With the offseason a couple of weeks old now, The Clemson Insider is pondering some of the most pressing on-field questions for Clemson’s football program as the Tigers wipe the slate clean and start fresh in 2022.
Clemson is coming off yet another 10-win season, but there’s still some uncertainty and room for improvement in all facets of the Tigers’ game heading into Dabo Swinney’s 14th season at the helm. Let’s start with the offense, which will now be run by first-year coordinator Brandon Streeter.
Can Clemson solidify its offensive line?
More specifically, the interior of the group up front.
Even with one starting tackle switching from the right side to the left (Jordan McFadden) and another moving to the top of the depth chart for the first time in his career (Walker Parks), turned out Clemson didn’t have much to worry about on the edges. McFadden and Parks, both of whom are returning next season, comprised arguably the top tackle tandem in the ACC.
Yet the Tigers still went with a different starting combination up front in eight of their 13 games because injuries and performance kept the interior of the line from forming any real continuity. Matt Bockhorst moved over to start the season at center but then moved back to guard before a knee injury cut short his fifth and final season. Mason Trotter and Hunter Rayburn shared starts at center the rest of the way while also lining up at guard. Before the season was over, six different players had started a game at guard, including true freshman Marcus Tate.
Bockhorst, who had more experience than any of them, is gone. Veteran Will Putnam is the starting right guard when he’s healthy, but the fact that Clemson has pursued multiple offensive linemen in the transfer portal is a good indication of just how important Swinney and his staff believe it is to add to if not upgrade what the Tigers already have at the guard and center positions.
While the running game improved in the back half of the season – a healthy Will Shipley and Kobe Pace helped, too – all the moving parts up front certainly didn’t help an offense that took a major step back overall. First-year offensive line coach Thomas Austin has his work cut out for him.
Can the Tigers find the explosion again, particularly through the air?
Speaking of going backward, Clemson’s passing game was a shell of its former self. The Tigers went from a top-10 offense nationally in 2020 to one that averaged just 26.3 points and 359.2 yards largely because they threw for just 191.2 yards per game (103rd nationally).
Several factors played into that, but one was the lack of explosive plays.
Clemson averaged the fewest yards per play in the ACC (5.1). Nobody in the league had fewer plays of at least 40 yards than the Tigers, who produced just 13 such plays. Their longest play from scrimmage was Phil Mafah’s 63-yard run against Florida State.
The Tigers’ longest pass went for 58 yards against Wake Forest, but they had just 14 other completions all season that covered at least 30 yards, the fourth-fewest in the ACC.
The big plays were a glaring omission from Clemson’s offensive attack considering how much they’ve been a part of it in recent years. In five of the six previous seasons, Clemson had either the most or second-most plays of 20 yards or more in the league.
Not having that quick-strike ability put pressure on the offense’s execution to be sharper for longer when having to use more plays to piece together drives, which didn’t always go well for Clemson either (19 turnovers). It’s an element the Tigers need to rediscover under Streeter.
Who will be the starting quarterback?
For now, it’s D.J. Uiagalelei. Will that still be the case into next season?
As referenced in the first question, to lay all of the blame for the Tigers’ offensive struggles at the feet of Uiagalelei would be unfair. It would be just as unfair to place it all on his supporting cast, too.
Uiagalelei had his moments, particularly as he fought through a sprained knee and a bum finger to finish the season. But his overall play was average at best in his first season as Clemson’s full-time starter, which was far from the expectation for the former five-star recruit even if it was reasonable to expect some level of dropoff from Trevor Lawrence.
The accuracy issues have been well-documented for the ACC’s second-worst passer from an efficiency standpoint. Turnovers were an issue, too, as Uiagalelei threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (9).
A clean bill of health should help moving into the offseason. So should another year working with Streeter, who helped recruit Uiagalelei to Clemson as the quarterbacks coach, a role he’ll continue to serve in after being promoted following former offensive coordinator Tony Elliott’s departure for Virginia.
But Uiagalelei will also have some real competition for his job. His primary backup, Taisun Phommachanh, has hit the transfer portal, clearing the way for incoming five-star quarterback signee Cade Klubnik to take over the role if not more. Klubnik, who will bring more mobility to the position, was recently named MaxPreps’ National Player of the Year, which, ironically enough, makes him just the second Clemson signee to ever earn that honor along with Uiagalelei.
Klubnik, who’s already on campus, will join Clemson’s quarterback room this spring as a mid-year enrollee. Ultimately, as Streeter has mentioned, Clemson’s looking for consistency from its starting quarterback, something it will need a lot more of if the Tigers hope to get back to being a title contender sooner rather than later.
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