Clemson’s defense is ahead of the offense through the first two games, which is hardly a surprise to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.
The offense is easily the greener side of the ball for the sixth-ranked Tigers, who rank 73rd or worse nationally in yards and points heading into Saturday’s ACC opener against Georgia Tech. While a defense with 10 starters back is loaded with seasoned upperclassmen, including a fifth-year senior (Baylon Spector) and two sixth-year players (James Skalski and Nolan Turner), Clemson’s offense is ushering in a new era with a youth movement.
Sophomore quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei had just two starts coming into the season, and none of Clemson’s running backs had ever started a game. But replacing Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne weren’t the only shakeups for the offense.
Sophomore Walker Parks and true freshman Marcus Tate notched their first career starts along the offensive line in the season opener against Georgia. Senior Matt Bockhorst, one of the unit’s few veterans, got his first start at center in that game, and star wideout Justyn Ross returned to game action after more than a year away from it following his congenital spine fusion surgery.
So while the defense has yet to allow an offensive touchdown and ranks 12th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in yards allowed, it’s been a clunkier operation at times on the other side of the ball. The Tigers (1-1) didn’t do themselves any favors against Georgia with blown assignments up front and timing and communication breakdowns between Uiagalelei and his receivers.
Those weren’t issues in Clemson’s 49-3 rout of South Carolina State last week as much as turnovers were. The Tigers coughed up possession three times with Uiagalelei’s interception accounting for the lone turnover committed by the first-teamers.
But Swinney said he’s seen gradual improvement in the offense’s execution during practice since the season started, which he added is what he’s wanted to see considering the caliber of defense the group is going up against on a daily basis.
“Cleaning up mistakes,” Swinney said. “Growing and learning from mistakes that we’ve had. Not making the same mistakes. Just keeping the improvement going. I wish we could be the best version of ourselves today. I wish I could do that, but that’s not how this game works, especially when you’ve got a bunch of guys that are learning.”
Clemson had a bounceback performance against South Carolina State in the running game, racking up 242 rushing yards at 6.7 yards per pop to help take some of the pressure off Uiagalelei, who’s still fighting some inconsistencies through the air. Uiagalelei, who’s completed 58% of his throws with more interceptions (2) than touchdown passes (1) so far, threw high on a handful of passes against South Carolina State, which contributed to his interception after the errant throw went off the fingertips of receiver Joseph Ngata.
There’s also some decision making Swinney said Uiagalelei has to clean up, all of which is correctable as Uiagalelei continues to develop his game. While Georgia Tech (1-1) may not be Georgia in terms of competition level, the Yellow Jackets figure to be a stiffer test than what the offense got last week from an in-state FCS opponent that offered little resistance.
But Swinney praised the mature mindset his young offense has approached its preparation with on a weekly basis. He referred to Wednesday’s practice as “great” in that regard.
“I was literally just telling the team that after practice, like, man, that’s how it’s supposed to look,” Swinney said. “Great teams get better. Great teams don’t play their best football at the beginning of the year. Great teams get better, and that’s what we’re doing.”
The next step is for that improvement to translate to the games, something Swinney is confident will happen as the offense continues to grow together.
“We’re much more of a veteran group defensively, but if these guys have a practice like they have today, a lot of competitive work and hold your own against this defense, hopefully that will just continue to grow your confidence for game day,” Swinney said. “There have been years I’ve had to crank it up. These guys have been incredibly self-motivated, and I think that’s a sign of good things to come from this group.”