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7 Clemson football breakout candidates for the 2021 season

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Clemson wide receiver Frank Ladson Jr. (2) could be a big part of the Tigers' offense in 2021. Ken Ruinard/ACC photo.

CLEMSON — Before long, Clemson will begin spring camp, the official opening salvo of the 2021 campaign. The Tigers don't have rebuilding years, stepped in national championship expectations as they are, but after some key losses to the NFL the team will need to develop some new stars.

Most notably, quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne are gone. So are wide receivers Cornell Powell and Amari Rodgers. Clemson returns all but one starter on defense, but after some inconsistent performances last season, defensive coordinator Brent Venables could be ready to experiment with some new personnel.

Here's an early look at some breakout candidates for the coming season:

Frank Ladson Jr.

Wide receiver

Junior

Coach Dabo Swinney had high hopes for Ladson in 2020, but injuries cost the wide receiver valuable playing time. When he was on the field, Ladson flashed the ability to get open in deep-ball situations, but was often plagued by drops.

He finished the season with 18 catches for 281 yards and three touchdowns. With Powell and Rodgers gone, there will be an opportunity for Ladson to step up.

Joseph Ngata

Wide receiver

Junior

Swinney has been raving about Ngata's superstar potential for years, but the Folsom, Calif., native has yet to put everything together on the field. Much of last season Ngata was hampered by an abdominal injury, which he tried unsuccessfully to play through.

He finished the campaign with seven catches for 83 yards. Depending on the status of veteran Justyn Ross (spine injury), Ngata could be called on to be the lead wideout in 2021.

E.J. Williams

Wide receiver

Sophomore

Much like Ngata and Ladson, many in the program believe Williams has what it takes to be Clemson's next great receiver. But consistent production has yet to manifest for Williams.

With all of the injuries to receivers, Williams got some playing time as a freshman, catching 24 passes for 306 yards and two touchdowns.

From the same hometown as Ross, Williams is eager to prove himself in 2021. 

Kobe Pace

Running back

Sophomore

Etienne's departure creates a massive hole at the top of the running backs depth chart. Backup Lyn-J Dixon could be first in line, but Dixon was inconsistent in 2020 and didn't come on until late in the season.

Pace could be ready to step into the void. New running backs coach C.J. Spiller also has sixth-year player Darien Rencher, juniors Chez Melussi and Michel Dukes, and freshman Will Shipley. Pace might have the highest ceiling of all of them for 2021.

As a freshman in 2020, Pace averaged 4.2 yards per carry and caught five passes for 26 yards and a touchdown. A bruiser, Pace could surprise some people. 

Trenton Simpson

Linebacker

Sophomore 

With Mike Jones Jr. transferring to LSU, many expect Simpson to slide in at the third starting linebacker spot alongside James Skalski and Baylon Spector.

Simpson earned three starts as a freshman in 2020, recording 32 tackles (6.5 for loss), four sacks and a forced fumble. An explosive linebacker and edge rusher, Simpson earned high praise from his coaches. 

Ruke Orhorhoro

Defensive tackle

Redshirt sophomore

Junior Tyler Davis and sophomore Bryan Bresee will likely be the Tigers' starters at defensive tackle, but Clemson will need depth at the position after the transfers of Jordan Williams and Nyles Pinckney.

Enter Orhorhoro. Many believed the junior was primed for a bigger role in 2020, but injuries limited him to just 33 snaps over four games in 2020. 

Mason Trotter

Center

Redshirt sophomore

With Cade Stewart, last season's starting center, moving on, Trotter is the most obvious candidate to take over the job in 2021. He played 147 snaps over nine games last season.

Among Clemson fans' biggest wants for next season is an improved offensive line, so Trotter will likely have the opportunity to burnish his reputation if things go according to plan. 

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland alum. He's won national and state awards in sports and feature writing, and for reasons unclear he still roots for the New York Knicks.

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