibly frustrating evening, and a loss.

Defensive Line - 5

The defensive line had an average performance Monday night, which is shocking considering how dominant we expected this group to be coming out of the offseason. The Tiger gave up 199 yards on the ground and mustered 0 sacks. Give credit to Riley Leonard—he is shifty and hard to bring down, but you would have expected more than 4 TFL and 0 sacks from this group. The ends did not set the edge well all night, which led to many big gains for Duke in the ground game. Graduate senior Xavier Thomas ended the game with only 1 tackle and 2 QB hurries. Freshman TJ Parker was a bright spot at defensive end as he stood out as a playmaker in his first game for the Tigers. Ultimately, this group will need to wreak more havoc if this defense wants to return to its dominant form.

Linebackers - 6

The linebacking corps consisting of Jeremiah Trotter Jr., Barrett Carter and Wade Woodaz also had an average day at the office in Durham on Monday night. Early on, they were being dragged all over the field and seemed to be getting fooled by Duke misdirection. Trotter looked slightly slower than normal (he may have been suffering from a lingering hamstring issue), and both he and Carter did not have their best tackling night as Carter’s arm tackle behind the line of scrimmage led to Riley Leonard escaping an apparent sack for a 44-yard touchdown run. Someone from this group needs to emerge as the vocal leader of this defense on the field. I am not convinced either Trotter or Carter have adequately filled this role yet. However, Trotter forced a fumble and led the team in tackles, so I will give this unit a 6 for their efforts.

Cornerbacks - 7

The boundary corners were not heavily tested through the air for the majority of the night, but they were forced to make several tackles in space. Sheridan Jones Jr. made a couple of bad pursuits on early Duke drives, but the Tiger secondary seemed to settle in once they made the switch from zone to man. It was good to see sophomore Jeadyn Lukus split reps with Wiggins as well. I am relatively pleased with Duke only obtaining 175 yards through the air and no touchdowns, so this group earns a 7 on the night.

Safeties - 7

Andrew Mukuba was everywhere on Monday, and it was pleasant to not see Tiger safeties with their numbers showing as they chased a loose receiver on a big play. Mukuba and Mickens made some big plays on a couple of 3rd downs, which halted Duke drives. There were definitely some positives to come out of this game for this unit, but I think tackling and pursuit angles can improve. Mukuba ended up with a fumble recovery, and the group contributed to no touchdowns through the air, so they will earn a 7 on the night as well.

Defense - 6.3

Overall, the defense performed well, keeping Duke to only 13 points into the 4th quarter. They came up with some big 3-and-out stops in the second half, which gave the offense the chance to use that momentum to score. I still think this unit lacks an edge that we have seen in past Clemson defenses. Think about players like Duane Coleman, Mackenzie Alexander, and Ben Boulware, who had a commanding presence on the field and could inject confidence into the team with their swagger. Again, a vocal leader needs to step up and knock some heads when things get tough on the field (Boulware comes to mind here). There were also a lot of missed tackles during the game and poor pursuit angles. Monday night was not a quintessential Clemson defensive performance that we were used to seeing under Brent Venables, but there were some positives that can be taken into the long remainder of the season.

Special Teams - 2

I’m hard-pressed to find any positive takeaways from the special teams play on Monday night. True freshman Robert Gunn II had two field goals blocked with low kicks that were paired with some shambolic blocking on the left side. His confidence appears shattered after the first game. Senior punter Aiden Swanson had a mediocre punting performance, averaging 44.5 yards per punt. Duke never dealt with uncomfortable starting field position at any point during the game. Antonio Williams was chewed out by Dabo for fielding a risky punt that would have likely ended up as a touchback. There’s not much to be happy about except for the muffed punt by Duke that was recovered to set up the only touchdown, even though we had little to no effect on causing it.

Overall Team Performance - 5.5

Whew. I cannot remember an ACC loss where the Tigers performed so poorly since the Georgia Tech loss in 2014 when Cole Stoudt threw two pick sixes. Monday night’s game had a very similar feeling as nothing went right for the Tigers. The strangest part about this game is that the Tigers played well enough to win in some regards, but huge mistakes cost the Tigers any chance of scoring points. Believe it or not, there are some positives to take away into the upcoming games in Death Valley against Charleston Southern and Florida Atlantic. But this team really needs to build confidence after enduring a beatdown this program is not accustomed to. Ultimately, an extremely disappointing result for the opening game of the 2023 campaign for the Clemson Tigers.