“The torch has been passed.”
That was Head Coach Dabo Swinney’s message to his 2022 team at the start of mat drills in February, as Clemson’s newest squad will stand on the shoulders of teams that passed down an 11-year streak of 10-win seasons as well as the nation’s longest home winning streak (34 games) and the Power Five’s longest active winning streak (six).
The 2021 Tigers faced a perfect storm of injuries, attrition, adversity and inexperience in key positions but battled to finish 10-3 in what Swinney called a victory for the team’s culture. Clemson continued its historic 10-win-season streak despite only four offensive or defensive players starting every game and despite the Tigers ending the season with an incredible 30 scholarship players unavailable.
But for all of the strife those injuries created in 2021, Clemson stands to benefit from them greatly in 2022. Clemson returns 54 lettermen among its 82 returning players that have appeared in at least one game at Clemson, and while Clemson returns 15 of its 22 primary offensive and defensive starters from 2021, a total of 37 different returning players have started at least one career game for the Tigers.
A year ago, Clemson lost seven of its 11 offensive starters from its 2020 College Football Playoff squad and returned players responsible for only 31 percent of the team’s total offense from the prior year, which ranked 125th out of 130 FBS teams. The unit gained valuable experience throughout 2021 and enters 2022 more battle-tested and carrying momentum gained from the emergence of young contributors down the stretch.
Clemson leaned heavily on the running game in 2021, as Clemson averaged at least 150 rushing yards per game for the 11th straight season. However, the Tigers will seek to restore their signature balance in 2021, as Clemson stands as one of only two teams in the country to both run for at least 11,000 yards and pass for at least 15,000 yards since 2018.
The balance and the resulting success of the Clemson offense since the 2014 postseason resulted in Clemson graduate and long-time Clemson playcaller Tony Elliott earning the head coaching job at Virginia last December. Promoted in the wake of his departure was Brandon Streeter, Clemson’s quarterbacks coach who added the title of Offensive Coordinator prior to the team’s 2021 Cheez-It Bowl win. While 2022 will be his first full season calling plays for his alma mater, Streeter spent six years as an offensive coordinator at Liberty (2009-11) and Richmond (2012-14) before joining the Tigers for the 2014 postseason.
Streeter and Clemson’s offense enter the spring with the luxury of three former five-star recruits and two talented former walk-ons in its quarterbacks group. The incumbent at quarterback is junior DJ Uiagalelei (Inland Empire, Calif.), who started all 13 games for Clemson a season ago and enters 2022 with an 11-4 career record as a starter. Uiagalelei’s 862 snaps in 2021 were the most in a season by a Clemson quarterback since 2017 (Kelly Bryant, 886), as the first-year starter and former No. 2 overall recruit in the Class of 2020 guided the Tigers to a 10-win season while Clemson ended the season starting two true freshmen and a fifth-year former walk-on at wide receiver in each of the season’s final three games.
The California Connection 📺ESPN | @DJUiagalelei @beaux_collins pic.twitter.com/HiNuQnkXtV— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) November 20, 2021
The California Connection
📺ESPN | @DJUiagalelei @beaux_collins pic.twitter.com/HiNuQnkXtV
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) November 20, 2021
True freshman Cade Klubnik (Austin, Texas) joined the group in January as a mid-year enrollee after the consensus five-star recruit became the first quarterback to go undefeated as a starter while winning back-to-back state titles in Texas’ highest classification since Allen’s Kyler Murray. The Texas Gatorade Player of the Year joined the Tigers following a prep career in which he posted a 27-0 mark as a starter at Class 6A powerhouse Austin Westlake, contributing on three consecutive state championship teams including the final two as the starting quarterback.
This pass & catch from Cade Klubnik to 4⭐️ WR Kevin Coleman might have been the best play of the #AllAmericanBowl today! Wow! pic.twitter.com/T6I9r6C8qk— Travis May (@FF_TravisM) January 8, 2022
This pass & catch from Cade Klubnik to 4⭐️ WR Kevin Coleman might have been the best play of the #AllAmericanBowl today! Wow! pic.twitter.com/T6I9r6C8qk
— Travis May (@FF_TravisM) January 8, 2022
The quarterback group’s depth was bolstered in January when Clemson added a new addition in the form of a familiar face. After departing Clemson’s program prior to the 2018 season, super senior Hunter Johnson (Brownsburg, Ind./Northwestern) returned to Clemson as a graduate transfer following four years at Northwestern. The much-respected signal caller maintained relationships at Clemson throughout his time in the Big Ten and reached out to Dabo Swinney about possible graduate assistant openings. Swinney, seeking a veteran presence in the quarterbacks room, instead swayed Johnson to use his “COVID year” and be a sixth-year senior on Clemson’s 2022 roster.
Clemson’s depth at the position is also bolstered by third-year sophomore Hunter Helms (West Columbia, S.C.) and redshirt freshman Billy Wiles (Ashburn, Va.), two former walk-ons who were rewarded with scholarships this offseason after initially passing up on Division I scholarship offers to instead chase their dreams at Clemson.
Despite amassing a glut of talent at the running back position, Clemson’s rushing attack seemed to be at a crossroads after the first four games of 2021, as the Tigers ranked 99th in the country in rushing yards per game through the end of September. Yet thanks in part to a trio of talented young backs that commanded key roles as the season progressed, Clemson averaged more than 200 rushing yards per game (24th in the country) in the month of November as Clemson’s offense began to hit its stride in its six-game winning streak to close the year.
Despite being held to two rushing yards in the season opener, under the guidance of first-year running backs coach and College Football Hall of Famer C.J. Spiller, Clemson averaged 168 rushing yards per game, giving Clemson a 150-yard or better rushing average in each of the last 11 seasons. Two different players reached 500 rushing yards, the sixth time in the last seven seasons Clemson has accomplished that feat.
The statistical leader of that duo was sophomore Will Shipley (Weddington, N.C.), who earned second-team Freshman All-America honors from The Athletic despite missing several games with leg and head injuries at different points of the year. He rushed 149 times for 738 yards (5.0 avg.) with 11 touchdowns (second-most by a Clemson true freshman since 1972), caught 16 passes for 116 yards, averaged 27.1 yards on 14 kickoff returns and threw a two-yard touchdown pass in 2021.
Junior Kobe Pace (Cedartown, Ga.) enjoyed a breakout campaign in his second year in the program, totaling 641 yards and six touchdowns on 104 carries over only 273 snaps in 11 games last fall. The powerful back earned ACC Running Back of the Week after rushing for a career-high 191 yards on 24 carries with two touchdowns vs. No. 13 Wake Forest in November, the most rushing yards by a Clemson player since Travis Etienne’s 212 rushing yards against Wofford in 2019.
Get you some, Kobe! ➡️ https://t.co/FdiW63c34opic.twitter.com/6pixqjOjig— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) October 3, 2021
Get you some, Kobe!
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) October 3, 2021
A year ago, sophomore Phil Mafah (Loganville, Ga.) appeared destined for a redshirt to help create some roster separation from Shipley and Pace. But after the combination of A) Mafah’s emergence, B) the transfers of two other running backs, and C) the impact of the injury bug, Mafah was called into action. The bruising back played in each of Clemson’s last nine games, recording 292 yards and three touchdowns on 68 carries and gaining 50 yards on seven receptions over 170 offensive snaps.
SPIN CYCLE @PhilMafah1 😲📺ACCN pic.twitter.com/9rQ4te7vKm— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) October 3, 2021
SPIN CYCLE @PhilMafah1 😲
Clemson legacy Keith Adams Jr. (St. George, Utah) will join the program in the summer after signing with the Tigers in February.
Few coaches had to adapt in 2021 like Clemson Wide Receivers Coach Tyler Grisham. An almost inconceivable run of injuries resulted in Grisham’s unit starting two true freshmen and a fifth-year former walk-on for each of the final three games of the season. The team’s leader in starts at wide receiver, receptions and receiving yards was Justyn Ross, who was coming off of missing the entire 2020 season with a career-threatening spinal condition. By season’s end, 25 different Tigers caught at least one pass, the most in the Dabo Swinney era.
But Clemson’s turnstile at wide receiver and the ensuing opportunity for young players has resulted in the Tigers returning receivers who account for 138 combined career games and five different players who have recorded at least one career start.
The group’s elder statesman is senior Joseph Ngata (Folsom, Calif.), who leads the returning receivers in both career games (31) and career starts (11). Before the injury bug struck him again midseason, Ngata got off to an impressive start, recording 110 yards on six receptions in the season opener against eventual national champion Georgia, one of only five 100-yard receiving performances surrendered by the Bulldogs last year. He also had an acrobatic touchdown reception in a three-point win at Syracuse in early October.
☑️The catch☑️The heel drag☑️The touchdown pic.twitter.com/cX2rg068pO— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) October 16, 2021
☑️The catch☑️The heel drag☑️The touchdown pic.twitter.com/cX2rg068pO
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) October 16, 2021
Junior E.J. Williams (Phenix City, Ala.) similarly fought injuries throughout the 2021 campaign, missing time at various points in the year with hand, knee and leg injuries. But the third-year receiver has been lauded by coaches throughout his tenure for his toughness, and buoyed largely by a strong end to his freshman year in 2020, he will enter 2022 with 32 career receptions for 372 yards and two touchdowns in 20 career games with six starts.
Known as the “Collins Towers” in Dabo Swinney’s nomenclature, second-year sophomores Beaux Collins (Los Angeles, Calif.) and Dacari Collins (Atlanta, Ga.) emerged down the stretch of their true freshman years in 2021. Beaux joined elite company with his debut season, joining DeAndre Hopkins (2010), Sammy Watkins (2011), Artavis Scott (2014), Hunter Renfrow (2015), Deon Cain (2015) and Justyn Ross (2018) as the only Clemson freshmen — true or redshirt — in the Dabo Swinney era to post at least 30 receptions and at least 400 receiving yards in their first season. Dacari caught 16 passes for 221 yards in nine games and established himself early in his career as one of Clemson’s top perimeter blockers.
Beaux is averaging a casual 34.3 yards per catch. Yes. You read that correctly. 📺ESPN | @beaux_collins pic.twitter.com/Ek5wJxmoNc— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) November 20, 2021
Beaux is averaging a casual 34.3 yards per catch.
Yes. You read that correctly.
📺ESPN | @beaux_collins pic.twitter.com/Ek5wJxmoNc
Clemson will hope for a clean bill of health for fourth-year slot receiver Brannon Spector (Calhoun, Ga.), who missed the entire 2021 season while working through respiratory challenges. The slot position is also likely to be contested by Troy Stellato (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.), who redshirted as a freshman in 2021, and Will Taylor (Irmo, S.C.), the do-it-all dual-sport athlete who passed up MLB riches to play two sports at Clemson but had his freshman season in 2021 ended prematurely by a knee injury.
According to Tony Elliott, Will Taylor feels the need.The need… for speed.Meet Clemson Football's Maverick. pic.twitter.com/PdrsiPdeZG— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) September 13, 2021
According to Tony Elliott, Will Taylor feels the need.
The need… for speed.
Meet Clemson Football's Maverick. pic.twitter.com/PdrsiPdeZG
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) September 13, 2021
Three freshman scholarship signees will join the unit for 2022, including early enrollee Adam Randall (Myrtle Beach, S.C.) and summer enrollees Antonio Williams (Irmo, S.C.) and Cole Turner (Vestavia Hills, Ala.).
Following his promotion prior to the 2021 Cheez-It Bowl, Kyle Richardson now has purview of Clemson’s tight ends as Passing Game Coordinator/Tight Ends Coach. His 2022 group will feature one of the offense’s most respected veteran leaders and two young talents who are primed for larger roles after ascending the depth chart in 2021.
The unit is expected to be led by Davis Allen (Calhoun, Ga.), the senior whom former Offensive Coordinator Tony Elliott once called “his favorite player on the team” in a meeting with ESPN announcers last fall. Allen assumed the starting role on a full-time basis early in the 2021 season and started 10 games for the Tigers, tying for the team lead with three touchdown receptions. He enters his first offseason as an incumbent starter with seven career touchdown catches, three shy of becoming the sixth Clemson tight end ever to catch 10 career touchdown passes.
You see this @PatMcAfeeShow? Will Spiers is not your average punter. #ForTheBrand📺ESPN pic.twitter.com/2bskQNFvwS— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) October 16, 2021
You see this @PatMcAfeeShow? Will Spiers is not your average punter. #ForTheBrand
Allen’s contributions will be supplemented by the continued ascents of redshirt sophomore Sage Ennis (Graceville, Fla.) and sophomore Jake Briningstool (Brentwood, Tenn.). Ennis played in all 13 games for Clemson last season and earned his first career start when Clemson opened in a two-tight-end set against Florida State. Briningstool’s raw ability as a pass catcher resulted in him appearing in each of Clemson’s last seven games of 2021, playing at least 14 offensive snaps in each of Clemson’s last four contests.
We love to see the youngins making plays! @billywiles8 x @Jbriningstool pic.twitter.com/9erxWlr7T6— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) November 15, 2021
We love to see the youngins making plays! @billywiles8 x @Jbriningstool pic.twitter.com/9erxWlr7T6
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) November 15, 2021
Alongside that trio, the group will also feature the longest-tenured player on the roster. Super senior Luke Price (Dillon, S.C.) joined Clemson as a walk-on linebacker in 2017 and is entering his sixth year in the program (and fourth year as a tight end) in 2022. Josh Sapp (Greenville, S.C.), the son of former Clemson quarterback and linebacker Patrick Sapp, will join the program this summer after signing with the Tigers in December.
Offensive Line Coach Thomas Austin formally took the reins to the unit in February after Robbie Caldwell transitioned into an off-field role following four-and-a-half decades of on-field college coaching. Austin was a two-time All-ACC selection on Clemson’s offensive line from 2006-09, appearing in 48 games with 39 starts before moving on to a four-year NFL career.
After being written off by most local and national observers after a tough performance in the season opener against eventual national champion Georgia, Clemson’s 2021 offensive line rebounded to allow only 14 sacks in its final 12 games and finished having allowed the second-fewest sacks in the ACC. The unit’s strong performance down the stretch came despite the Tigers starting seven different offensive line combinations in 13 games. Clemson lost only one contributing senior offensive linemen from 2021 and has only only senior among its ranks in 2022.
Redshirt senior Jordan McFadden (Spartanburg, S.C.) is returning for his fifth season at Clemson and should be a prime candidate for preseason All-America and All-ACC honors. Routinely called Clemson’s most consistent and reliable offensive lineman a year ago, McFadden earned second-team All-ACC honors after playing the most offensive snaps (872) by any Clemson offensive tackle since multi-time All-American Mitch Hyatt in 2016.
Highest graded ACC Tackles since 20201. Ikem Ekwonu – 91.12. Jordan McFadden – 89.33. Luke Tenuta – 84.4 pic.twitter.com/hxBrlPh3Le— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) January 26, 2022
Highest graded ACC Tackles since 2020
1. Ikem Ekwonu – 91.12. Jordan McFadden – 89.33. Luke Tenuta – 84.4 pic.twitter.com/hxBrlPh3Le
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) January 26, 2022
McFadden’s spot at left tackle is expected to be bookended on the right side by junior Walker Parks (Lexington, Ky.), whose nasty on-field demeanor in 869 offensive snaps juxtaposed his Academic All-ACC credentials.
Fr OT Walker Parks offers lift off… pic.twitter.com/9Hs9nw4iMr— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) December 21, 2020
Fr OT Walker Parks offers lift off… pic.twitter.com/9Hs9nw4iMr
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) December 21, 2020
The incumbent at right guard is senior Will Putnam (Tampa, Fla.), a multi-year starter who gutted through injuries in 2021 and collected all-conference honors from Phil Steele while hobbled. Putnam transitioned to center in the spring and impressed coaches with his quick adaptation to the position.
Clemson’s interior shuffle throughout 2021 paid dividends for the experience and exposure for now-fourth-year interior linemen Mason Trotter (Roebuck, S.C.), who started seven of the team’s final eight games across the guard and center positions but will miss the majority of the 2022 season. Sophomore Marcus Tate earned an opening-night start in the interior as a true freshman and played the best football of his eight starts down the stretch.
Four other fourth-year players will attempt to push for larger roles, including junior Mitchell Mayes (Raleigh, N.C.) and redshirt sophomores Bryn Tucker (Knoxville, Tenn.), Trent Howard (Birmingham, Ala.) and John Williams (Canton, Ga.). Mayes, Tucker and Howard contributed in reserve during the 2021 season while Williams missed the campaign after suffering a knee injury during fall camp.
Beyond the veteran experience, Clemson’s coaches continue to express excitement for the unit’s young depth. Redshirt freshman Dietrick Pennington (Memphis, Tenn.) was on track for substantial playing time as a true freshman before suffering a season-ending injury in his Clemson debut, while fellow freshmen Ryan Linthicum (Damascus, Md.) and Tristan Leigh (Fairfax, Va.) spent the bulk of their redshirt years in the weight room. The group was also joined in January by early enrollees Blake Miller (Strongsville, Ohio) and Collin Sadler (Inman, S.C.), a duo Clemson coaches have called as physically ready to play as any Clemson true freshmen offensive linemen in recent memory.
After a decade under different leadership, the defensive reins were passed to Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach Wes Goodwin prior to 2021 Cheez-It Bowl. In his first game as a defensive play-caller, Goodwin’s defense held Iowa State to 270 yards of offense, more than 165 yards below the Cyclones’ per-game average entering the contest. The unit was also responsible for what ended up being the game-winning score, as Mario Goodrich’s pick-six and the ensuing extra point represented Clemson’s final seven points of the 20-13 win.
Goodwin and his staff now set their eyes upon their first full season in 2022 with the benefit of a deep unit that features a front four loaded with both talent and experience. That group will set the standard for a unit that has ranked in the Top 15 in the country in total defense in each of the last eight seasons (the only such program in the nation) and has ranked among the Top 25 in scoring defense in all of those campaigns (including four Top 5 finishes in the category). The 2021 season was Clemson’s sixth time finishing in the Top 10 in both categories in the last eight years.
Any discussion about the returning strength of the Clemson defense will likely start along the defensive interior, where multiple returning All-ACC selections are backed up by a talented group of options that made significant impacts during Clemson’s injury-plagued season in 2021. The group added some serious pedigree in January when Nick Eason, a former Clemson captain and All-ACC selection, returned to his alma mater as Defensive Run Game Coordinator/Defensive Tackles Coach. A veteran of 17 combined NFL seasons as a player and coach, Eason joined Defensive Ends Coach Lemanski Hall to give Clemson’s elite defensive line group the guidance of a coaching duo with 26 combined seasons of NFL experience.
Now in his fourth season, senior Tyler Davis (Apopka, Fla.) leads the group after a year in which he earned first-team All-ACC honors despite missing four games. One of Clemson’s most reliable contributors when he’s available, Clemson was 8-0 in games started by Davis in 2021 and was 2-3 in games in which he did not play (Georgia, NC State, Boston College and Syracuse) or was limited to playing on a snap count in a reserve role (Pitt).
First thing you should rewatch this morning is a no-brainer: 300-pound Clemson DT Tyler Davis nearly closing the gap on AT Perry.The burst from the 30 to the 50 is insane. The fact that he holds within five yards til the 15 is amazing.You all should be inspired now. pic.twitter.com/LqPjKx1kPw— Jon Blau (@Jon_Blau) November 21, 2021
First thing you should rewatch this morning is a no-brainer: 300-pound Clemson DT Tyler Davis nearly closing the gap on AT Perry.
The burst from the 30 to the 50 is insane. The fact that he holds within five yards til the 15 is amazing.
You all should be inspired now. pic.twitter.com/LqPjKx1kPw
— Jon Blau (@Jon_Blau) November 21, 2021
Davis could form one half of the nation’s top defensive tackle duo if junior Bryan Bresee (Damascus, Md.) is able to return to form from multiple injuries — including a season-ending knee injury — that sidelined him after only four games in 2021. Bresee, the former No. 1 overall recruit in the country in the Class of 2020 and ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year as a freshman, earned third-team All-ACC honors as a sophomore despite his season ending prematurely in September.
𝙁𝙍𝙀𝙎𝙃𝙈𝘼𝙉 𝙋𝙃𝙀𝙉𝙊𝙈 No. 1 recruit in the country turned Freshman All-American & ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.➡️ @bryan_bresee pic.twitter.com/qIwGmYHumI— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) February 1, 2021
No. 1 recruit in the country turned Freshman All-American & ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
➡️ @bryan_bresee pic.twitter.com/qIwGmYHumI
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) February 1, 2021
The two primary beneficiaries of the injuries to Davis and Bresee a year ago were current redshirt junior Ruke Orhorhoro (Lagos, Nigeria via River Rouge, Mich.) and current redshirt sophomore Tré Williams (Windsor, Conn.). The duo combined to play 747 snaps from scrimmage and was credited by the coaching staff with a combined 55 tackles (12 for loss), 3.5 sacks, 11 quarterback pressures and three pass breakups in 24 combined games with 10 starts.
Redshirt junior Etinosa Reuben (Kansas City, Mo.) emerged late in the season, making his first career start at Pitt in late October and notching two sacks in a ranked win against Wake Forest in November. Two sophomores — redshirt sophomore DeMonte Capehart (Hartsville, S.C.) and sophomore Payton Page (Greensboro, N.C.) — combined for nearly 100 snaps on defense a year ago and are expected to benefit in 2022 from better health (Capehart) and another year of development (Page).
Flanking Clemson’s interior linemen will be deep stable of edge rushers who have proven adept in their careers both in the pass rush and against the run. For a fifth straight year in his current role, Lemanski Hall will be charged with managing the rotation for a group of capable and proven ends.
Among the group’s leaders will be fifth-year super senior Xavier Thomas (Florence, S.C.) and fifth-year redshirt junior K.J. Henry (Winston-Salem, N.C.), both of whom entered Clemson as five-star recruits in the Tigers’ 2018 recruiting class. The two have played 2,445 combined defensive snaps over 90 career games with 29 combined starts and have accounted for 46.5 combined tackles for loss and 22.5 sacks. A third defensive end in that recruiting class — redshirt senior Justin Mascoll (Snellville, Ga.) — has also played 833 defensive snaps in 39 career games at Clemson with 11 starts.
Along with Bresee, Clemson recorded another coup on its defensive line in the 2020 recruiting class by snagging now-junior Myles Murphy (Marietta, Ga.). The former No. 3 overall recruit in the nation was a Freshman All-American in 2020 and a fourth-team Phil Steele All-American in 2021, joining Gaines Adams, Vic Beasley and Clelin Ferrell as the only Clemson players since 2000 to post multiple seasons with multiple forced fumbles and at least four sacks. In addition to posting 11 sacks in his first two seasons, he has become one of the nation’s premier run defenders at his position.
This trio’s been shuttin’ down run games for quite some time 💢👊 pic.twitter.com/o5pWtPbT0v— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) February 9, 2022
This trio’s been shuttin’ down run games for quite some time 💢👊 pic.twitter.com/o5pWtPbT0v
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) February 9, 2022
Clemson coaches continued to be pleased with the steady development of redshirt junior Greg Williams (Swansea, S.C.) and junior Kevin Swint (Carrollton, Ga.). Both Williams and Swint are converted linebackers whose transitions to defensive end resulted in 14 combined game appearances between the two in 2021.
The veteran-heavy group will be supplemented by redshirt freshman Cade Denhoff (Plant City, Fla.), who was the team’s 2021 Power Hour MVP as the top redshirting player in the strength & conditioning program, and redshirt freshman Zaire Patterson (Winston-Salem, N.C.). Jahiem Lawson (Central, S.C.), the brother of former Clemson All-American Shaq Lawson, signed in February and will join the team over the summer.
No need to double check the roster; long-time Clemson staple James Skalski has indeed completed his Clemson eligibility and — to the relief of ACC offenses and coordinators — will no longer be patrolling the middle of the field for the Tigers. His graduation along with that of his “Bruise Brother” cohort Baylon Spector represents the departure of a duo that combined for 122 career games with 58 combined starts at Clemson since 2016. In Skalski and Spector’s stead sits a diverse group of linebackers ready for use at Goodwin’s disposal.
Goodwin values position versatility, which should make his 2022 group another veritable wonderland of options. In the public eye, the group’s headliner is junior Trenton Simpson (Charlotte, N.C.), who has appeared in 25 career games with 15 starts in his first two seasons at Clemson. Simpson has blossomed from a situational edge rusher in 2020 into a complete weapon for Clemson’s defense, as the 2021 All-ACC pick by PFF and Phil Steele enters 2022 with 110 tackles (18.5 for loss), 10.0 sacks, three pass breakups and a forced fumble in his career.
Trenton Simpson (# 22) owns four consecutive plays on D. Second-fourth downs, then first down the next very series. pic.twitter.com/vcfog3gMeV— Anna Hickey (@AnnaH247) October 18, 2020
Trenton Simpson (# 22) owns four consecutive plays on D. Second-fourth downs, then first down the next very series. pic.twitter.com/vcfog3gMeV
— Anna Hickey (@AnnaH247) October 18, 2020
If patience is a virtue, the time has come for virtuous redshirt juniors LaVonta Bentley (Birmingham, Ala.) and Keith Maguire (Media, Pa.), both of whom have flashed in limited opportunities in their three previous seasons at Clemson. Bentley’s punishing style resulted in him winning ACC Linebacker of the Week against Georgia Tech, a game which he learned during pregame he was starting as the result of an unexpected injury to Spector in warmups. Maguire was called upon in the 2021 season finale, as he finished with a career-high six tackles against Iowa State after taking over Clemson’s Mike linebacker spot following an early injury to Skalski.
Clemson’s coaches believe they went 2-for-2 at linebacker in the 2021 recruiting class, and the early returns seem to support the hypothesis. Sophomore Jeremiah Trotter Jr. (Hainesport, N.J.) is the son of four-time Pro Bowler Jeremiah Trotter Sr. and carried himself with an uncommonly professional demeanor in all areas in his freshman season, earning playing time in all 13 games in 2021. His fellow 2021 signee Barrett Carter (Suwanee, Ga.) enters his sophomore year as a possible poster child for Clemson’s ascribed value to position versatility, as his 179 defensive snaps last year were almost evenly split between the box and the slot on top of seeing some action deep.
Junior Sergio Allen (Fort Valley, Ga.) earned a role as a key special teams contributor on kickoff coverage in 2021, and the former High School Butkus Award semifinalist will attempt to carve out a larger role on defense in 2022 as well. Reinforcements are on the way for the group after spring practice, as three 2022 signees — T.J. Dudley (Montgomery, Ala.), Kobe McCloud (Tampa, Fla.) and Wade Woodaz (Tampa, Fla.) — are set to enroll in the summer session.
Last spring, questions surrounded Clemson’s cornerbacks after the Tigers dismissed an All-ACC performer at the position and were coming off surrendering six passing touchdowns in their final game of 2020. All Cornerbacks Coach and new Assistant Head Coach Mike Reed did in response was guide starting cornerbacks Andrew Booth Jr. and Mario Goodrich to first-team All-ACC honors in 2021, making the duo the first pair of cornerbacks from a single school to sweep first-team honors since North Carolina’s Dre Bly and Robert Williams in 1997. With Booth and Goodrich both set to ride their spectacular 2021 seasons into NFL contracts, Clemson will seek new starters on the outside in 2022.
Senior Sheridan Jones (Norfolk, Va.) is the group’s senior statesman. Despite playing behind two of the nation’s top corners, Jones recorded career highs in tackles and pass breakups in 2021 and enters 2022 having appeared in a position-high 38 career games with 11 starts. The spring will also be a fertile proving ground for junior Fred Davis II (Jacksonville, Fla.) and sophomore Nate Wiggins (Atlanta, Ga.) to state their case for starting roles at the field or boundary corner positions.
Junior Malcolm Greene (Richmond, Va.) was limited by injury a bit in 2021 but has served as a capable nickelback in his first two seasons at Clemson, while early enrollees Jeadyn Lukus (Mauldin, S.C.) and Toriano Pride Jr. (St. Louis, Mo.) are both incoming four-star recruits with intent of seizing the outsized playing time opportunity that exists presently in Clemson’s cornerback corps. They’ll be joined in the summer by Myles Oliver, a sprinter and converted quarterback who signed with Clemson in February.
Pressed to name Clemson’s most decorated and productive units in recent years, it’s common to see observers point to Clemson’s generational quarterback play in the last decade, its #WRU reputation with pass catchers or its prolific string of havoc-inducing defensive linemen. Yet, very quietly, in five seasons in an on-field coaching role, Safeties Coach and new Co-Defensive Coordinator Mickey Conn has strung together half-decade of high level safety play that in the last four years alone has produced two All-Americans, two NFL Draft picks (with a possible third this year), five All-ACC selections, a Freshman All-American and an ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The latter two accolades belong to now-sophomore Andrew Mukuba (Austin, Texas), who made an instant impact in his debut season in 2021. The Zimbabwe native by way of Texas became the first defensive back to start a season opener for Clemson since the NCAA instituted permanent freshman eligibility in 1972 and started more games (10) than any other Clemson true freshman defensive back in the modern era. The near-unanimous Freshman All-American became Clemson’s second straight ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year, following in the footsteps of Bryan Bresee a year earlier.
2021 ACC DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR:@ClemsonFB Safety, Andrew Mukuba! 🏈📰: https://t.co/pXOTUKjodV pic.twitter.com/SfLk0buxoF— ACC Football (@ACCFootball) December 1, 2021
2021 ACC DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR:@ClemsonFB Safety, Andrew Mukuba! 🏈
📰: https://t.co/pXOTUKjodV pic.twitter.com/SfLk0buxoF
— ACC Football (@ACCFootball) December 1, 2021
The precocious second-year safety expedited his development last year in part thanks to the guidance of then-sixth-year super senior Nolan Turner, and he will once again ride alongside another veteran unit in 2022. Fourth-year players Jalyn Phillips (Lawrenceville, Ga.) and Lannden Zanders (Shelby, N.C.) have 62 combined games of experience at Clemson with 17 starts. Zanders battled a shoulder injury through nearly all of 2020 while playing 10 games and then missed all of 2021 except the season opener with a shoulder injury suffered against Georgia, but with the benefit of good health, he would bring more than 500 career defensive snaps to the secondary. Phillips was one of the primary recipients of the resulting available playing time and finished the 2021 season on a high note with eight tackles (one for loss), a forced fumble and a pass breakup in a win against Iowa State.
Juniors Tyler Venables (Clemson, S.C.) and R.J. Mickens (Southlake, Texas) both now have two years of experience to match their pedigrees. Venables, the son of former Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, elected to stay at Clemson, and his versatility has resulted in him seeing action in safety and nickel/sam roles in 24 career games, while Mickens, the son of long-time NFL veteran Ray Mickens, has played in 23 career games and is the only returning Clemson player with multiple interceptions a season ago.
Both of Clemson’s freshman signees at the position have evoked comparisons to former Clemson All-ACC safety and current Philadelphia Eagle K’Von Wallace. Sherrod Covil Jr. (Chesapeake, Va.) joined Clemson in January and is a fellow Virginian like Wallace, while summer enrollee Kylon Griffin (Montgomery, Ala.) offers the same type of diverse skillset and position versatility between the safety, corner and nickel positions that Clemson coaches loved about Wallace.
Dabo Swinney joked that Clemson’s biggest signee of its 2022 recruiting class wasn’t a freshman or a transfer, it was placekicker B.T. Potter (Rock Hill, S.C.), who opted to use his extra year of eligibility and return for his super senior fifth season. Potter was a Groza Award semifinalist two years ago and enters 2022 as a prime candidate for that award this season, as he is Clemson’s school record holder in career field goals of both 40-plus and 50-plus yards and ranks third in Clemson history in career PATs (185), fourth in career points by a kicker (344), fourth in career points (344) and seventh in made field goals (53). He is the only player in Clemson history to score 100 points in three different seasons and he has also been one of the nation’s foremost kickoff specialists, recording 280 touchbacks on 368 career kickoffs. Potter’s return will allow developmental time for January enrollee Robert Gunn III (Seminole, Fla.), who tore his ACL at the end of his high school career.
Will Spiers exhausted his eligibility after a record-breaking five years as Clemson’s starting punter, leaving Clemson in search of a new punter for the first time since 2017. Clemson will open spring practice with two scholarship punters on the roster, redshirt junior Aidan Swanson (Tampa, Fla.) and early enrollee Jack Smith (Saraland, Ala.). Similarly, Clemson will be looking for a new long snapper following the departure of the reliable Jack Maddox. Walk-ons Holden Caspersen (Roswell, Ga.) and Philip Florenzo (Towson, Md.) are both entering their second year in the program and are likely to battle for that role in the spring and fall.