Another trip to Death Valley, but this time against a Clemson team that has been categorically un-Clemson. To talk about the woes of the current team and what we can expect ahead of Saturday’s contest, we once again chatted with Tom Dianora of SB Nation Clemson site, Shakin’ the Southland.
BCI: There’s only one place to start, and that’s the struggling Clemson offense. DJ Uiagalelei is still green, but the talk around town is also how Trevor Lawrence and the elite talent around him really covered up a lot of the shortcomings of the offensive scheme. I’m just going to let you have a mini-rant now. Where do the faults lie, what needs to change, etc.?
STS: The faults reside pretty much everywhere. Uiagalelei has not been good. But his receivers haven’t been good either, as they are unable to consistently create separation. Sometimes when they do get open, DJ misses them by 10 feet, be it because of inaccuracy or miscommunication and misunderstanding of the route on DJ’s part. Then there are times when he throws an absolute rocket when instead a little more touch is needed. Other times, he makes a good throw, but the receiver has either not created enough separation, or he has run the wrong route. Meanwhile, the Tigers still have almost no threat with respect to the tight-end passing game.
Beyond all that, the offensive line cannot consistently create lanes for the running game. Offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell has a very positive reputation for some reason, but I don’t see why, as the offensive line has been an issue even in years where the rest of the offense could mostly overcome those struggles. And yes, offensive coordinator Tony Elliott’s scheme is outdated, and with players struggling to execute, that issue is being magnified. At the same time, these players are not executing the most basic offensive plays, so it’s also difficult for Elliott to call more exotic plays until they show proficiency with the basic stuff. But that doesn’t excuse him from not implementing a few fresh plays that aren’t difficult but also aren’t so predictable. I felt like 80 percent of the offensive series against NC State followed the script of an inside zone run up the middle for maybe a yard, a wide receiver bubble screen for maybe a couple of yards, and then an airmailed pass on third and long. Surely there is room to shake things up a little bit.
I definitely think there’s something to Lawrence making this outdated scheme look fine because of his (and Travis Etienne’s) own brilliance. This is also Elliott’s second year without co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, who took the head coaching job at South Florida after the 2019 season. I and many others always thought Elliott was the lead coordinator of the two, but with what we’re seeing now, maybe Scott had a bigger role than we realized.
It’s all added up to a hideous, dysfunctional offense that is extremely difficult to watch. With the issues this multiple, it’s hard to imagine Clemson being able to pull off a complete 180 by the end of the season, but I would hope they can start to clear this extremely low bar over the next few weeks. It’s frustrating to see a bunch of four-star and five-star players struggling like this, so with that being the case, these widespread issues seem to have a root cause in coaching and development. That’s a big issue that Dabo Swinney is going to have to examine critically, and reconsider his Clemsonian nepotism and possibly excessive loyalty when it comes to the majority of his assistant coaches, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Swinney will also have to reconsider his stance against taking transfers, as it sure seems like Clemson could have used some help on the offensive line.
BCI: The injuries for the Tigers sure are piling up — and to marquee names — stud tackle Bryan Bresee and freshman running back Will Shipley went down against NC State, as did James Skalski (though more unclear on his status), and Tyler Davis before them. How big are these losses and compounded with the season’s adversity what kind of an effect might it have on the team?
STS: Losing Bresee for the season (torn ACL) is a devastating blow. He had been a dominant force in the middle of the defensive line, along with Tyler Davis, who couldn’t stay consistently healthy last season as well. So now Clemson is without its two starting DTs for the majority of the season. Redshirt sophomore Ruke Orhorhoro has been very good filling in one of the spots, but there is a drop-off after him, with redshirt freshman Tré Williams likely getting the lion’s share of the snaps at the other DT position. The biggest issue is Clemson’s depth in the interior of the defensive line is gutted. I almost wonder if they’d now be better-served moving back to a structure with three linemen like they did in 2019 in a 3-3-5 structure for most of the season (having an athletic freak in Isaiah Simmons at linebacker certainly helped that), but I’d be surprised if that actually happened.
At least Skalski should be fine based on Swinney’s comments from Sunday.
Asked about Skalski, Swinney says the senior LB will be fine. https://t.co/hl8BQbK3cJ— TigerNet.com (@ClemsonTigerNet) September 26, 2021
But at a higher level, between the injuries and the offense being unable to stay on the field for long periods of time, I fear that the defense will just wear down as a result. That’s what we saw in the NC State game. It’s not even something for which that unit can be blamed. So yes, the impact of the injuries on defense will be exacerbated by the state of the rest of the team.
Shipley’s injury will keep him out of action for only 3-4 weeks, which is very surprising based on how bad it looked. But with Lyn-J Dixon already having entered the transfer portal, Clemson is now thin at running back as well. Expect freshman Phil Mafah to make his debut after the team had initially wanted to redshirt him this year. He flashed in the spring game, so hopefully he can take advantage of this opportunity, even if it’s under less-than-ideal circumstances. Kobe Pace will likely start, but if Mafah starts to play like he did in the spring game, he might eventually become the guy.
BCI: Even without those key names, the Clemson defense is still top-notch, albeit rawer talent I imagine will see their name called. Who needs to step up to fill the void both in leadership and production? Where is the strength of Venables’ defense?
STS: As mentioned, Orhorhoro has been a great presence on the defensive line, and the Tigers will need to lean on him heavily. Defensive ends Myles Murphy and Xavier Thomas need to continue to be disruptive forces. Skalski remains the leader of the defense, so it’s fortunate that he’s not among the long-term injuries. In the secondary, safety Nolan Turner is another leader, and freshman safety Andrew Mukuba has been a major bright spot. Andrew Booth is a star at cornerback as well.
This is a great defense, but its depth up front has taken a hit, and it will eventually break if the offense can’t help it out a bit more.
BCI: Let’s circle back to DJ Uiagalelei’s play in particular, and the talent around him. Last season, DJ made an impromptu start against BC and came back from a 28-13 halftime deficit, throwing for over 300 yards and two touchdowns while adding one on the ground. I was sad. Travis Etienne did his thing and led the team in rushing and receiving. We saw what he did in two cameos against BC and Notre Dame, and the offense looked quite potent to me. Can you expand on DJ’s struggles this time around and touch on the skill position talent around him?
STS: It’s hard to pinpoint why this year’s version of DJ is so much worse than the version we saw last season. So, like I said about the offense in general, it seems to be a number of factors. He doesn’t have the security blanket of Etienne anymore. He no longer has a shifty slot receiver like Amari Rodgers. He plays behind an offensive line that somehow has been worse than last year’s underwhelming unit.
I also think that opening the season against Georgia’s frightening defense has perhaps hurt DJ’s confidence and made him much more antsy in the pocket. I.e., the Sam Darnold affliction of “seeing ghosts.” He has shown brief flashes of strong pocket presence, but all too often he looks tentative and jittery, especially when his first read isn’t open. We know the talent is there based on his recruiting profile and what we saw in his two starts last year, so I have to think it’s a mental thing at this point, along with having a worse supporting cast around him, and the coaching staff not quite doing enough to play to his talents.
BCI: With the loss to NC State, and already having lost to Georgia, we likely won’t see Clemson in the CFP for the first time since its inception - and quite possibly no ACC team at all. What’s the expectation for the rest of the season, and do you expect things to revert back to normal next season? What’s the timeline to ‘recovery’?
STS: I truly hope this is just a year of growing pains and development, and that the elite Clemson program we’ve seen for the better part of the past decade is back next season. But I think returning to that form requires some level of change, as I alluded to at the top, and I worry that Dabo Swinney will be reluctant to instill that change. With the talent Clemson has in place, this can be a quick recovery, but Swinney has to look at some staffing decisions, and some philosophical changes (e.g., taking transfers). If he is resistant to these types of changes, Clemson could be looking at long-term mediocrity, as much as that pains me to say.
For this year, like I mentioned, it’s tough to see the offense getting to a championship level. The ACC is certainly still in play; even though the Tigers don’t control their own destiny thanks to the loss to NC State, that NC State team is not very good in my opinion, and will likely lose at least two conference games. The problem, though, is that Clemson does not look like a team that’s going to run the table.
I think the goal should still be another conference crown this season, but realistically, I expect a finish somewhere in the neighborhood of 8-4 or 7-5, which may or may not be enough to get them into the ACC championship game.
BCI: BC is now 16 point underdog for Saturday night. It’s the third game in a row in Death Valley, and of course the Tigers are riding a now 10-game winning streak against the Eagles. Both teams are off after this one so we’re throwing it all against the wall. What’s the score prediction? Will Clemson bounce back?
STS: Clemson being that big of a favorite after what we’ve seen this season is, frankly, shocking to me. What does Vegas know that we don’t? I’m not sure, but I’m definitely not that optimistic. I don’t see the offensive issues magically resolving themselves this week. I think the defense hangs tough but eventually just can’t win the game all on its own. The Tigers will manage to get some points on the board via one or two good drives, and maybe some turnover luck, but it won’t be enough. Shockingly, for the first time since I started doing these Q&As, I am picking Clemson to lose. I am sad, as you were last year when DJ led the comeback. BC 23, Clemson 17
Look at that! There’s a first time for everything. Thanks again to Tom for sharing his perspective and for giving us the win. Be sure to check his work and all of the Clemson coverage over at Shakin’ the Southland. You can also check out my end of the deal on their site as well.