CLEMSON — For most college football programs, 10 wins wouldn’t be considered a bad season.
But Clemson hasn’t been like most programs for a while now.
Falling out of the college football playoff, out of the ACC title race, and ending the season in the Cheez-It Bowl was an odd twist for Dabo Swinney’s crew.
“Like Coach Swinney said, we were about to help him pack. He was about to get fired for only winning 10 games last year,” defensive end K.J. Henry said at the ACC Kickoff. “It's been awesome that that's the standard we have for this program, that all the success we've had over the years has come to a point that now if we win 10 games, that's unacceptable.”
An atypical season in 2021 now leads into an incredibly intriguing preseason camp in 2022, as the Tigers face the task of trying to rebound to uncommon heights. They meet that challenge with new coordinators Brandon Streeter and Wes Goodwin, with questions at quarterback and along the offensive line, and with just a bit of a chip on their shoulder.
Here are seven storylines heading into the start of Clemson camp on Aug. 5:
All eyes on D.J. and Cade
This can’t be called a quarterback competition because Swinney and his coaching staff are fully behind D.J. Uiagalelei. They expect the cannon-armed junior to continue to grow as a leader of the Tigers’ offense.
If he does, the presence of five-star freshman Cade Klubnik will be all but moot.
But, unlike last year, Clemson has somewhere to turn if Uiagalelei plateaus. Klubnik has an uncommon pedigree as an undefeated, back-to-back state champion in the football mecca of Texas. He has an uncanny ability to make plays with his legs and possesses the traits of a vocal and emotional leader.
Fairly or unfairly, Clemson fans' patience might wear thin if the offense doesn’t take off in 2022. They saw Trevor Lawrence emerge as a true freshman in 2018, dethroning Kelly Bryant. So it is incumbent upon Uiagalelei to prove he’s taken steps forward — or, for Klubnik to prove he’s ready.
It’s remarkable to think Clemson’s defensive line was a strength in 2021, because the Tigers were missing so much. Bryan Bresee, perhaps the unit's best player, was sidelined after Week 4 with an ACL tear. His sidekick on the interior, Tyler Davis, missed games with a biceps tear. Another talented defensive tackle, Tre Williams, was afflicted by numerous ailments.
Now, they are all back. Plus, NFL prospect Myles Murphy heads into his junior season at defensive end. Plus, K.J. Henry and Xavier Thomas have returned for fifth seasons and are reportedly in peak physical form. Plus, Ruke Orhorhoro and Etinosa Reuben are ascending after a season’s worth of experience in Bresee’s absence.
Wes Goodwin couldn’t have picked a better year to debut as defensive coordinator, because the defensive line is incredibly stacked. And much like the “Power Rangers” group that bolstered championship defenses, this unit has adopted its own nickname, the “Avengers.”
As Captain America would say, it’s time for Clemson’s D-line to “assemble” and show what it can accomplish as a unit. Best of luck to the Tigers’ offensive line as it battles Hulk (Bresee), Iron Man (Davis), Spider-Man (Murphy) and Thor (Thomas) in camp.
On the interior
Speaking of the offensive line, the Avengers have worthy adversaries in offensive tackles Jordan McFadden and Walker Parks. It’s in the middle, though, where there is uncertainty.
Hunter Rayburn has medically retired, and Mason Trotter will miss a good chunk of the 2022 season. To compensate, Will Putnam moved from guard to center in the spring, which should give the fourth-year junior a smoother transition than Matt Bockhorst last year. But even if Putnam proves capable at center, that leaves questions at both guard spots.
On the left side, Clemson has kept faith in Marcus Tate. The former prep tackle had another offseason to study and condition and better assimilate to guard. On the right side, redshirt sophomore Bryn Tucker seems to have a leg up on the pack, but it’s a deep mix with the likes of Mitchell Mayes, Dietrick Pennington, and John Williams all competing for snaps.
Clemson’s offense started slow in 2021, partially because the interior offensive line wasn’t well-meshed. With a three-headed monster of Will Shipley, Kobe Pace, and Phil Mafah running the ball, it’s important for the offensive line to find its best five and get ready to roll for Week 1.
Not only was Clemson's offense riddled by injuries last season, but the Tigers were inexperienced. Shipley was a five-star prospect but had to adjust to the college level. Beaux and Dacari Collins were starting at receiver down the stretch. Tate was thrown into the fire at guard and had his ups and downs.
Now it’s time to see what difference a year makes. Shipley and Beaux Collins, in particular, have a chance to be true standouts after productive freshman campaigns. Tate gets to re-apply his experience at a position of need. Another rising sophomore, tight end Jake Briningstool, could be a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-6, nearly 240 pounds.
These sophomores have a chance to turn the tide for Clemson offensively, and their defensive counterparts could supercharge a talented unit. Andrew Mukuba, the reigning ACC defensive newcomer of the year, might be more than just a safety, experimenting at “nickel” linebacker and corner. Barrett Carter, the former five-star, adds incredible speed at linebacker. And the Tigers need a starting corner opposite senior Sheridan Jones, and Nate Wiggins could be prepared to make that leap.
“I think he’s the best cover dude, corner in college football,” Uiagalelei said of Wiggins. “Only going to be a sophomore, but the stuff he does out there in practice — just his technique, just his football IQ, reading routes — he’s really special.”
Freshmen to watch
While the sophomore class should play an outsized role in boosting Clemson’s fortunes, it’s always worth monitoring early risers from the freshman ranks.
They can fill whatever cracks remain.
At corner, Jeadyn Lukus and Toriano Pride have the talent to push for playing time. Adam Randall is working his way back from an ACL injury, but fellow receiver Antonio Williams has arrived and could have a chance to see the field early as a slot receiver. Blake Miller and Collin Sadler could be ready to contribute on the offensive line, if called upon.
And, of course, Klubnik will be in the spotlight.
Like with Mukuba in 2021, Clemson is never afraid to throw a freshman onto the field if they are the best of the bunch. Camp will be their chance to stake a claim to early snaps.
If any position group outside of the offensive line was in disarray last year, it was probably Clemson’s receiver corps. At one point, former walk-on Will Swinney was starting in the slot.
That slot position was a glaring need following Amari Rodgers' graduation to the NFL. It didn't help that Will Taylor (ACL tear) and Brannon Spector (COVID-19 complications) were both sidelined.
Spector returned in spring practice, though, and received plenty of snaps. Receivers coach Tyler Grisham says his expectation is for the fourth-year junior to start. Taylor, who was able to play the last month of baseball season, will make a complete transition to receiver and adds another weapon who can take a quick pass and make a play in space.
Add in true freshman Antonio Williams, and Clemson appears to have more options in the slot this season. The Tigers need a "horizontal" threat to emerge and make the passing game harder to defend.
Man in the middle
The defensive line appears incredibly deep, but the talent behind them could take Clemson’s defense to another level. A potential first-round pick, junior Trenton Simpson, is set to move from the “nickel” to a more traditional “weakside” linebacker role, and the speedster Carter should feature at the “nickel” spot.
But questions remain at middle linebacker. There are three players — LaVonta Bentley, Keith Maguire, and Jeremiah Trotter Jr. — vying for the No. 1 role.
Bentley and Maguire, both redshirt juniors, have the edge in experience. But the sophomore Trotter, son of the former All-Pro middle linebacker by the same name, was practically born to play the position; he was uber-productive whenever he relieved James Skalski during the 2021 season.
Who will be Skalski’s successor? At this point, it isn't clear. But camp should provide some clarity.