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Feb 18, 2021

2021 Spring Guide: Meet the Tigers

2021 OUTLOOK: CLEMSON ENTERS SPRING WITH EXPERIENCED DEFENSE, PROMISING OFFENSE

How does a program with six straight ACC titles, six straight College Football Playoff berths and 10 straight 10-win seasons sustain success year-by-year?

“We tear it down and start all over.”

Those are the words of Head Coach Dabo Swinney describing his program’s annual process. That process continues in earnest this spring, as Clemson grinds through what Swinney calls the team’s “Get Ready Phase” that spans January through April.

Let’s meet this spring’s Clemson Tigers, unit-by-unit.

Clemson’s 2021 offense features a bevy of exciting, returning contributors supplemented by a number of compelling additions, a description that is as apt for the Clemson coaching staff as it is for the players. Clemson’s remarkable run of coaching consistency was once again in effect this offseason, as the only changes among Clemson’s 10 full-time assistant coaching positions related to Head Coach Dabo Swinney naming former Tight Ends Coach Danny Pearman as Clemson’s newly created Director of Football Scouting.

In Pearman’s stead is now Assistant Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator Tony Elliott, who will transition over to coaching tight ends after overseeing Clemson’s running backs since 2011, including three of Clemson’s top four season rushing outputs in school history. Elliott’s transition allowed Clemson to welcome back a program legend, adding College Football Hall of Famer C.J. Spiller as the team’s new running backs coach after he served as an unpaid coaching intern in 2020 while completing postgraduate work in Athletic Leadership.

Spiller’s adds a legend to the fold after Clemson saw two from recent years depart after 2020, as Clemson watched its winningest all-time quarterback in Trevor Lawrence and the ACC’s all-time leading rushing rusher in Travis Etienne conclude their legendary college careers to depart for the NFL. Behind that group stood an immensely talented group ready to enter the spotlight upon the departure of those two superstars.

QUARTERBACKS

Much to the chagrin of the rest of the ACC, Passing Game Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach Brandon Streeter, fresh off of coaching his second Heisman finalist in the last five years, has yet another prized pupil waiting behind center. Sophomore D.J. Uiagalelei (Inland Empire, Calif.), known colloquially as “Big Cinco,” enters the spring as the favorite to start following a freshman campaign in which he dazzled in two starts necessitated by Lawrence’s absence with COVID-19. The big-bodied Californian with an arm that Dabo Swinney once said “makes Trevor Lawrence look normal sometimes” not only put up prolific numbers (including 439 yards at Notre Dame, the most ever against the storied Irish program) but protected the ball exceptionally well, becoming only the second FBS player since 2000 to throw at least 115 passes and record at least five passing touchdowns with no interceptions.

Joining Uiagalelei in Clemson’s quarterbacks room is third-year sophomore Taisun Phommachanh (Bridgeport, Conn.), redshirt freshman walk-on Hunter Helms (West Columbia, S.C.) and a pair of versatile incoming freshmen, Bubba Chandler and Will Taylor, both of whom are expected to arrive this summer.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Clemson’s quarterbacks will not lack options, as Clemson’s rash of injuries at the position a year ago resulted in playing time and experience for a multitude of receivers, many of whom return for 2021. In his first season last year, Wide Receivers Coach Tyler Grisham carried Wide Receiver U’s reputation by helping seniors Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell combine for 130 catches, 1,902 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2020. Powell was one of Clemson’s best stories a year ago as a fifth-year senior who seized opportunity afforded in small part by injuries to Frank Ladson Jr. (Miami, Fla.) and Joseph Ngata (Folsom, Calif.) on the outside. That duo returns for their junior seasons in 2021 after Ladson briefly teased his downfield ability a year ago and Ngata looks to reach the “superstar” potential Dabo Swinney has often mentioned for him in his two years on campus.

Clemson’s most impactful returning receiver may be one who didn’t see the field in 2020, as 2021 could mark the return of fourth-year receiver Justyn Ross (Phenix City, Ala.), who missed all of last season after surgery following the diagnosis of a congenital fusion in his spine. While still attempting to hit medical checkpoints, Ross is tentatively expected to participate in spring ball in a non-contact capacity with an eye toward potential full participation in fall camp, a plan that was successful in current NFL receiver and former Clemson star Mike Williams’ return from a neck injury in 2016 en route to becoming the No. 7 overall pick in the NFL Draft.

Ross’ return would place him beside one of his former high school teammates, E.J. Williams (Phenix City, Ala.), who was one of Clemson’s breakout stars down the stretch as a freshman in 2020.

Clemson’s spring wide receiver corps also features a number of potential contributors both young and old, including “super senior” Will Swinney (Clemson, S.C.), redshirt sophomore Brannon Spector (Calhoun, Ga.) and sophomore Ajou Ajou (Brooks, Alberta) as well as mid-year enrollees Beaux Collins (Los Angeles, Calif.) and Dacari Collins (Atlanta, Ga.).

TIGHT ENDS

A year ago, Clemson received bolstered production from its tight end unit, as the group combined for 50 catches for 664 yards and seven touchdowns, the position group’s most in a season in all categories since 2016. Clemson returns tight ends responsible for 43 catches, 615 yards and six touchdowns last year as Elliott enters his first season leading the unit.

Senior Braden Galloway (Anderson, S.C.) started all 12 games for Clemson as a junior last year, catching 27 passes for 369 yards with two touchdowns. He and junior Davis Allen (Calhoun, Ga.) provided Clemson a formidable tandem at the position, as Allen added four touchdowns among his 16 catches for 247 yards and was often one of Clemson’s most physical presences in the running game.

Clemson’s scholarship depth at the tight end position this spring also includes redshirt sophomore Jaelyn Lay (Atlanta, Ga.), redshirt freshman Sage Ennis (Graceville, Fla.) and midyear freshman enrollee Jake Briningstool (Brentwood, Tenn.).

RUNNING BACKS

At running back, Spiller inherits a group that lost a future Hall of Famer in Etienne but remains loaded with talented depth ready for increased roles. Clemson’s leading rusher among returning players is Lyn-J Dixon (Butler, Ga.), the explosive fourth-year senior whose career 6.60 yards-per-carry average trails only Etienne in Clemson annals. His 6.60-yard average ranks as the eighth-best mark by any FBS player with at least 200 carries since 2018.

Juniors Chez Mellusi (Naples, Fla.) and Michel Dukes (Charleston, S.C.) both enter their third seasons at Clemson having each flashed their potential in limited action behind Etienne and Dixon over the last two seasons. The duo has combined for nine total career touchdowns. They now take on upperclassman status alongside sixth-year “super senior” Darien Rencher, who has become one of the most respected leaders in Clemson’s program and in all of college football and was named the recipient of the Disney Spirit Award in 2020.

Clemson’s youth in the running back room includes powerful sophomore Kobe Pace (Cedartown, Ga.), as well as a pair of midyear freshmen enrollees — Phil Mafah (Loganville, Ga.), who is returning from an ankle injury suffered as a high school senior, and Will Shipley (Weddington, N.C.), a highly touted all-purpose back who quickly garnered attention from Clemson players and staff upon the start of winter workouts.

OFFENSIVE LINE

In the trenches, Offensive Line Coach Robbie Caldwell returns three of his five starters from 2020 after the graduation of center Cade Stewart and the departure of tackle Jackson Carman for the NFL Draft. The senior leader of the group is Matt Bockhorst (Cincinnati, Ohio), who started all 12 games for Clemson at left guard last year and has appeared in a unit-high 40 career contests. At the opposite guard position, junior Will Putnam (Tampa, Fla.) returns after starting all 12 games at right guard, and at right tackle, Clemson welcomes back redshirt junior Jordan McFadden (Spartanburg, S.C.), who also started all 12 games in 2020. The trio were all in their first years as starters in 2020 as Clemson led the ACC in fewest sacks allowed per game (1.67).

If the incumbents hold, Clemson will be in search of two new starters following a 2020 campaign in which Clemson’s exceedingly young second offensive line included three true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen. Clemson’s “next man up” in 2020 — and presumably moving forward — was sophomore Walker Parks (Lexington, Ky.), who played in 199 offensive snaps along both Clemson’s interior and at tackle, the most of any Clemson non-starter on the offensive line last year.

Outside of Parks, the unit has an additional five second-year players, Paul Tchio (Milton, Ga.), Mitchell Mayes (Raleigh, N.C.), Trent Howard (Birmingham, Ala.), Bryn Tucker (Knoxville, Tenn.) and John Williams (Canton, Ga.) all seeking bigger roles in 2021.

Redshirt sophomore Mason Trotter (Roebuck, S.C.) served as Clemson’s primary backup at center a season ago, playing a combined 147 offensive snaps at center and guard. Third-year sophomore Tayquon Johnson (Williamsport, Md.) is in his second season since transitioning from defensive line to offensive line. Midyear freshman offensive line enrollees on campus this spring include Ryan Linthicum (Damascus, Md.) and Marcus Tate (Sunrise, Fla.).

The reign of Associate Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach Brent Venables continues into its 10th season at Clemson. Under Venables’ guidance, Clemson has finished in the top 15 in the nation in total defense in each of the last seven seasons, the longest active streak in the country. Clemson has finished in the top 10 in that category in six of those seven seasons, tied with Wisconsin for the most such finishes in the nation. Venables will preside over Clemson’s most veteran group in the modern era, as Clemson returns a Swinney-era record nine defensive starters for the first time, surpassing its eight returning starters entering 2009 and 2018.

LINEBACKERS

The position group directly under Venables’ purview got its own experience boost in January, when veteran linebacker James Skalski (Sharpsburg, Ga.) announced his intention to utilize the NCAA blanket eligibility waiver for 2020 to return for his “super senior” sixth year in 2021. Skalski, the heart and soul of the Clemson defense who is the only player ever to play in (and win) five consecutive ACC Championship Games, has played in 56 career games at Clemson, sitting alongside fellow super seniors Will Spiers and Will Swinney three games shy of the Clemson record of 59, held by select members of the 2018 and 2019 senior classes.

Last year, Skalski and fellow linebacker Baylon Spector (Calhoun, Ga.) formed a hard-hitting tandem Dabo Swinney called “The Bruise Brothers.” Spector returns for his fourth season and his second as a full-time starter after the coaching staff credited him with a team-high 72 tackles (10.5 for loss), a team-high 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in 2020.

The transfer of linebacker Mike Jones Jr. — one of Clemson’s two departing starters from 2020 — creates additional opportunity at Clemson’s nickel/sam linebacker spot, a position that Trenton Simpson (Charlotte, N.C.) seized down the stretch of his true freshman season along with his role as a situational edge rusher. Despite playing shy of 300 snaps and starting only three of his 12 games played, Simpson finished tied for second on the team with 4.0 sacks.

The rest of the linebacking corps is a similar mixture of experienced depth and high-upside youth. Jake Venables (Clemson, S.C.) earned four starts at middle linebacker in Skalski’s absence last year, finishing fifth on the team in tackles. Venables, in his fourth season at Clemson, is joined by a trio of third-year players seeking additional opportunities to make an impact: LaVonta Bentley (Birmingham, Ala.), Keith Maguire (Media, Pa.) and Kane Patterson (Brentwood, Tenn.). Clemson’s scholarship depth at linebacker also includes second-year players Sergio Allen (Fort Valley, Ga.) and Kevin Swint (Carrollton, Ga.), who combined to play in 15 games a year ago, as well as midyear enrollee Jeremiah Trotter Jr. (Mt. Laurel, N.J.), the son of 12-year NFL veteran Jeremiah Trotter Sr. Swint has cross-trained this spring at defensive end.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Clemson’s linebacking corps will operate behind an immensely talented defensive line, a group that flashed tremendous potential in 2020 despite its collective youth. Clemson’s defensive linemen combined for 44 starts last season (including games in which Clemson started only three down linemen), 23 starts of which were by true freshmen or sophomores and an additional 16 of which came from players in their third year in the program. Only five starts are unaccounted for among Clemson’s returning group, with those five belonging to veteran defensive tackles Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams, who transferred to Minnesota and Virginia Tech, respectively, in search of more playing time as a function of Clemson’s young stars that have quickly ascended to the starting lineup.

The defensive ends remain under the tutelage of Defensive Ends Coach Lemanski Hall, who helped Clemson tie for the national lead in sacks in 2020. Last year, he helped true freshman Myles Murphy (Marietta, Ga.) make an immediate impact, as the consensus top-10 recruit collected Freshman All-America status from The Athletic, ESPN, Rivals and the Football Writers Association of America and was named ACC Co-Newcomer of the Year by the Associated Press.

Hall’s unit will be hoping for a full bill of health, something that eluded it in 2020. Justin Foster (Shelby, N.C.) and Xavier Thomas (Florence, S.C.) entered 2020 slated as likely starters after the duo combined for 21 starts in 2019, but both battled challenges that resulted in unavailability for much of the 2020 campaign. Foster missed the entire 2020 campaign with medical concerns and elected to conclude his football career this offseason, and Thomas had intended to take a four-game medical redshirt a year ago after complications with both COVID-19 and strep throat but ultimately appeared in seven games upon the NCAA granting a free year of eligibility in 2020. Thomas (22.5) ranks first in career tackles for loss on Clemson’s current roster.

With Foster and Thomas limited in 2020, Clemson leaned on K.J. Henry (Winston-Salem, N.C.) and Justin Mascoll (Snellville, Ga.), a duo of then-redshirt-sophomores that combined for 15 starts. Both return for 2021 amid a scholarship defensive end group that includes “super senior” former walk-on Regan Upshaw (Bradenton, Fla.) and redshirt sophomore Greg Williams (Swansea, S.C.) and was joined in January by midyear enrollee Cade Denhoff (Plant City, Fla.).

Hall’s defensive ends flank an interior group led by Defensive Tackles Coach Todd Bates, who has helped every primary starter in his tenures at Jacksonville State (2014-16) and Clemson (2017-20) to at least one all-conference selection. His two incumbent starters are ones whose play and results early in their careers often placed them in the company of other young Clemson defensive tackle phenoms such as William “Refrigerator” Perry and Dexter Lawrence.

Tyler Davis (Apopka, Fla.) returns for his junior campaign, as his sterling 2019 season in which he became the first true freshman defensive tackle to start a season opener at Clemson since 1974 was followed by a season in which he grinded out seven starts while battling injury all throughout the 2020 season. The 2019 All-ACC selection was joined last year by the nation’s top recruit, Bryan Bresee (Damascus, Md.), who stormed onto the scene to earn Freshman All-American in 2020 and join Lawrence as the second ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year in Clemson history. The powerful, precocious tackle added 6.5 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks (tying Perry and others for third-most ever by a Clemson true freshman), two pass breakups, a forced fumble and a safety to earn first-team All-ACC honors. He joined Clemson in 2020 alongside two additional highly touted defensive tackles from Clemson’s prized 2020 recruiting class, now-second-year tackles DeMonte Capehart (Hartsville, S.C.) and Tré Williams (Windsor, Conn.).

Third-year tackle Ruke Orhorhoro (Lagos, Nigeria) entered the 2020 season primed for more playing time as a key rotational piece prior to suffering an injury in the season opener that cost him all but four games of what would have been a medical redshirt season under normal circumstances. Larger roles could also ensue for fourth-year junior Darnell Jefferies (Covington, Ga.) and third-year sophomore Etinosa Reuben (Kansas City, Mo.), both of whom played in seven games in 2020. The scholarship group is rounded out by midyear enrollee Payton Page (Greensboro, N.C.), an imposing figure who already stands 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds at 18 years of age.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

A year ago, Clemson faced the task of replacing three of its four starters in the defensive backfield from 2019. In a reversal of script, this year, Cornerbacks Coach Mike Reed and Safeties Coach Mickey Conn return nine of 10 defensive backs who started at least one game for the Tigers in 2020, a list lengthened by Clemson’s proclivity for opening games in packages with extra corners and safeties a year ago.

Now a junior, former five-star cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. (Dacula, Ga.) flashed in his four starts, riding SportsCenter Top 10 interceptions against both Virginia and Pitt and an acrobatic pass breakup in a Top 10 matchup with Miami to a second-team All-ACC selection.

Fellow junior Sheridan Jones (Norfolk, Va.) started eight games at cornerback a season ago, notching his first career interception after more than doubling his defensive snap count from his freshman campaign (140 in 2019, 300 in 2020). Senior Mario Goodrich (Kansas City, Mo.) started four games a year ago, including a two-interception performance against Pitt in November for which he won ACC Defensive Back of the Week after posting the first multi-interception game by a Clemson player since Cordrea Tankersley in the 2016 ACC Championship Game.

Last season provided early exposure for now-sophomores Malcolm Greene (Richmond, Va.) and Fred Davis II (Jacksonville, Fla.), a duo that totaled 31 tackles, four pass breakups, 1.5 sacks and an interception in 380 combined defensive snaps in 2020. The group was joined in January by midyear freshman enrollee Nate Wiggins (Atlanta, Ga.), a product of the same high school that produced former Clemson cornerback and 2020 first-round pick A.J. Terrell.

Like the linebacker unit in front of it, the safeties group will be led by its own “super senior,” as Nolan Turner (Vestavia Hills, Ala.) elected to utilize his blanket NCAA eligibility waiver for a sixth season in 2021. Last season, Turner earned a second-team All-America selection from the American Football Coaches Association, giving Clemson an All-America safety for a second straight year and representing the first time Clemson has had a safety honored by NCAA-recognized selectors in consecutive seasons since 1981-82, when Terry Kinard parlayed first-team honors by the AP and FWAA in 1981 into unanimous All-American honors in 1982. Two years ago, it was Turner’s interception that sealed Clemson’s Fiesta Bowl win and second straight National Championship Game berth.

Turner’s running mate at safety for most of 2020 was now-junior Lannden Zanders (Shelby, N.C.), who started nine of the 10 games in which he appeared and was credited with 34 tackles (2.5 for loss), three pass breakups, a forced fumble and a sack. Zanders was one of four safeties in Clemson’s 2019 recruiting class, alongside junior Joseph Charleston (Milton, Ga.), junior Jalyn Phillips (Lawrenceville, Ga.) and redshirt sophomore Ray Thornton III (Columbus, Ga.), all three of whom were relied upon in various packages in 2020. Charleston started six games, finishing third on the defense in both snaps (502) and tackles (55). Phillips notched his first career interception against Syracuse, while Thornton’s 2020 season was highlighted by a de-cleating sideline tackle against The Citadel.

R.J. Mickens (Southlake, Texas) and Tyler Venables (Clemson, S.C.) combined for 250 defensive snaps in their true freshman seasons in 2020. Andrew Mukuba (Austin, Texas), a midyear enrollee who joined the group in January after committing to Clemson sight unseen by virtue of NCAA recruiting restrictions preventing recruiting visits during the COVID-19 pandemic, rounds out Clemson’s scholarship depth at safety.

Clemson’s experience extends to its battery of specialists, where the Tigers have a combined 17 years of college experience among their starting kicker, punter, holder and long snapper. Senior B.T. Potter (Rock Hill, S.C.) is Clemson’s incumbent at placekicker and returns after a sparkling 2020 season in which he was a Lou Groza Award semifinalist and All-ACC Academic Team honoree after going 18-of-23 on field goals (with three blocked) and 61-of-62 on PATs. His leg strength has been a weapon for Clemson since 2018, as he enters 2021 with 231 touchbacks on 299 career kickoffs (77 percent) and a school-record-tying five career field goals of 50 yards or more.

Punter Will Spiers (Cameron, S.C.) elected to use the 2020 NCAA blanket eligibility waiver to return for his “super senior” campaign in 2021 after putting together one of the best seasons by a punter in school history last year. He enters the new season already holding school records for starts by a punter (56), career punts (211), punts downed inside the 20 (81) and total punting yards (9,483), and his 44.0-yards-per-punt average in 2020 represented the second-best single-season mark in school history. Spiers also contributed in other ways in 2020, rushing for six yards and a first down on a fake punt and completing 2-of-3 passes for 13 yards as an emergency quarterback.

Redshirt sophomore Aidan Swanson (Tampa, Fla.), a punter by trade who has developed into an option at placekicker as well, provides scholarship depth at both positions.

Clemson will return its starting long snapper for both punts and placekicks for the first time since 2018, as it welcomes back redshirt senior Jack Maddox (Acton, Mass.), who snapped in every game for Clemson in 2020. Maddox, who could also return for 2022 if he chooses to utilize his extra available year of eligibility, earned both the starting job and a scholarship last fall. Will Swinney is the incumbent holder and a four-year starter at the position who has held for 458 of those 463 kicking points (field goals or PATs) since 2017.

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