Though Trevor Lawrence and Justyn Ross were freshmen in 2018 and other stars like Travis Etienne and Tee Higgins were sophomores, the rest of the 2018 Clemson Tigers was littered with juniors and seniors that were ready to make a run at a national championship.
With veteran defensive players like James Skalski, Nolan Turner and Xavier Thomas returning for one more season, to go along with young rising stars on offense like quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, this potentially could be another national championship caliber team.
At least that is the way head coach Dabo Swinney sees it.
“This team is definitely further along than last year’s group. There is no doubt about that,” Swinney said this past spring. “The ’18 team, those guys were just such a veteran group. But this will be the most veteran team we have had since that ’18 team from a leadership standpoint.”
The Clemson coach feels this year’s team is so far ahead of last year’s group because last year they were so young on the offensive line. And though they are still young, they feel they have more guys functionally and mentally ready to go compete and play winning football.
On defense, it was the same thing. The Tigers were young and experienced on the defensive line and in the secondary, yet they led the ACC in total defense and were ranked second in scoring, rushing and passing defense.
“It is the same thing on defense,” Swinney said. “We are mature up front. There are more guys that have been through the battles. They have a few scares on them. We have all of those young guys that played in the secondary last year that had not really played much—[Lannden] Zanders, [Joseph] Charleston, Ray [Thornton] and Jalyn [Phillips]. All of those guys have been a little bit battle tested. Had some good experience and bad experience.
“So, I am excited about what we have a chance to put together.”
This spring Skalski and Turner did not do any live hitting, nor did defensive end K.J. Henry, linebacker Baylon Spector or left guard Matt Bockhorst on the offensive line.
“We have a lot of guys that are back,” Swinney said. “We really did not lose anybody defensively to the draft or anything like that, so most of these guys are back.”
What about the offense? Justyn Ross is likely back at wide receiver, so is E.J. Williams. Frank Ladson will be back from injury and Joseph Ngata and Ajou Ajou again showed what they are capable of doing in the spring game.
“Offensively, we are going to be better,” Swinney said. “The key, you saw our running backs. I am super excited about the potential we can be at running back. But the key is getting the functional depth in that offensive line the way it needs to be.
“We are well on our way to that.”
We will all see on Sept. 4, when the Tigers open the year against Georgia at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
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