The best Clemson teams of the Swinney era have been led by a former five-star QB recruit who takes the reigns and delivers on their potential and then some. It started with Tajh Boyd, who was the top recruit in the state of Virginia. From 2011-2013, he led an aggressive downfield passing attack that most opponents simply couldn’t keep up with. After an excellent three-year run as the starter, he’d elevated the program to new heights and set the ACC passing TD record (now broken by Sam Hartman).
In 2014, Cole Stoudt took over and — due in part to a shoulder injury — struggled. He lost the starting role to Deshaun Watson but got it back when the Watson was injured. He finished his career with tremendous performance in a bowl win over Oklahoma, and then Clemson turned the reigns over to the next superstar QB in the sequence — Deshaun Watson. Watson gave Clemson one of the most dynamic players in college football and helped them reach the 2015 National Championship and then win it all in 2016.
In 2017, Kelly Bryant took over and while his swift running and safe decision making kept the team stable, passing numbers plummeted and they couldn’t move the ball against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Then in 2018, he lost the job to freshman Trevor Lawrence and Clemson enjoyed elite QB play once again through the 2020 season.
Next up was DJ Uiagalelei, who was a highly-touted five-star recruit out of California. Despite playing great in two spot starts as a true freshman in 2020, he struggled in 2021. He improved in 2022, but fizzled at the end of the year and eventually lost the job to Cade Klubnik. If the same rhythm continues, Klubnik should be the next star.
- 2011-2013: Tajh Boyd (ACC Record Breaker)
- 2014: Cole Stoudt
- 2015-2016: Deshaun Watson (National Champion, #12 NFL Draft Pick)
- 2017: Kelly Bryant
- 2018-2020: Trevor Lawrence (National Champion, #1 NFL Draft Pick)
- 2021-2022: DJ Uiagalelei
- 2023-Present: Cade Klubnik (TBD)
Like the other great Clemson QBs before him, Klubnik entered Clemson with all the pedigree in the world. He was one of just four 5-star (247 Composite) quarterbacks in the 2022 class (Drew Allar [PSU], Connor Weigman [TX A&M], and Ty Simpson [Alabama] were the others). He was also from an elite football state (Texas) where he played against strong competition.
Like Watson and Lawrence, he overtook the incumbent starter in his freshman year — albeit in game 13 — with a virtuoso performance in the ACC Championship against North Carolina. Although he showed himself to be a bit green in the subsequent game against Tennessee, expectations were extremely high for Cade entering 2023.
2023 Stat Line
- Passing Yards: 2,844 (203/gm)
- TD: 19
- INT: 9
- Fumbles: 10 (5 lost)
- Snaps: 974
- PFF Grade: 64.3
Klubnik’s season was an odd one. We saw flashes of five-star talent in his accuracy and foot speed, but inexplicable turnovers and downright weird decision making marred his sophomore campaign.
The Florida State game was a microcosm of this as Klubnik threw for 283 yards with a passing TD and a rushing TD, but Florida State forced overtime in large part because he lost a fumble and it was returned for an FSU score. On a third-and-short in overtime, Klubnik decided to pull a handoff to Shipley and instead pass behind the line of scrimmage. It resulted in a loss of yards and was followed by an incomplete pass on fourth down that ended the game.
This brings us back to the same question we were asking back in 2021: How much of his struggle is about him vs. the play around him? The fumble against Florida State occurred on a brutal blindside sack resulting from a missed block by Phil Mafah. Klubnik shouldn’t have fumbled, but he also should have had better protection. The decision to pull and pass in overtime wasn’t wise, but perhaps prior poor short-yardage results from Will Shipley and the offensive line gave him good reason to lack confidence in the handoff.
We saw other head-scratching errors from Klubnik at other points in the year. Against Miami, he pulled another handoff to Shipley and tried to run it in himself resulting in a loss of yards and the game-ending turnover on downs. Unlike the play against FSU, this one was not an option and his decision represented a deviation from the actual play call. This is obviously unacceptable, but does this error go away with an improved offensive line or a better short-yardage running back? Clemson should have both next year.
Against North Carolina, he decided to break from the pocket and run for the TD with just seconds before halftime despite having no timeouts. He actually got the TD by a hair, but it was a horrible decision and he acknowledged as much after the game. Still, with a more reliable kicker, does he play more under control knowing he can trust he has three points in his back pocket? Clemson should have one next season (although credit to Weitz for an incredible final two games).
Klubnik collected some battle scars this season. Now the question is if he will he learn from them. I still believe he has the raw tools to be a very good college quarterback, but he needs to use this year’s mistakes to get better. Clemson should be better at every position around him on offense. That should yield more confidence in his teammates and less “hero-ball.”
It is not just better decisions though. He needs to practice better ball security and improve his field vision. There were way too many times where Troy Stellato was streaking downfield wide open and didn’t get a look, but perhaps this again goes back to the offensive line giving him the confidence to scan the entire field and not rush his decision.
This season was obviously disappointing relative to expectations for Klubnik, but he ended the year with his best drive of the year:
Klubnik scanned the field and made accurate passes to drive the Tigers down the field. When his pass blocking failed and caused an intentional grounding, he promptly completed a 16-yard pass on 3rd-and-18 to keep them alive. Mafah moved the chains on fourth down and Klubnik’s deadly accurate passing continued to move them downfield until they reached the 3-yard line where Mafah (with Jake Briningstool dragging him) finally found the endzone. Klubnik flashed that five-star talent on that drive. Now, he just has to do it much more consistently.
Clemson gives out team awards after the season and Cade Klubnik was honored with several awards including the Iron Man Award for his resilient leadership and persistence. I won’t sugar coat the season. 9-4 is a huge disappointment and so is Klubnik’s stat line (particularly the fumbles), but I still believe in him and think we will see big strides next season.
Not to be forgotten, Hunter Helms was the second-strong QB. He only played 31 snaps so there’s little to say there. He posted an excellent 76.9 PFF grade, but the sample size is really too small to put much stock into it. He has transferred to Rhode Island which opens the door for Christopher Vizzina (“CV”) to become Klubnik’s back-up. With an offense we expect to improve, hopefully we see more garbage time (in Clemson’s favor) and get some CV some valuable experience in 2024.
Clemson’s QB play has been disappointing since Trevor Lawrence left after 2020 and Klubnik’s 2023 campaign didn’t break that trend. Fortunately, I’m more optimistic about the QB room in 2024 than I have been the past two years.