Clemson Football 2020 Preview: Elliott believes this is the best group they've ever had
There was a time when defenses feared Clemson’s tight ends.
From 2009-2016, Clemson had four different players—Michael Palmer, Dwayne Allen, Brandon Ford, and Jordan Leggett—earn All-ACC First-Team honors at tight end. Allen in 2010 and Leggett in 2015, also earned second-team honors.
In a span of eight years, six times the Tigers’ tight end make the prestigious team. Allen (2011) and Leggett (2015, 2016) both earned All-American status, while Allen won the John Mackey Award in 2011 as the nation’s best tight end. Leggett was a finalist for the Mackey Award in both 2015 and 2016.
However, since Leggett graduated in 2016, Clemson’s production at the tight end position, in terms of catches and yards, has declined significantly.
In 2015 and 2016, Leggett totaled 86 receptions for 1,261 yards and 15 touchdowns, while averaging 14.6 yards per catch. In the three seasons since the former All-American moved on to the NFL, eight Clemson tight ends have combined to catch just 66 passes for 656 yards and four touchdowns. They averaged just 9.9 yards per reception.
In 2019, six Clemson tight ends combined to catch only 26 passes for 239 yards and zero touchdowns. Without a go-to playmaker at tight end, the Tigers leaned more on running backs as receivers – Travis Etienne caught 37 passes for 432 yards, while Lyn-J Dixon grabbed 14 receptions for 121 yards.
Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott attributed some of the tight ends’ lack of production in the passing game to the running backs’ increased involvement, though he knows Clemson’s offense really thrives when the tight end is a big part of it.
“It kind of transitioned to Travis and Lyn-J’s evolution as receivers,” Elliott said earlier this spring. “But when we’re at our best is when we can stay in that base personnel and we can really stretch the field with all four receivers on the field as the tight end being one of them.”
While Leggett’s ability to stretch the field and be a mismatch for defenders has been missed at times in recent years, Clemson has masked not having much production at tight end by making up for it with Hunter Renfrow in 2017 and ’18 and then this past season with the running backs out of the backfield.
However, it was obvious this past season, with Renfrow playing for the Raiders, Clemson was missing that presence over the middle, especially on third down.
The good news is that Braden Galloway, who has a similar skillset to Leggett’s, will be back in the fold full time next season after sitting out most of last season while serving a yearlong suspension by the NCAA for failing a drug test prior to the 2019 Cotton Bowl.
The Tigers will have plenty of depth around Galloway, too, with veterans J.C. Chalk and Luke Price, sophomore Davis Allen, redshirt freshman Jaelyn Lay and true freshman Sage Ennis.
“With Braden being back and now Davis being a year older, that’s going to push Chalk,” Elliott said. “And now you’ve got Sage who has come in and he wants to try to compete, so that’s going to push Jaelyn Lay. So, really excited with the bodies that we have there, and I think it’s probably overall — from a talent (standpoint), top to bottom — probably the best group of tight ends that we’ve had. Now we’ve just got to get them all ready to go function in all situations.”
Even though the tight ends didn’t show up a whole lot on the stat sheet last season, Galloway believes the group did other things well besides catching passes and thought they did a solid job in his absence.
“I actually think the tight ends had a great season last year,” he said. “J.C. was asked to step up in a role … The year before that we had Milan (Richard), Cannon (Smith), Garrett (Williams), guys that had been here four or five years, and J.C. really took everybody under his wing, me not being there. I tried to be in their ears, but obviously I’m not out there to show them anything. We did a great job blocking.
“Obviously everybody messes up a few times. People get down on themselves, but we’ve just got to keep working. But last year I felt like as a group, we played great. I feel like Davis came in and was an immediate impact, and Davis is going to be a great player. (He showed) spurts out here in the spring. So, we’re just trying to be the best we can be.”
—Gavin Oliver contributed to this story
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