Some games may already be on the chopping block, but as of now the Eagles still have to take on the behemoth that is Clemson. Ryan Kantor, a contributor on TigerNet and Shakin’ the Southland, answered some questions to tell us what we need to know about the Tigers’ upcoming season.
1. Coming off the heels of a disappointing result in the national title game last season, how do you think Trevor Lawrence will respond after his first collegiate loss? And with a college football season in flux, what are the chances he returns after, depending on how things shake out, as Travis Etienne chose?
I believe 2020 (and hopefully early January 2021) will be the last time we’ll see Trevor Lawrence in a Clemson uniform. It doesn’t make a ton of sense for him to return for another season or play in a condensed Spring (really Winter) season right around the NFL combine and just before the NFL draft. I imagine this Fall is it.
As you said, his performance in the title game was very disappointing. While he has had moments of struggle within games before, that was the first truly bad game he has played as a Tiger. He was overthrowing open receivers and seemed to press and struggle more as things spiraled out of control.
He’s never had to respond to that kind of on-field struggle, but I wouldn’t bet against him. The one thing he has going against him is the loss of his top two receivers: Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. Higgins was selected with the 33rd pick of the NFL draft and will be catching passes from former-adversary Joe Burrow in Cincinnati. Justyn Ross had surgery and is out for the season. This may be reason to temper expectations, but Trevor Lawrence will still likely be the best QB in the conference (though UNC’s Sam Howell and UL’s Micale Cunningham shouldn’t be overlooked).
2. Waves of top defensive players have been drafted the past few years. We saw how losing virtually the entire defensive line resulted in a slight step back on the front this past year. How will losing the likes of Isaiah Simmons, AJ Terrell, and Tanner Muse affect Brent Venables’ unit and who do you see stepping up this time around?
I was just writing about Oklahoma who loses their top QB, WR, and RB, and suggested that Lincoln Riley is such a great offensive mind you should just assume they’ll overcome the losses and be very good offensively anyway. The same applies for Clemson’s defense under Brent Venables. The Tigers had the entire defensive line taken in the 2019 draft (three in the first round) and still managed to be top 10 in total defense.
At cornerback, the Tigers return Derion Kendrick and have young talent waiting in the wings to replace AJ Terrell. Tanner Muse will be challenging to replace. Certainly with those two losses the secondary may take a step back, but that should be outweighed by improvement up-front.
The toughest guy to replace will be Isaiah Simmons. Mike Jones, a redshirt sophomore and former four-star recruit, will get the first crack at the strong-side linebacker role. He certainly won’t be expected to bring the versatility Simmons brought, but we’ve seen how Venables can expertly adjust his defense to extenuate his players’ strengths and I expect 2020 to be no different.
3. Really terrible news from last month that wide receiver Justyn Ross will miss the ‘20 season and potentially never play again. How devastating of a loss is this for the team emotionally, and who makes the leap among this still stellar receiving corps?
It’s a big blow. It reminds me of when Clemson lost Mike Williams for the entire 2015 season. Clemson came up just short against in the National Title Game and that injury (along with cornerback Mackensie Alexander getting injured during the game) was part of the reason.
Clemson needs an “alpha” receiver that can go up and win jump balls. That kind of wide receiver play was a huge reason the Tigers plowed through Notre Dame and Alabama in the 2018 postseason. Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson are the two best candidates to rise up and fill the void. Both were highly-touted freshman that showed flashes of their full potential last season, but at least one of them will have to step up in a big way.
4. Are there any major concerns about losing four offensive lineman that received All-ACC honors?
Certainly. That’s a lot of experience we’re losing. Fortunately, Clemson developed good depth last year as they rotated back-ups in and got them experience. Jordan McFadden, who is expected to take over at right tackle, played 315 snaps last season. Cade Stewart, who is expected to take over at center, had 335, and the likely new left guard Matt Bockhorst had 421. Will Putnam is less experienced, but was a big time recruit. As a result, the coaching staff well positioned themselves to overcome the losses. The real concern is depth. If there is an injury or a COVID-19 infection that takes one or two guys out for a game, will the back-ups be ready? That’s the bigger question mark.
5. What would it take for the Tigers to not win the ACC again? That might be too negative; who do you think will be able to provide the stiffest competition in either division?
I think North Carolina is the next best team in the ACC. If the two teams meet, they’ll provide the toughest test in the ACC. Louisville has a powerful offense. They have one of the best QB/WR combos in the conference with Cunningham and Atwell and also the best running back besides Travis Etienne, Javian Hawkins.
I think the real answer here though is about injuries. If the Tigers lose some key players for a week or two everything changes very quickly. Imagine a scenario where a key offensive linemen and a QB Trevor Lawrence are out for a game. The Tigers would be vulnerable. Those sorts of situations could pop up more, as testing protocol for COVID-19 sounds like it’ll be pretty robust and there will likely be at least a handful of asymptotic positive tests throughout the year that keep players out.
6. What is it, ten straight games now? Care to venture a guess for BC-Clemson, scheduled for the beginning of October as it stands?
It’s only nine straight wins. That’s still not enough to make up for the heartbreak of the “Matt Ryan game” in 2007 when a late TD pass stole the Atlantic Division from Tommy Bowden’s Tigers. I suppose it all worked out in the end though.
Being a division game, it seems extremely probable that this game will carry forward. I think Boston College will need vastly improved QB play to really make a run at Clemson – barring several Tigers missing the game. A great QB can make any team dangerous. I’m just not sure Boston College will have that this year. Perhaps Phil Jurkovec can provide that in 2021 against a Clemson team that doesn’t have Trevor Lawrence or Travis Erienne and make things very interesting.
Big thanks again to Ryan for giving us the inside look. Be sure to check him out on Twitter here.