Grading Clemson's performance in 2021

Grading Clemson's performance in 2021

Football

Grading Clemson's performance in 2021

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Clemson’s football program passed its final exam earlier this week, holding off Iowa State for a win in the Cheez-It Bowl.

Now that all the coursework on the Tigers’ 2021 season is completed, it’s time to assess the totality of Clemson’s performance over the last fourth months. Here are some final grades for the Tigers, including Dabo Swinney and his coaching staff:

Quarterback

Even the most optimistic Clemson fan had to know some degree of dropoff was coming in the post-Trevor Lawrence, but it would be hard to find anyone who expected it to this extent. After a small but tantalizing two-game sample last season, D.J. Uiagalelei stepped in as the full-time starter and completed just 55.6% of his passes with as many interceptions as touchdown passes (9).

There were some bright spots, including leading a pair of fourth-quarter comebacks against Florida State and Louisville. There was also that sprained right knee late in the season and a supporting cast around him that was constantly changing thanks to a bunch of injuries. But some of the inconsistencies fall squarely on Uiagaleleli, who will need to be better going forward if Clemson is going to compete for championships again, particularly with five-star signee Cade Klubnik coming in to compete with him this spring. Grade: C

Running back

The youth movement in the backfield got even younger when Lyn-J Dixon, by far Clemson’s most experienced back at the start of the season, transferred early in the season. Insert sophomore Kobe Pace and true freshman Will Shipley, who quickly became the Tigers’ featured back. The duo rushed for more than 1,260 yards while Shipley paced Clemson with 10 rushing touchdowns. 

And don’t forget about another true freshman, Phil Mafah, who had his redshirt pulled midway through the season and averaged more than 4 yards per rush. He ripped off the Tigers’ longest run of the season against Florida State (63 yards). They helped raise Clemson’s rushing average to 168 yards per game by the end of the season, which only ranked in the middle of the pack in the ACC. But it could’ve been worse. Grade: B

Tight ends/receivers

Clemson began the season with a group of wideouts that Swinney called as talented as any he’s ever had. The Tigers ended it with a skeleton crew. There were highs and lows in between. Justyn Ross returned from not playing in 2020 to lead the Tigers in receptions while Joseph Ngata provided most of the big plays through the passing game (19 yards per catch), but both had their seasons derailed by foot injuries down the stretch. E.J. Williams was also in and out of the lineup with injuries, missing four games.

All the attrition created more opportunities for freshmen Beaux Collins (second-most receptions on the team) and Dacari Collins (16.5 yards per catch), who flashed their potential. Meanwhile, Davis Allen emerged as Clemson’s primary tight end, finishing third on the team with 26 catches. The group was solid, and its blocking on the perimeter got better over the course of the season. But with nobody catching more than three touchdown passes and the Tigers averaging just 10.9 yards per completion, the lack of explosive plays through the air was glaring all season. Grade: C+

Offensive line

A case could be made that Jordan McFadden and Walker Parks comprised the best tackle tandem in the ACC. The interior of the offensive line? That’s another story. Whether it be injuries, performance or other attrition, Clemson spent all season looking for the right combination up front, trying eight different starting lineups on the offensive line. Matt Bockhorst, Mason Trotter and Hunter Rayburn all took their turns at center while Rayburn and Trotter also got reps at guard. With Trotter unavailable for the bowl game, Clemson ended the season with Rayburn at center and freshman Marcus Tate at guard.

The group got incrementally better as the season wore on, cutting down on the mental mistakes and opening up more holes for a running game that averaged more than 190 yards in the back half of the season. The unit also allowed the second-fewest sacks in the ACC (1.6 per game), but the consistency of McFadden and Parks on the edges really boosts the grade here. Grade: C+

Defensive line

The defensive front was expected to be the strength of Clemson’s defense going into the season, and it didn’t disappoint. Even without star defensive tackle Bryan Bresee (torn ACL) for most of the season, the line set the tone for a defense that finished second nationally in points allowed in and seventh in total defense.

Myles Murphy (13 tackles for loss, seven sacks) and a more explosive Xavier Thomas (3.5 sacks, 15 pressures) led a deep and disruptive group of ends while Ruke Orhorhoro emerged in Bresee’s absence, pairing with Tyler Davis to give the Tigers a tandem that was more than formidable on the interior. Clemson also finished seventh in the FBS in rush defense and ranked in the top 16 in sacks and tackles for loss. Grade: A+

Linebackers

How productive were Clemson’s linebackers this season? The team’s top three tacklers all resided at the second level of the defense. James Skalski led the defense emotionally and statistically in his sixth and final season in a Clemson uniform and had a hand in a couple of goal-line stands against Georgia Tech and Louisville.

Baylon Spector spent his last season lining up beside Skalski for the final time while Trenton Simpson had more than 10 tackles for loss and more than five sacks from his strong-side ‘backer spot. Each member of the trio played at least 516 snaps, and coverage at times is about the only thing that wasn’t elite among the group. Grade: A

Secondary

By the time the regular season was over, Clemson had two first-team all-ACC corners in Andrew Booth and Mario Goodrich. The Tigers also had the league’s defensive rookie of the year in safety Andrew Mukuba, and that doesn’t include sixth-year safety Nolan Turner, who logged 608 snaps in his final season as the leader of the back end.

Clemson also got plenty of snaps without much dropoff for R.J. Mickens, Jalyn Phillips and Tyler Venables when injuries popped up or the Tigers put three safeties on the field at the same time. If there was a knock of a secondary that helped limit teams to 209 passing yards per game, it’s that it didn’t notch many interceptions (12 in 13 games), though Goodrich had a pick-six as well as the deciding forced fumble in the Cheez-It Bowl win over Iowa State. Grade: A

Special teams

B.T. Potter missed three field goals against Florida State. Other than that, Clemson’s veteran specialists performed like it. Potter still connected on more than 80% of his field goals – the best rate of his career – and made 13 straight at one point. He capped his season with a season-long 51 yarder in the bowl win.

Will Spiers was just as solid in his final season as the Tigers’ punter, averaging 40.2 yards per punt with a career-high 27 of his punts pinned inside the 20-yard line. Clemson wasn’t explosive in the punt return game once freshman receiver Will Taylor went down with a season-ending knee injury early in the season, but Will Brown didn’t commit many blunders as his replacement. There weren’t many of them all season for one of the Tigers’ more consistent units. Grade: B+

Coaching

With a sputtering offense and a growing injury list, things didn’t look good for Clemson after a 2-2 start that many wondering how bad things might get. Instead, Swinney rallied the troops, and the Tigers won eight of their last nine games, including six straight to cap an 11th straight 10-win season. It very well might be Swinney’s best coaching job in his 13 seasons at the helm of the Tigers’ program. Grade: A+

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