What is the identity of Clemson’s offense?
That was a question posed by The Clemson Insider to players and coaches this week, including head coach Dabo Swinney. The answers were varied and far from concrete.
“That’s a good question,” said tight ends coach Kyle Richardson, who doubles as the passing-game coordinator.
Nine games into this season, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the strength of the unit is. At least consistently.
“One thing that sticks out to me about this offense is just the love that we have for each other,” senior tight end Davis Allen said. “We’re extremely, extremely close. Closer than what I’ve noticed in the past, but we’re fast, physical, smart and confident.”
Not everyone agrees with the latter part of Allen’s sentiment.
“I think it’s just a lack of confidence and not just with the quarterback,” Richardson said. “It’s across the board, and we’ve just got to get that back and get back to being consistent.”
The best thing Clemson has going for it at the moment is the running game. Swinney went as far as to say the Tigers are “built to run the football,” but that may be a stretch. Statistically, Clemson’s running game is among the top 50 in the country, ranking 49th at 174 yards per game, but those numbers have been inflated by what have been a pair of outliers so far.
Even with former five-star signee Will Shipley atop the running back depth chart, a bruising complement in 230-pounder Phil Mafah, help from a more mobile D.J. Uiagalelei and a more cohesive offensive line, Clemson has only eclipsed the 200-yard rushing mark twice this season. One of those performances came against Louisiana Tech, which statistically owns the worst run defense in the FBS (234.2 yards allowed per game).
Clemson has averaged just 142 yards on the ground in its other seven games and is coming off its worst rushing performance of the season with just 90 yards against Notre Dame.
The most consistent the Tigers have been is with their situational offense. Clemson’s third-down and red-zone conversion percentages both rank in the top 20 nationally, but with a running game that goes hot and cold and a passing game that’s spinning its wheels, there’s no clear answer on the best way for Clemson to go about trying to move the ball between the 20-yard lines.
Uiagalelei and his receiving corps had the look early on of a group that was ready to leave their 2021 struggles behind. The Tigers averaged nearly 280 yards passing through the first four games, including that brilliant 371-yard, five-touchdown performance from Uiagalelei that helped the Tigers hold off what was then a ranked Wake Forest team on the road in late September.
It’s been a regression since. The Tigers haven’t thrown for more than 220 yards in any of the last five games, and the explosiveness that had returned through the air early on has largely vanished with a group of receivers that has been hit or miss.
Beaux Collins, who had four touchdown grabs through the first four games, has caught just two passes in the last three. Freshman Antonio Williams has recently emerged as Uiagalelei’s primary target (team-leading 33 receptions), but the speedy slot receiver has averaged 6.5 yards or less per catch in three of his last four games.
Shipley has as many receptions as Joseph Ngata (24). Shipley and tight ends Davis Allen (second on the team with 27 catches) and Jake Briningstool (four TD receptions) have been targeted just as much if not more than the receivers, none of which have more than five catches in a game this season. Collins is the only wideout with more than two touchdown catches.
“I think the identity for us is we’re one play away from being great and we’re one play away from being just average. And that’s where we are right now,” Richardson said. “There have been a couple of balls that are thrown uncatchable that if they’re thrown catchable, it’s a different ballgame. There’s a couple of balls that have been very catchable that are not caught, and it’s a different ballgame. That comes from the receiver room and the tight end room. Then there’s a couple of plays where we’ve handed it off to Shipley or Mafah and we are one block away and it looks like it’s there and we get a shoestring tackle based off of one block.”
The production through the air has been worse than it’s been at any point this season in recent weeks. Clemson had a season-low 157 passing yards against Syracuse and followed that up with just 191 last week against Notre Dame. Uiagalelei was benched in both of those games for freshman Cade Klubnik, but the quarterbacks have combined to throw as many interceptions as touchdown passes (4) in the last three games.
Those turnovers have been part of another inconsistency for the offense. Clemson has coughed it up six times the last two games after turning it over just five times in the first seven.
“Right now, we’re just in a rut, and we’ve got to find a way to get out of it,” Richardson said.
Given the current state of the passing game, Clemson’s best bet going forward may be to lean on the running game. But Clemson hasn’t always committed to it despite Swinney’s belief in the Tigers needing to use the run to set up the pass.
Clemson did in wins over Florida State and Syracuse, getting Shipley 47 carries in those two games. But even after rushing for a season-high 293 yards against the Orange – and with strong winds swirling inside Notre Dame Stadium – Clemson quickly went away from the running game against the Fighting Irish even before things got out of hand.
Shipley, who’s averaging nearly 6 yards a pop for the season, got just seven carries in the first half despite averaging 7.4 yards on those attempts. And Uiagalelei was hardly used at all in the run game, a peculiar development considering the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder was averaging nearly 44 yards on the ground coming into the game. His first designed run wasn’t called until early in the third quarter.
“I think the biggest reason was sometimes there were calls where he had a run and he threw it, so there were some RPO (run-pass option) thoughts there, too,” offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter said afterward. “It was kind of a mixture there, but I probably should’ve gotten him the ball a little bit more as a runner there in the first half.”
So what is the Tigers’ offensive identity? Depends on who you ask.
“Up until two games ago, it was an offense that was really, really good on third down, and we’re still good on third down,” Swinney said. “It’s an offense that was taking care of the football and an offense that was scoring and had some explosiveness built into it. Led the nation in red-zone scoring until a couple of games ago, and I think we’re still top 5 in the country.
“All of those things. But we’ve got to get back to doing what we need to do.”
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