Clemson has been fortunate in recent years with the luxury of getting plenty of players snaps to build depth in the present and experience for the future.
The Tigers have always played a lot of players during Dabo Swinney’s tenure as head coach. As Clemson morphed into a national power over the last six seasons and got to a point where blowouts wins were commonplace, the Tigers have played as many players if not more than anyone in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
On average, Clemson has played right at 99 players per season since 2015 when the Tigers made their first College Football Playoff appearance. They’ve gotten more than 100 players snaps in three of those seasons and topped out at a whopping 117 in 2019.
Those numbers include players who only got in for a handful of games on special teams, but it’s a good indication of just how often and to what extent Clemson has been able to empty its bench during its recent run of dominance in the ACC. But this season hasn’t been like those.
Clemson (6-3, 5-2 ACC) won’t keep its streak of CFP berths going, and if the Tigers don’t win out and get a lot of help over the final three weeks of the regular season, a seventh straight trip to the ACC championship game won’t happen either. Clemson already has three losses — the most it’s had since 2014 — and has had plenty of other close calls in a season where, outside of a snoozer against FCS foe South Carolina State, nothing has come easy.
Every other game has been decided by 10 points or less, including one-possession wins over Georgia Tech, Boston College, Syracuse and Louisville. Even Florida State had one last chance to drive for a winning score on Oct. 30 before a scramble-situation fumble recovered by Barrett Carter in the end zone on the final play made that a 30-20 victory for Clemson.
The too-close-for-comfort scores haven’t allowed Swinney to shuffle players in and out as frequently as usual. Clemson has only played 79 players heading into Saturday’s non-conference tilt against Connecticut, according to the team’s participation report, and only 66 of those have taken a snap on offense or defense this season. For comparison’s sake, the fewest the Tigers played the previous six seasons was 84 (2015 and 2020).
And it might not be that many if not for all the attrition that has forced Clemson to turn to some players that began the season further down the depth chart. Clemson has lost more than 15 players to either season-ending injuries or the transfer portal this season, including a handful of starters.
“I’ve never had a year like this,” Swinney said. “And I’m talking about great players. Tons of guys that would’ve helped us.”
Running backs Lyn-J Dixon and Michel Dukes are among the defections, which forced true freshman Phil Mafah into action five games into the season. Receiver Frank Ladson (groin) was shut down early on, and Bryan Bresee (torn ACL) and Justin Foster (back) are no longer available on the defensive line. But no position has been hit harder than the offensive line.
It began in the preseason with Tayquon Johnson (pectoral injury) and John Williams (knee) being lost for the season. Then freshman Dietrick Pennington tore his ACL, and fifth-year senior Matt Bockhorst did the same against Pitt last month. Backup lineman Paul Tchio left the team earlier this week.
Will Putnam (foot, ankle), who likely will miss his second straight game Saturday, Mason Trotter (broken hand early in the season) and Hunter Rayburn (COVID-19 protocols) have also missed time at some point this season. It’s all part of the reason why Clemson has played 11 offensive linemen this season and had six different starting combinations up front through nine games.
As a 40.5-point favorite over UConn, there’s a good chance Clemson will increase its participation this week. The Tigers just hope it’s by choice instead of necessity.
“It’s just been very unique,” Swinney said of the attrition. “Never really dealt with anything like that, but it’s a challenge that I think makes us better. There’s opportunity in everything. It’s given us an opportunity to grow our team and figure some things out.”
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