What can we expect from the 2021 Clemson Tigers? The 2020 team predictably topped the ACC after defeating Notre Dame in the Championship game. An unexpected defeat to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semi-finals brought an abrupt end to the season for Dabo Swinney’s charges. There are two very different sides to the coin for the 2021 Clemson Tigers. On defence, Brent Venables can boast a full complement of defensive starters. On offence, Tony Elliott will oversee a full turnover of talent in his first year as sole offensive coordinator.
Defence: More of the Same
The 2021 Clemson Tigers are infamously returning all defensive starters for the 2021 college football season. The Tigers were the second most feared defence in the ACC in 2020, and conceded just 20.2 points per game. The departure of Notre Dame from the ACC in a return to independent status should firmly place Venables’ defensive unit as the best in the conference in 2021.
The unit is led by linebacker James Skalski, who is returning to Death Valley for his sixth season in college football. Skalski was one of countless college football players who decided to take advantage of the NCAA’s “free” year of eligibility. Although he undoubtedly is the heart and soul of the defensive unit, his elongated time in the college game is unlikely to lead to a career in the NFL.
Some other players on the defensive side of the ball that should be chasing their NFL dream are on the defensive front. Xavier Thomas (DE) is the standout edge rusher, and enjoyed 3.5 sacks in his Junior year. He has returned for his Senior year after missing the beginning of the season due to contracting coronavirus. The interior of the line is stout, and led by Junior DT Tyler Davis. Davis had 2 sacks from the inside as a Sophomore, and is expected to take another leap in 2021.
The team had 46 total sacks in 2020, ranking second in the ACC. Senior Baylon Spector (LB) led the team with 4.5, and like Skalski will be returning for another year. By all accounts, it is a crowded linebacker room in South Carolina. Skalski and Spector will be expected to concede reps to the younger members of the position group.
Andrew Booth Jnr and Sheridan Jones are two highly rated CBs who have talent evaluators drooling. Booth Jr is touted to take a leap forward in his Junior year, and many predict he could be a First Round 2022 NFL Draft pick. Booth Jr had 22 solo tackles, a sack and 2 interceptions in 2020. He also had a score against Syracuse in October after recovering a fumble, and will be expecting another big year in 2021.
Two players who won’t be returning to the 2021 Clemson Tigers are Jordan Williams (DT) and Derion Kendrick (CB). Williams has transferred to Virginia Tech after struggling to establish himself on the roster. Kendrick, once touted as a First Round draft pick, may no longer have a future in the sport after an arrest in March. He was found asleep in his girlfriend’s car with a Glock 19 pistol and a small amount of cannabis in his possession. The sentence for the firearm misdemeanour is one year in prison. He was already off the team from February, and his arrest serves to compound his woes. Kendrick’s return to either the school or the sport looks unlikely.
Offence: All Change
The 2021 Clemson Tigers will look unrecognisable from the 2020 unit. Trevor Lawrence led the exodus from Death Valley to the NFL. The Tigers’ offence was second in total offence in the ACC in 2020 thanks to UNC’s historic rushing attack. In terms of passing offence, no ACC team could match Lawrence and Co.
Run it back, DJ
Trevor Lawrence’s break from the game after contracting coronavirus meant that college football fans got an early look at heir to the throne DJ Uiagalelei. DJ is a prototypical bod-bodied quarterback that lacks Lawrence’s rushing threat. That said, he has relied on his legs in the red zone. In his two freshman starts, Uiagalelei completed 69% of his passes for 781 yards and 6 total touchdowns. One of those performances came in Clemson’s only regular season defeat, a trip to South Bend against Notre Dame. Despite the scoreline, Uiagalelei showcased his potential as Dabo Swinney’s next quarterback.
Running Back Travis Etienne set an all-time ACC rushing record in 2020. He and Lawrence made up for 61% of the team’s total rushing yards. Can Senior running back Lyn-J Dixon take on the workload that Etienne has vacated? He had just 190 yards and 2 scores in 2020. Chez Mellusi saw less touches in 2020 compared with his Freshman season. A turnaround in his fortunes seems unlikely at present. Put simply, the Clemson backfield has lost an historic talent. Right now, it seems hard to predict how this hole will be filled for the 2021 Clemson Tigers.
Pass Catchers Wanted
It is also a period of change at wide receiver, too. Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell have both left college football for the NFL. The two combined for 1,902 yards in 2020, accounting for 45% of the team’s total receiving yards. Tight End Braden Galloway returns for his Senior year, and is the most productive returning pass catcher from 2020. Frank Ladson Jr needs to have a productive Junior year.
Of course, Dabo Swinney and Tony Elliott are boosted by the return of Justyn Ross. Ross underwent surgery last year to rectify a spinal injury. A scan on shoulder injury had revealed that two of his vertebrae were fused. He broke out in his 2018 Freshman year, and brought home 865 yards in 2019. If he can come back healthy in 2021, Swinney will have a much-desired alpha receiver to rely on.
The best friend to the 2021 Clemson Tigers offence is going to be their defence. It may take some time for the new offence to gel, but they should be able to rely on an undisturbed Spring practice period. The season-opener against Georgia is a mouth-watering opening fixture. If Clemson is going to drop a game in 2021, then the Georgia game is it. Not only is it the team’s strongest opponent on the schedule, but it comes at a time where teething problems are to be expected on offence.
Clemson will be going to the ACC Championship Game, which they always seem to do. The bookmakers seem to agree, making them 1/8 favourites to top the conference. They should enter the game with a 12-0/11-1 record and once more have their eyes on the College Football Playoffs. Their success from that point will be the true test of this new look offence. If this team couldn’t win a National Championship in 2020 with Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, don’t expect it from the 2021 Clemson Tigers. If DJ Uiagalelei can lead the offence from the front, they have a fighting chance. And that’s a better shot than roughly 63 other Power 5 schools.
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