Elliott experiencing a first at the helm of Clemson's offense

Elliott experiencing a first at the helm of Clemson's offense

Football

Elliott experiencing a first at the helm of Clemson's offense

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Tony Elliott has been coaching at the collegiate level for more than decade. Most of those years have been spent involved with Clemson’s offense in some capacity, the last seven as the Tigers’ play-caller.

But Clemson’s offensive coordinator has never been involved in an offense that’s still going through this much of an identity crisis halfway through its season.

It’s not uncommon for offenses, particularly those with this many new significant contributors, to take a few games to sort through its strengths and weaknesses. But the Tigers will start the back half of their schedule Saturday at Pittsburgh still unsure of exactly who they are on that side of the ball.

“I can honestly say no I haven’t,” Elliott said, referencing the offense’s lack of identity this deep into the season. “It’s challenging, but at the same time, too, there’s an excitement to see how these guys are going to respond.”

There’s been all sorts of talk from coaches and players about how they feel like they’re close to an offensive breakout, but Friday’s performance at Syracuse looked like most of the others. The Tigers mustered just two touchdowns and have yet to crack the 20-point mark against an FBS opponent.

With Clemson ranked near the bottom nationally in most statistical categories, it’s hard to tell exactly what the Tigers do well. Clemson is running for just 142 yards per game (84th out of 130 FBS teams) and throwing for 180.3 (107th) while averaging just 20.5 points (114th) after putting up 17 in Friday’s narrow victory. The Tigers are also converting on just 38% of their third downs, which ranks 84th nationally.

Those numbers are a far cry from what Clemson has been accustomed to during Elliott’s time as the Tigers’ co-offensive coordinator and full-time play-caller. Clemson has never averaged less than 33 points or 429 yards since 2015. After putting up less than 320 yards against Syracuse, Clemson is averaging just 322.3 this season, good for 115th nationally.

Despite the numbers, though, Elliott has a specific reason for keeping the faith.

“Excited to watch the tape with (the players) and correct the mistakes because everything is correctable,” Elliott said. “It’s not like it’s guys just going all over the place.”

While not much has worked offensively, part of the reason is the unit hasn’t been able to get out of its own way.

Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei continues to be a work in progress in his first season as the full-time starter, though both Elliott and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney praised his performance against Syracuse, one that would’ve been even better statistically if not for a handful of drops on well-placed balls by receivers. Swinney touted the Tigers’ receiving corps, which got star Justyn Ross back from his spine injury last season, as perhaps the most talented collection during his tenure. Yet whether it’s been overthrows or drops, Clemson has rarely been able to take advantage of the kind of one-on-one matchups on the outside that it would’ve killed for before the season.

Meanwhile, the offensive line has been a revolving door from the start. Clemson was forced to use its fourth different starting combination up front against Syracuse with center Hunter Rayburn out because of COVID-19 protocols. Sophomore Mason Trotter was the third different center to start last week.

Missed blocking assignments continue to pop up at times. There have also been botched snaps and penalties that move the Tigers behind the chains, self-inflicted miscues that are essentially doubling as drive-killers given the execution issues Clemson is already having.

“The guys understand what we’re doing,” Elliott said. “They have a great comprehension. I think we had one situation where we didn’t communicate properly. That was on a fourth-and-1. We didn’t get the call on the left side, and because we didn’t get the call on the left side, the left side made a call that resulted in something happening on the right side, and we turned some guys loose. So that was the only time we truly miscommunicated. Other than that, it was guys just not getting their one-on-one matchups done.”

It’s all played a part in a glaring lack of explosive plays for an offense that’s been used to those in recent years. Ultimately, Elliott said, that’s what the group has to get back to incorporating into its attack regardless of how they’re generated.

“I want that identity to be a confident group,” Elliott said. “That we throw the ball when we need and when we want to do, and the same thing (in the run game). We run the ball and we stretch it sideline to sideline.”

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