Hello again, Canes fam! We finally connected for an opponent Q&A as the Canes near the end of the 2022 season.
I returned the favor and answered some of Ryan’s questions about Miami. You can check that out right here:
Alright, let’s get into it. Here’s the Q&A:
Question 1. Clemson is yet again one of the best teams in the ACC by record, but they don’t seem to be the same kind of juggernaut of the last decade. What’s your feeling on the program overall so far this season?
Ryan Kantor: Since 2011, when Clemson’s rise began with their first ACC Championship in 30 years, great QB play and WR play has marked the offense. In 2018 everything peaked. That 2018 team was in the same realm as 2001 Miami, 2013 FSU, and 2019 LSU as one of the best greatest, but things trended down for three years after that.
In 2019, The Tigers had to replace the all their starters and their best reserve on the defensive line. They obviously took a step back there. The offense kept humming on the shoulders of QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne, but they missed slot receiver Hunter Renfrow and became reliant on winning jump balls along the sidelines. Fortunately, with Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, they won a lot of those and Clemson made it all the way to the National Championship game before falling to Joe Burrow and that 2019 LSU team. After the season, Co-offensive coordinator and WR coach Jeff Scott took the head job at USF.
In 2020, Tee Higgins was gone, Justyn Ross was hurt, and the offensive line struggled immensely. Fortunately, two senior wide receivers had breakout campaigns that helped them overcome all that. Amari Rodgers became a 1,000-yard receiver and Cornell Powell came out of nowhere for 882 receiving yards. That team lost to Ohio State in the semi-finals.
Last year, the Tigers finally didn’t have Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne to mask deficiencies. Perhaps just as big as that, the offensive line didn’t make any big improvements. Maybe biggest of all though, the wide receiver corps didn’t find suitable replacements for the departing Rodgers and Powell. Fans clamored for a transfer to come in and help shore up the offensive line. I also hoped they’d find a wide receiver in the portal. They elected not to and those holes were glaring all year as the offense was among the worst in the ACC.
That brings us to this season. The trend has reversed and Clemson has gotten better, but the same issues with the wide receivers persist. Clemson again declined to bring in a transfer to help and even said they were not looking to do so. Before the season, Coach Swinney said they have “all the right ingredients” in the wide receiver room. Freshman Antonio Williams has been outstanding and given the Tigers their first legitimate elite slot receiver since Renfrow, but other pieces are still missing. Either the scheme – now run by Brandon Streeter following Tony Elliott’s offseason departure to UVA – isn’t working, the wide receivers aren’t being developed properly, or there have been a lot of recruiting misses. I don’t believe it is the scheme – it seems improved from Elliott’s offense.
I believe Clemson can return to the upmost elite of college football if they make some tough calls. That may require Coach Swinney to determine if it is recruiting misses and they need to utilize the portal or if it is the development and changes need to be made to the coaching staff. I don’t know what it is, but it can’t be nothing.
Question 2. I’m firmly of the mind that DJ Uiagalelei isn’t the guy at QB and Clemson should have long ago gone to the #KlubLevel by benching him in favor of freshman Cade Klubnik. What are your thoughts on Uiagalelei, his play, and what you think should be the direction forward at Quarterback for Clemson?
Ryan: My previous answer is a good set-up here. DJ isn’t Trevor Lawrence or Tajh Boyd, but he also doesn’t have Sammy Watkins or Tee Higgins streaking downfield to hit for huge gains.
I would have liked to see Cade get worked into some more meaningful situations given he is the future, but it seems that DJ gives Clemson the better shot to win now. If DJ transfers to a PAC-12 school after this season – which I think could be best for all parties – it will be fascinating to see how well he does. Players that transfer out of Clemson generally don’t do much, especially quarterbacks. If he thrives at a place like Oregon or Washington, it may give some insight what held him back at Clemson.
Question 3. Outside of dynamic RB Will Shipley, Clemson doesn’t have the plethora of explosive offensive players they once did. What happened? And who is stepping up to help Shipley out?
Ryan: Again, this goes back to my initial commentary about the wide receivers. Clemson has two very good running backs in Shipley and Phil Mafah as well as two above-average tight ends. The spot where they’re missing the explosive offensive players you’re used to seeing is at wide receiver where they are relying on a true freshman Antonio Williams. The staff has gotten creative and started working the ball to Williams more and more with each passing week. He had a career-high 10 receptions against Louisville.
Phil Mafah is Will Shipley’s counterpart at running back. He is a bit more of a bruising power back with perhaps a little less wiggle. He won’t hurdle you like Shipley, but he is speedy in his own right.
Clemson’s tight ends have really done a lot to help the passing game. Davis Allen is second on the team with 28 reception and third on the team with 339 receiving yards. He is also a good blocker. The younger Jake Briningstool is his understudy and is just as dangerous as a pass catcher but still growing as a blocker. They’ve put him out wide at times to help mask some of the challenges at wide receiver and I wish they’d do it more.
Question 4. On defense, Clemson is just as loaded as ever, particularly along the defensive line. Who are the players to know heading into Saturday’s game?
Ryan: Clemson’s defense hasn’t been consistently dominant, but they sure were against Louisville. KJ Henry is a fifth-year senior defensive end having a breakout campaign. Tyler Davis is a junior defensive tackle who stuffs the run as well as anyone. Sophomore linebacker Barrett Carter may be a future top 15 draft pick. He can play the strongside or weakside linebacker and brings great speed. He had 2 sacks and an interception against Louisville. Finally, Jeremiah Trotter is the middle linebacker and he’s done a really nice job filling the spot previously held by team leader and fan favorite James Skalski.
Question 5. What once looked like a potential marquee game on the schedule isn’t because Miami hasn’t held up their end of the bargain. As Clemson looks to push toward another College Football Playoff appearance, are you disappointed that Miami’s season takes some of the lustre off this game?
Ryan: Interestingly, before the season I picked Clemson to go 10-2 and figured Notre Dame and Miami would be the most probable losses. Obviously, I’d love Clemson to be undefeated and facing an undefeated Miami in a potential round 1 before a ACCCG rematch. As it is, I’m happy to be heavy favorites.
Question 6. Clemson is a 19pt favorite heading into this game, and has beaten Miami by a combined 138-20 over the last 3 meetings. So, expecting a big win here, what could reasonably happen to keep this game close?
Ryan: Turnovers and ball control. Clemson’s defense is stout so getting turnovers and helping Miami’s struggling offense with good field position is key. Clemson’s offense works much better when they design some run plays for DJ Uiagalelei, but he has had some fumbling issues as has star running back Will Shipley. He had two fumbles (one lost) against Louisville.
The other key is limiting possessions. Clemson can certainly get in a rut and if Miami can find some traction on the ground and milk clock, that’s the recipe. Now, running on Clemson is no easy task, but Coach Swinney always seems most frustrated when his team only gets a possession or two in a given quarter and they can’t find their rhythm.
Question 7. Last question: call your shot. What’s the score for Saturday’s game?
Ryan: Based on the spread and over/under, Las Vegas is picking Clemson to win by something like 33-14. Miami has faced two currently ranked teams, UNC and Florida State, in Miami. The former was a close loss and the latter was a blowout. Miami has to come to Clemson for this one and while I don’t think this will get as ugly as the Florida State game, but I think Clemson wins comfortably, 38-10, and the home win streak reaches 40 games.
Thanks to Ryan for joining us for the Q&A this week. You can check out his work, and the work of other talented writers covering Clemson athletics, over at Shakin’ the Southland.