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Feb 25, 2020

2020 Spring Guide: Team Outlook


As Clemson begins its 125th season and embarks upon a new decade, Clemson can look back upon 117 victories in the decade of the 2010s, trailing only Penn (124 in the 1890s) and Alabama (124 in the 2010s) for the most in a decade in major college football since 1890. With 10 wins in 2020, Clemson could be become only the third program in Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) history to post 10 consecutive 10-win seasons.

Clemson’s 2019 season ended one win short of the pinnacle, but Clemson’s ascent into rare air under Head Coach Dabo Swinney heading into 2020 has made success anything but rare over the last decade.

The last five years at Clemson have ranked among the best in the sport’s 150-year annals. Clemson’s 69 wins since 2015 are three more than any other team in the country and are the most in a five-year span in the Associated Press (AP) Poll era (since 1936). In that span, Clemson became the second team ever to qualify for five straight College Football Playoffs, earning four national championship berths and two titles in that stretch. Clemson won at least 12 games in all five of those seasons, the longest active streak of 12-win seasons and one of only four such streaks in major college football history, joining Alabama (five from 2014-18), Penn (seven from 1892-98) and Yale (five from 1888-92).

So, with that track record and the proven blueprint for success in place, Swinney’s message to his team in 2020 may be simple: be who you are.

One year after Clemson returned a school-record 61 lettermen for the 2018 season, Clemson entered the 2019 campaign with a roster that included 80 freshmen and sophomores. Clemson’s 2020 squad will be a mixture of youth and experience, as Clemson once again expects 61 returning lettermen yet will still feature a roster that tentatively should include 78 players classified as freshmen or sophomores in the fall.

Clemson opens its 125th season at Georgia Tech on Thursday, Sept. 3, and will enter Atlanta with a combination of lethal talent and experience at some key positions alongside an exciting collection of youth ready to excel as opportunities become available.

Clemson enters 2020 in the midst of one of the most prolific stretches of offense in college football history. One year after scoring a school-record 664 points in 2018, Clemson scored 659 points in 2019. Clemson now accounts for two of the 22 650-point seasons in major college football history, including two of only 16 since Division I split in 1978. Clemson was the first school with back-to-back 650-point seasons since Yale in 1888-89. Yale’s accomplishments predated the start of official NCAA recordkeeping in 1937, and the second year of their feat (1889) was coincidentally the year Clemson was founded.

Clemson’s remarkable consistency on offense has been mirrored by the consistency of the unit’s coaching staff. Clemson’s full-time offensive assistants remained the same from the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl through last year’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game, a 75-game, five-plus-season stretch with no coaching turnover, a remarkable feat of stability in today’s game.

The run of stability ended only by virtue of the offense’s immense success, as the unit’s productivity led to former Co-Offensive Coordinator/Wide Receivers Coach Jeff Scott being named the head coach at South Florida for 2020. With Scott’s departure, Tony Elliott will now drop the “Co-“ label and become Offensive Coordinator/Running Backs Coach. Quarterbacks Coach Brandon Streeter has added the Passing Game Coordinator role and handed his Recruiting Coordinator title to Todd Bates. Tyler Grisham, a former Clemson receiver who spent six years at Clemson from 2014-19 as a graduate assistant and analyst, becomes Wide Receivers Coach at “Wide Receiver U.”

The stability of Clemson’s offense from 2019 to 2020 got a somewhat-unexpected boost on Jan. 17, four days following the national championship game, when running back Travis Etienne (Jennings, La.) announced his intention to return for his senior season. Through his first three seasons, Etienne had already cemented his status in Clemson and ACC history, becoming Clemson’s all-time leading rusher and its first 4,000-yard rusher while also securing ACC records for career rushing touchdowns, career total touchdowns and career points by a non-kicker. Now, Etienne, who was the first running back to win back-to-back ACC Player of the Year honors since Mike Voight in 1975-76, will attempt to become the first three-time winner in conference history and join Herschel Walker, a three-time SEC Player of the Year from 1980-82, as the only players to win conference player of the year honors three times in a career.

But Clemson’s returning production is not limited to the man wearing No. 9. Returning for his third campaign at Clemson is junior quarterback Trevor Lawrence (Cartersville, Ga.), who enters 2020 with a 25-1 career record as a starter and the highest winning percentage among qualified quarterbacks in school history (.961). Lawrence has completed 527-of-804 passes for 6,945 yards and 66 touchdowns in his 30-game career, including his first four career contests, when he entered in reserve.

The passing/rushing combination of Lawrence and Etienne represents one of the most productive returning duos in the history of college football. Of the 139 career 4,000-yard rushers in FBS history, only 14 accrued 4,000 yards prior to their final season. Of those 14, only two returned alongside a career 6,000-yard passer, placing the 2020 Clemson Tigers alongside the 2018 Washington Huskies (Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin) and 2001 Oregon State Beavers (Jonathan Smith and Ken Simonton) as the only programs in FBS history to return a duo with a 6,000-yard passer and 4,000-yard rusher.

The composition of Clemson’s quarterback room has changed for 2020, as Lawrence will no longer be backed up by Chase Brice, who will graduate this May with the intent to transfer and finish his career at Duke. The position behind Lawrence could be contested by a pair of freshmen, including redshirt freshman Taisun Phommachanh (Bridgeport, Conn.), who appeared in three contests while redshirting in 2019, as well as true freshman D.J. Uiagalelei (Inland Empire, Calif.), who enrolled in January after signing as a consensus Top 10 recruit in the 2020 class.

With Etienne’s return, Clemson’s running backs group returns entirely intact. Junior Lyn-J Dixon (Butler, Ga.) has been extraordinarily productive in limited opportunities while spelling Etienne over the past two seasons, ranking second in Clemson history and seventh in ACC history among qualified players in yards per carry (7.12). The group also benefits from the leadership of former walk-on Darien Rencher (Anderson, S.C.), a fifth-year senior who scored the first two touchdowns of his career while continuing his ascent as one of the program’s top vocal leaders on and off the field. Sophomores Chez Mellusi (Naples, Fla.) and Michel Dukes (Charleston, S.C.) each saw more than 65 snaps and combined for five touchdowns as true freshmen a season ago.

Wide Receiver U is expected to add another to its NFL ranks in April, as Tee Higgins elected to forego his senior season to declare for the 2020 NFL Draft. Higgins used an explosive junior season in 2019 to help catapult him into a tie for Clemson’s record for career receiving touchdowns and into consideration as a potential first-round NFL Draft pick. A similar trajectory could be plausible for junior Justyn Ross (Phenix City, Ala.), who is Clemson’s receiving leader among returning players with 112 career catches for 1,865 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Ross, who not long ago made his name nationally with noteworthy performances in the College Football Playoff as a true freshman, is now one of the veteran voices in the room alongside senior Amari Rodgers (Knoxville, Tenn.). Last Spring, some feared the worst for Rodgers, who tore his ACL on March 25. However, Rodgers’ diligent rehab produced a near-miraculously quick recovery, as he returned to game action 166 days later in Clemson’s second game and finished the season with 627 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns (including one via rush). The versatile slot receiver and returner is expected to ditch his knee brace in 2020 and enters the campaign as one of only five Clemson players since 2000 to record a touchdown by rush, reception and punt return in a career.

Beyond Ross and Rodgers, Clemson’s receiving corps features a number of returning players — younger and older — ready for larger roles. That group includes fifth-year senior Cornell Powell (Greenville, N.C.), senior Will Swinney (Clemson, S.C.), sophomores Frank Ladson Jr. (Miami, Fla.) and Joseph Ngata (Folsom, Calif.) and redshirt freshman Brannon Spector (Calhoun, Ga.).

Clemson’s tight end unit saw a boost in production in last year’s College Football Playoff upon the return of Braden Galloway (Seneca, S.C.). Galloway, who will be a junior in 2020, had a key downfield block on Lawrence’s 67-yard touchdown run against Ohio State and then caught two passes for 60 yards — including a career-long 42-yarder — against LSU. Fifth-year senior J.C. Chalk (Argyle, Texas) started 14 of Clemson’s 15 games at the position last season, playing 415 offensive snaps, while original walk-on Luke Price (Dillon, S.C.) transitioned to the position admirably after opening his career at linebacker. The group has an influx of youth as well, returning sophomore Davis Allen (Calhoun, Ga.) and redshirt freshman Jaelyn Lay (Atlanta, Ga.) while welcoming midyear enrollee Sage Ennis (Graceville, Fla.).

The script will be flipped for the Clemson offensive line in 2020. A year ago, Clemson started four seniors along the offensive line, its first time doing so for the majority of a season since 2007. All five starters earned All-ACC honors, with the four seniors all collecting either first- or second-team selections. The group that has produced 22 all-conference selections in the last five seasons (the most in the Power Five) will look to continue its recent run of trench domination with a largely fresh cast of characters.

The lone returning starter on the offensive line is left tackle Jackson Carman (Fairfield, Ohio), who was a third-team All-ACC honoree and seamlessly stepped into the position held previously by All-American four-year starter Mitch Hyatt.

He is expected to be joined on the line by the other Ohio native on the roster, redshirt junior Matt Bockhorst (Cincinnati, Ohio), who played 421 snaps at guard a season ago, including rotating in capably for soon-to-be NFL draft pick John Simpson. The other side of the line could be anchored by redshirt sophomore Jordan McFadden (Spartanburg, S.C.), who has played 332 snaps in 17 career games, 315 of which came in 14 games last season. Blake Vinson (Ocala, Fla.) could attempt to compete at a myriad of offensive line positions as well after missing most of 2019 with a patella injury.

Spots on the interior of Clemson’s line should be heavily contested this spring among a group that includes fifth-year senior Cade Stewart (Six Mile, S.C.), sophomore Will Putnam (Tampa, Fla.) and redshirt freshmen Hunter Rayburn (Pensacola, Fla.), Mason Trotter (Roebuck, S.C.) and Kaleb Boateng (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). The group will also be joined by six scholarship signees from Clemson’s 2020 recruiting class, the most offensive line signees in a single class under Dabo Swinney.

Under the guidance of Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach Brent Venables, entering his ninth season at Clemson, the Tigers have staked their claim as one of the nation’s top units on an annual basis. In the six-year College Football Playoff era, Clemson has finished in the Top 10 in the nation in total defense each year, the only program in the country able to make that claim.

Clemson’s defense opened the 2019 season with one of the most impressive stretches of performances in college football’s modern era. The Tigers held all 12 regular season opponents under 300 yards of offense, becoming the first team in ESPN Stats & Info records back to 1996 to open a season with 12 consecutive performances allowing fewer than 300 yards. That unit was led in part by a veteran secondary that will see three starters pursue NFL dreams in 2020.

After the departure of four NFL draft picks and an additional NFL free agent signee from the 2018 defensive line, Clemson developed an extremely young defensive line unit in 2019, the benefits of which should only multiply in 2020.

On the interior, Todd Bates enters his fourth season overseeing Clemson’s defensive tackles after all of his starters across his first three seasons earned All-ACC recognition. His mentorship helped develop sophomore Tyler Davis (Apopka, Fla.), who started 13 games as a true freshman en route to a second-team All-ACC selection a season ago, the most starts by a true freshman defensive lineman in Clemson history. Nyles Pinckney (Beaufort, S.C.), now entering his fifth year, also returns after earning a third-team All-ACC selection in 2019.

The two returning all-conference honorees at defensive tackle will be supplemented by redshirt junior Jordan Williams (Virginia Beach, Va.), a 15-game contributor last season, as well as a young corps that includes redshirt sophomore Darnell Jefferies (Covington, Ga.), sophomore Ruke Orhorhoro (Lagos, Nigeria by way of River Rouge, Mich.) and redshirt freshman Etinosa Reuben (Kansas City, Mo.). The group will also get an infusion of talent from its impressive 2020 recruiting class, which includes the nation’s consensus No. 1 prospect, Bryan Bresee (Damascus, Md.), who enrolled in January.

At defensive end, Clemson worked a group of three different starters for its two starting positions throughout the 2019 season. Two of those three return in 2020, with the lone departure being a bit of an unexpected one when Logan Rudolph elected to forego his final two seasons of eligibility in favor of graduating and pursuing a career in acting. Senior Justin Foster (Shelby, N.C.) and junior Xavier Thomas (Florence, S.C.), the two returning starters of that trio, combined for 18.5 tackles for loss in 21 combined starts a season ago.

Clemson has depth at the position as well in the form of a pair of redshirt sophomores, K.J. Henry (Winston-Salem, N.C.) and Justin Mascoll (Snellville, Ga.). The duo combined to play about 600 snaps for the Tigers in 2019. The scholarship group is rounded out by redshirt freshman Greg Williams (Swansea, S.C.), who is in his second year transitioning to end from linebacker, as well as midyear enrollee Myles Murphy (Marietta, Ga.).

Clemson lost its sixth unanimous All-American in school history from its 2019 linebacking corps when Isaiah Simmons opted to enter the 2020 NFL Draft, but Clemson is confident in the depth of the unit it returns in 2020. The lone returning starting linebacker is fifth-year senior James Skalski (Sharpsburg, Ga.), a hard-nosed Mike linebacker affectionately referred to by Head Coach Dabo Swinney as a “war daddy” who finished 2019 credited by the staff with 105 tackles.

The competition on either side of him at the Will and Nickel/Sam positions could be one of the spring’s most intriguing position battles. Redshirt junior Baylon Spector (Calhoun, Ga.) has been an impactful special teams contributor early in his career and recorded the first two sacks of his career in Clemson’s Fiesta Bowl win against Ohio State. The openings on the outside could also provide opportunity for Mike Jones Jr. (Nashville, Tenn.), who enters his redshirt sophomore campaign having seen nearly 200 defensive snaps in a reserve role across his redshirt season in 2018 and his first full season in 2019. Redshirt sophomore Jake Venables (Clemson, S.C.) returns after being one of Clemson’s most productive linebackers on a per-play basis a year ago, when he posted 38 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss despite playing only 217 defensive snaps.

The linebacking corps could also seek contributions from a substantial number of young players, including sophomore Kane Patterson (Brentwood, Tenn.) and redshirt freshmen Keith Maguire (Media, Pa.) and LaVonta Bentley (Birmingham, Ala.). The unit also includes a talented trio from Clemson’s highly lauded 2020 recruiting class, as Trenton Simpson (Charlotte, N.C.), Sergio Allen (Fort Valley, Ga.) and Kevin Swint (Carrollton, Ga.) all enrolled in January with hopes of making an early impact.

Clemson’s secondary will have to replace three of its starters from 2019 but will do so under the guidance of FootballScoop’s 2019 Defensive Backs Coaches of the Year, Mickey Conn and Mike Reed, who serve as Clemson’s safeties and cornerbacks coaches, respectively. Conn loses two senior starters and leaders in Tanner Muse and K’Von Wallace, while Reed will lose early NFL Draft entry A.J. Terrell.

For Conn, Clemson’s predilection for sub packages with additional safeties has meant plenty of experience for one of his presumed starters for 2020, fifth-year senior Nolan Turner (Vestavia Hills, Ala.). Turner has played 43 games for Clemson including four starts last year in defensive-back-heavy personnel groupings. He enters his final season of eligibility with three career interceptions, all three of which have come in postseason play, including one against Notre Dame in the 2018 Cotton Bowl, one against Virginia in the 2019 ACC Championship Game and one to seal Clemson’s Fiesta Bowl win against Ohio State in 2019.

Beyond Turner, the safeties unit represents another position at which Clemson will be sorting through an abundance of talented, young depth. Sophomores Lannden Zanders (Shelby, N.C.) and Joseph Charleston (Milton, Ga.) combined for 27 game appearances and about 200 defensive snaps on top of their special teams responsibilities in 2019, while fellow sophomore Jalyn Phillips (Lawrenceville, Ga.) appeared in 14 games while cross-training at safety and Clemson’s Nickel/Sam linebacker spot. Ray Thornton III (Columbus, Ga.) also returns after redshirting in 2019.

Clemson might have produced the ACC’s most unlikely all-conference selection in 2020 when Derion Kendrick (Rock Hill, S.C.) earned second-team All-ACC honors just months after transitioning to the position in the 2019 offseason. Changing positions out of necessity during 2019 spring practice paid dividends for Clemson and Kendrick, who started all 15 games and recorded two interceptions as Clemson finished second in the nation in opponent passer rating (105.37).

Among returning players potentially contesting for the starting spot opposite Kendrick are redshirt junior LeAnthony Williams (Atlanta, Ga.), junior Mario Goodrich (Kansas City, Mo.) and sophomores Andrew Booth Jr. (Dacula, Ga.) and Sheridan Jones (Norfolk, Va.). All four of those players appeared in at least 11 games and played at least 75 defensive snaps for Clemson in 2019.

Junior B.T. Potter (Rock Hill, S.C.) is Clemson’s incumbent at placekicker, where Dabo Swinney has been encouraged by the positive momentum generated from his conclusion to an up-and-down 2019 campaign. Potter is 14-for-22 on his career on field goal attempts and a perfect 86-for-86 on extra points.

Potter was 3-of-4 on field goals in postseason play last year, including a career-long 52-yard field goal against LSU that represented the longest made field goal in College Football Playoff National Championship Game history. He finished the season with a school-record-tying three field goals of 50 or more yards. He showed remarkable consistency from long range, going 3-for-3 from 50-plus yards. He will attempt to improve from shorter distances in 2020 after going 10-for-18 from inside 50 yards a season ago.

In addition, Potter’s powerful leg has made him a weapon for Clemson as a kickoff specialist for two straight seasons from 2018-19. He led the nation in kickoff average in 2019 with an average of 64.63 yards per kick. His 79.0 percent touchback percentage on those kickoffs ranked fifth in the country.

Punter was a bright spot for Clemson in the 2019 postseason, as punter Will Spiers (Cameron, S.C.) produced some of the best performances of his career on the game’s biggest stages. In College Football Playoff games against Ohio State and LSU, Spiers dropped 10 of his 16 punts inside the 20. Spiers, who will be a senior in 2020, finished the season with a career-high 41.7-yard net average, the second-best single-season mark in school history behind Dale Hatcher’s 1984 performance (42.4). Also returning at punter is Aidan Swanson (Tampa, Fla.), who redshirted in 2019.

Clemson will have a new starting long snapper in 2020 following the graduation of Patrick Phibbs. Redshirt junior Jack Maddox (Acton, Mass.) and fifth-year senior Tyler Brown (Greenville, S.C.) are among those that will vie for that position this offseason. On placekicks, the snapper will benefit from the steady hands of senior Will Swinney, who is expected to be the team’s primary holder for the fourth consecutive season.

Five players returned at least one punt for Clemson in 2019, all five of whom return for 2020. Amari Rodgers was Clemson’s primary punt returner a season ago, averaging 8.4 yards on 18 returns, including a season-long 53-yard return against Wake Forest. Derion Kendrick accounted for nine returns as well last season and remains a trusted option.

Joseph Ngata was Clemson’s primary kick returner in 2019, giving way to Travis Etienne down the stretch as Dabo Swinney sought to use special teams to get Etienne extra touches in what he terms the “Championship Phase” of the season. While Clemson’s defense limited the amount of kickoff return opportunities, Ngata still totaled 325 yards on 14 returns, a 23.2-yard average, in 2019.