To most outside observers, Clemson’s goal for 2019 would be singular and would be accomplished only by lifting a 35-pound trophy of 24-karat gold, bronze and stainless steel in New Orleans next January. However, inside the program, the team’s goals remain the same as they’ve been throughout Head Coach Dabo Swinney’s tenure at Clemson: Win the opener, win the division, win the state, win the conference and win the closer.
Clemson’s went five-for-five on Swinney’s team goals in 2018 en route to becoming the first FBS team in the modern era to finish a season 15-0. The Tigers did so in dominant fashion, becoming the first FBS team since at least 2000 to win 13 games by 20 or more points.
Clemson enters the season riding a streak of eight-consecutive 10-win seasons, tied for the fourth-longest streak in FBS history. Clemson is 97-15 dating back to the first 10-win season in that stretch in 2011, but despite Clemson being the second-winningest program in college football in that time frame, the Tigers have exceeded public preseason expectations almost every year in that time frame.
The Tigers have exceeded their preseason Coaches Poll ranking every year since 2011 and have exceeded their preseason AP Poll ranking in seven of those eight seasons, with the lone exception coming in 2013 when Clemson both started and finished the season at No. 8. Clemson’s unprecedented eight-year streak of finishing better than its preseason ranking in the Coaches Poll could come to an end by default in 2019 if the Tigers open the inaugural 2019 poll at No. 1.
Clemson will undoubtedly miss the contributions — and personalities — of its 2018 senior class, which exited college football as one of the most decorated classes in the sport’s illustrious history. The 2018 Clemson seniors completed their careers with an FBS-record-tying 55 career wins in four years with four ACC titles and two national championships.
However, while the task is large, the 2019 Clemson senior class will have the opportunity to match or exceed the 2018 group this season. This year’s Clemson seniors are 41-3 in the last three seasons and need 14 wins to match or 15 wins to pass to the 2018 Clemson and Alabama seniors (55 each) for the most in FBS history.
A common theme of Clemson’s record-setting 2018 season was accomplishing feats that had never before been accomplished. The continued success will provide a similar opportunity for the 2019 squad, which can become the first school in FBS history to win five consecutive conference championship games.
Clemson returns 50 lettermen from the 2018 national champions. The returning experience will be particularly pronounced on offense, where the Tigers return eight players who started at least seven games for the Tigers last season.
The 2019 season will mark the second time in school history (and the second time in the last four years) that Clemson has returned a 3,000-yard passer (Trevor Lawrence), a 1,500-yard rusher (Travis Etienne) and a 1,000-yard receiver (Justyn Ross) in the same year. The only other Clemson team to welcome back such a trio was the eventual national champion 2016 squad, which returned quarterback Deshaun Watson, running back Wayne Gallman and wide receiver Mike Williams.
As is standard in college athletics, new faces will also be asked to contribute this season, but Clemson’s playing time philosophy could prove fruitful in that respect. Swinney, a walk-on in his playing days at Alabama, has long been adamant that players who deserve the opportunity will play. Clemson played an average of 72.5 players per game a year ago, an average that far exceeded all other AP Top 25 teams, including fellow College Football Playoff participants Alabama (55.7), Notre Dame (55.4) and Oklahoma (52.4).
Two dominant themes of Clemson’s record-setting offensive performance a year ago were balance and explosiveness, both of which should feature prominently again for the Tigers in 2019.
In terms of balance, Clemson’s 2018 campaign joined the 2015 season as one of only two in school history to feature 4,000 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards. Clemson, Oklahoma and UCF were the only FBS programs in the country to average at least 245 yards passing and 245 yards rushing per game in 2018.
The balance was reflected not only in the team’s run/pass production, but also in the sheer number of players who contributed to the team’s scoring output. A school-record 22 different players scored touchdowns for the Tigers in 2018.
Clemson’s explosiveness was reflected in its school-record 7.35 yards per play average, which shattered the previous record of 6.50 from 2006. The Tigers ranked in the top two in the nation in plays of 20-plus yards (104, second), 30-plus yards (59, tied for first), 40-plus yards (35, first), 50-plus yards (23, first) and 60-plus yards (13, tied for second). They also recorded a school-record 19 touchdowns covering 50 yards or more, annihilating the previous record of 14 set by the 2006 squad. Players who scored 18 of those 19 touchdowns of 50 yards or more a year ago return for Clemson in 2019.
Given the prominence placed on the position and his success as a true freshman a season ago, the eyes of college football will likely fall on sophomore Trevor Lawrence (Cartersville, Ga.), who completed 259-of-397 passes for 3,280 yards with 30 touchdowns and four interceptions in 15 games (11 starts). A repeat performance in 2019 would make Lawrence only the third quarterback in Clemson history with multiple 3,000-yard, 30-touchdown campaigns, joining Tajh Boyd (three) and Deshaun Watson (two).
Also returning at quarterback is sophomore Chase Brice (Grayson, Ga.). As observers continually referenced Lawrence and his predecessor Kelly Bryant throughout the 2018 preseason, Swinney was adamant that he had three quarterbacks with whom he could win the ACC, including Brice. Brice played a pivotal role in that regard, cementing a place in Clemson lore with by leading a 94-yard game-winning drive against Syracuse, including a key conversion on fourth-and-six, in place of an injured Lawrence.
Clemson’s quarterbacks will be joined in the backfield by the reigning ACC Player of the Year, junior running back Travis Etienne (Jennings, La.). In his sophomore campaign in 2018, the All-America selection shattered Clemson records in rushing yards (1,658), rushing touchdowns (24) and total touchdowns (26). He became only the second Clemson running back ever to be named a Doak Walker Award finalist, joining Clemson legend C.J. Spiller (2009).
But while Etienne set records in a number of rushing categories last season, he did not lead the position group in yards per carry. That distinction belonged to Lyn-J Dixon (Butler, Ga.), who set a school record among qualified players by averaging 8.82 yards per carry. As a true freshman, Dixon scored five rushing touchdowns, three of which covered at least 50 yards. Dixon tied for eighth in the country in carries of 50-plus yards (four), and he reached that ranking on only 62 carries while all other members of the Top 10 recorded at least 125 attempts.
The backfield will also benefit from the productivity and senior leadership of Tavien Feaster (Spartanburg, S.C.). In his first three seasons with the Tigers, he compiled 1,330 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns on 222 career carries. The veteran of 41 career games has averaged 5.99 yards per carry for his career, second only among qualified players to Etienne in Clemson history.
While college football fans and observers will note the absence of long-time target Hunter Renfrow, the Tigers return their top three receivers from 2018 in terms of both receiving yardage and receiving touchdowns.
Sophomore Justyn Ross (Phenix City, Ala.) announced his presence on a national stage in a big way as a true freshman in 2018, combining for 12 catches, 301 yards and three touchdowns in College Football Playoff games against No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 1 Alabama. Despite not starting a single game, he led Clemson with 1,000 receiving yards a season ago, including nine touchdowns among his 46 receptions. He joined Sammy Watkins (1,219 in 2011) as the only players in school history to post 1,000 receiving yards as a freshman.
Junior Tee Higgins (Oak Ridge, Tenn.) led the Tigers a season ago in receptions (59) and receiving touchdowns (12), gaining 936 yards while starting all 15 contests. He collected second-team All-ACC honors as he became only the fourth player in school history to catch 12 touchdown passes in a single season. Fellow Tennessee native Amari Rodgers (Knoxville, Tenn.) returns at wide receiver as well following a sophomore season in which he posted 575 yards and four touchdowns while finishing second on the squad with 55 receptions. Between Rodgers and Higgins, the Tigers will have two receivers coming off of 50-catch seasons returning for the first time since 2015 (Artavis Scott and Mike Williams). Rodgers injured his knee during spring practice, but the program is hopeful for a potential return sometime during the 2019 campaign.
Among the other returning targets at wide receiver this season under the guidance of 2018 Broyles Award finalist Jeff Scott are senior Diondre Overton (Greensboro, N.C.), junior Cornell Powell (Greenville, N.C.) and sophomore Derion Kendrick (Rock Hill, S.C.).
Overton had three touchdown catches in 2018 including a key score in a road win at Texas A&M. Powell returns after a mid-career redshirt after four games a season ago, and Kendrick is a versatile, explosive option who has contributed with the ball in his hands at kick returner and quarterback in addition to his role at receiver. The group also returns juniors T.J. Chase (Plant City, Fla.) and Will Swinney (Clemson, S.C.), both of whom caught at least one touchdown pass in 2018.
Opportunities abound for Tiger tight ends in 2019. Veterans Milan Richard, Cannon Smith and Garrett Williams combined to play 161 career games for the Tigers from 2015-18. Richard and Smith have since completed their careers and Williams is evaluating whether or not to forgo his final season of eligibility to enter the military. The most experienced member of the unit entering 2019 is junior J.C. Chalk (Argyle, Texas), who has appeared in 24 career contests. Sophomore Braden Galloway (Seneca, S.C.) opened his career with a touchdown reception in his debut last season and would provide 12 games of experience if deemed eligible in 2019. Additional contributions could come from a pair of incoming freshmen, Davis Allen (Calhoun, Ga.) and Jaelyn Lay (Atlanta, Ga.).
Despite losing the most experienced player in Clemson football history, Offensive Line Coach Robbie Caldwell will return an offensive line whose extensive experience will be matched by its versatility. Gone is left tackle Mitch Hyatt, who recorded school records in career snaps from scrimmage (3,754) and career starts (57). However, the unit, which was a semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award, welcomes back three All-ACC performers among nine returning linemen who played at least 100 snaps a season ago.
The unit will be anchored by four seniors, Tremayne Anchrum (Powder Springs, Ga.), Gage Cervenka (Greenwood, S.C.), Sean Pollard (Jackson Springs, N.C.) and John Simpson (North Charleston, S.C.). Anchrum was a second-team All-ACC selection in 2018 who started all 15 games at right tackle. Cervenka, who holds a share of the Clemson position record with 43 bench press reps at 225 pounds, is a candidate at center after playing primarily at guard a season ago. Pollard is a returning second-team All-ACC selection who has played at both guard and tackle throughout his career and has been a revelation for Clemson as an option at center this spring. Simpson was a third-team all-conference honoree whose 858 snaps a season ago are the most of any returning player on the roster.
Beyond that veteran group, the unit is fortified by a number of players who saw playing time through the 2018 campaign. Two Ohio natives, sophomores Matt Bockhorst (Cincinnati, Ohio) and Jackson Carman (Fairfield, Ohio), could both be in line for larger roles after providing a physical presence along the line in 2018. Junior Cade Stewart (Six Mile, S.C.) started at guard for Clemson in a road win at Texas A&M. Lettermen expected to return on the two-deep also include junior Chandler Reeves (McDonough, Ga.) and sophomore Blake Vinson (Ocala, Fla.), and redshirt freshman Jordan McFadden (Spartanburg, S.C.) could also factor into the mix.
Clemson Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables joined the Tigers in 2012 following a 2011 season in which Clemson ranked 71st and total defense and 81st in scoring defense. In his seven seasons at Clemson, he’s turned the unit into a perennial Top 10 finisher.
Clemson has ranked in the Top 10 in the country in total defense in all five seasons of the College Football Playoff era and has ranked among the Top 10 in scoring defense in four of those campaigns. Yet, for all of the success Venables’ defenses had produced in his Clemson tenure, the 2018 unit accomplished a first in school history, leading the country in scoring defense for the first time in program annals by allowing only 13.1 points per game.
All four of the All-Americans that comprised Clemson’s starting defensive line a year ago (Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Bryant) have departed for the professional ranks, providing opportunities for a number of young defensive playmakers.
Observers need not go further than asking former Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey about Clemson sophomore defensive end Xavier Thomas (Florence, S.C.). The freshman All-American and consensus Top 5 recruit from the Class of 2018 posted 43 tackles, including 10.5 for loss and 3.0 sacks, including a highlight-reel sack of Dungey on the final drive of Clemson’s come-from-behind victory against the Orange. Recruiting classmate K.J. Henry (Winston-Salem, N.C.) returns after electing to redshirt a year ago, when he personally approached the coaching staff with the idea after playing four games early in the season.
The defensive end group also includes junior Justin Foster (Shelby, N.C.), a trusted option by the coaching staff who had a sack and a fumble recovery at Texas A&M last year, as well as sophomore Mason Rudolph (Rock Hill, S.C.), who made 13 tackles in reserve. The staff has also expressed enthusiasm about Justin Mascoll (Snellville, Ga.), who redshirted his first season at Clemson last year.
The spring provided an opportunity for Clemson to rapidly develop some depth at defensive tackle, as Nyles Pinckney (Beaufort, S.C.) and Jordan Williams (Virginia Beach, Va.) – both presumptive favorites to start – were sidelined while recovering from injuries. Those absences provided spring reps for junior Xavier Kelly (Wichita, Kan.), who converted from defensive end prior to the 2018 season, as well as redshirt freshman Darnell Jeffries (Covington, Ga.) and true freshmen Tyler Davis (Apopka, Fla.) and Etinosa Reuben (Kansas City, Mo.).
Clemson graduated an experienced corps of linebackers in 2018, but coaches are intrigued by the athletic group taking the reins in 2019. The lone returning starter in the group is junior Isaiah Simmons (Olathe, Kan.), a converted safety who led the team with 97 tackles in 15 games (14 starts) in his first year as the team’s nickel/sam linebacker in 2018. The NFL Draft declaration of Tre Lamar opened larger roles for middle linebackers Shaq Smith (Baltimore, Md.) and Chad Smith (Sterling, Va.), and the departure of 40-game starter Kendall Joseph at will linebacker could result in James Skalski (Sharpsburg, Ga.) earning the starting role after taking an advantage of new NCAA rules that enabled him to take a mid-career redshirt in 2018. Redshirt sophomore Baylon Spector (Calhoun, Ga.) and redshirt freshman Mike Jones Jr. (Nashville, Tenn.) could also carve out roles at the will and nickel/sam positions, respectively.
The script has flipped for Clemson in the defensive backfield, where a year ago the Tigers were in search of depth at safety to match the team’s experience in the front seven. Now, the Clemson defense is led by a pair of senior safeties in Tanner Muse (Belmont, N.C.) and K’Von Wallace (Richmond, Va.) who have played in a combined 88 career games with 45 combined starts. Behind that duo, the Tigers return senior Denzel Johnson (Columbia, S.C.) and junior Nolan Turner (Vestavia Hills, Ala.), both of whom answered any questions about the team’s safety depth by emerging as reliable contributors in all 15 games in 2018.
At corner, the veteran presence will be provided by junior A.J. Terrell (Atlanta, Ga.), who led the team with three interceptions in 2018, including a 44-yard pick-six to jumpstart Clemson’s 44-16 national championship victory against Alabama. The cornerback group also returns three sophomores who saw action a season ago, including Mario Goodrich (Kansas City, Mo.) and Kyler McMichael (Atlanta, Ga.), who played in 26 combined games as true freshmen in 2018, and LeAnthony Williams (Atlanta, Ga.), who appeared in seven games as a redshirt freshman.
The unit added an unknown X-factor in the spring when the coaching staff began cross-training wide receiver Derion Kendrick at cornerback. He impressed immediately, recording an interception against the first-team offense in an early spring scrimmage, and in early April, Swinney noted that the presence of Kendrick was a luxury to have a player that could start for the Tigers on either side of the ball.
Gone is placekicker Greg Huegel, who exited Clemson ranked first in school history in career extra points (217) and second in career scoring (379 points), as well as Alex Spence, who served as the primary kicker in 2017 after losing Huegel to injury. Among those hoping to secure the role moving forward are sophomore B.T. Potter (Rock Hill, S.C.) and senior Steven Sawicki (Fayetteville, N.C.). hit his lone field goal attempt in 2018, a 24-yarder at Florida State.
Potter is the team’s incumbent kickoff specialist after making an immediate impact in that role in 2018. His 79 touchbacks on 114 kickoffs a season ago ranked third in the country and more than doubled the single-season touchback output by any other kickoff specialist in the Swinney era.
Clemson has multiple options at punter, including returning starter Will Spiers (Cameron, S.C.), a junior who Swinney has credited for capitalizing on momentum created by his strong finish to the 2018 season. Spiers posted his second-highest single-game punting average of the 2018 season in the national championship against Alabama, including an early 51-yarder that flipped field position and set up Terrell’s pick-six on the ensuing Alabama drive. Sawicki also offers punting experience, having punted 122 times at North Carolina A&T prior to transferring to Clemson. True freshman Aidan Swanson (Tampa, Fla.) now joins the group after finishing his prep career at IMG Academy.
The field goal and punting units will benefit from the return of the battery of holder Will Swinney and long snapper Patrick Phibbs (Pittsburgh, Pa.). Phibbs served as the team’s snapper on field goals and PATs in 2018 and could add snapping responsibilities for punts in 2019.
Including an onside kick return by Diondre Overton credited as a return, six different players returned at least one kickoff or punt for Clemson in 2018, and all six of those players return in 2019. Derion Kendrick led Clemson in kickoff returns (13) and kickoff return yards (299) last year. Cornell Powell (117 yards on four returns) was the team’s primary kickoff returner for the first four games of the season prior to taking a redshirt, and Amari Rodgers and Lyn-J Dixon both contributed one kickoff return each
On punts, Rodgers set a Clemson single-season record in 2018 with 38 punt returns and finished one-yard shy of producing the 10th season with 300 punt return yards in Clemson history. He helped secure Clemson’s division-clinching win at Boston College with a 58-yard punt return touchdown. Will Swinney also returned three punts for Clemson in 2018.