Welcome to the Season Opener edition of What We Are Hearing!
The 2023 college football season has finally arrived, and just like last year, Clemson fans have had to wait longer than any others to watch their team kick off. It's been a crazy few weeks with conference realignment, but now we get to focus on football and the games themselves. The Tigers are coming off another ACC Championship and double-digit win season, but a loss in the Orange Bowl to Tennessee has left a sour taste in fans and players' mouths. With Garrett Riley now on board as the new Offensive Coordinator, the Cade Klubnik era set to begin and a chip on their shoulders, the Tigers are poised to return to the College Football Playoff.
Duke comes into the season with a ton of confidence, fresh off a bowl win and a 9-win season in the first year under Mike Elko, who was named ACC Coach of the Year. The Devils' 4 losses last season were by a combined 14 points, so they were extremely competitive and close to an undefeated season. Elko is a defensive guru. He was the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M before getting the job at Duke, and before that he was DC at Notre Dame and Wake, doing an incredible job with every defense he's coached. Although the Devils didn't make a drastic defensive turnaround in his first season, they did lead the nation in forced fumbles and fumbles recovered, and that will be a huge concern for the Tigers, who were plagued by turnovers last season. Elko also has a stud at quarterback. Riley Leonard took the ACC by storm last season, and Mel Kiper currently has him as the third quarterback in next year's NFL Draft. He's a dual-threat guy who can beat you with his arm, his legs and his mind.
As for the Tigers, I've broken down each position group as we head into the season.
Enthusiasm is high for the Cade Klubnik era to begin in earnest with his first season opener as the starter. This is his team now, and by all accounts, he has stepped into that leadership role seamlessly. Surprisingly, Cade has been given the fourth-best odds to win the Heisman even though he has just one start under his belt, and that didn't go so well. As expected, last year's Heisman winner, Caleb Williams, is the prohibitive favorite to repeat this year at about 5 to 1 odds. Tied for 2nd behind him are Quinn Ewers from Texas and Jayden Daniels from LSU at 9 to 1 odds. Cade is right behind them at 10 to 1 odds. I was shocked that Cade was given better odds than Drake Maye and Michigan RB Blake Corum. Let's hope Cade lives up to the preseason hype! The addition of new Offensive Coordinator Garrett Riley should help him do that and maximize his skill set. After all, he led TCU backup QB Max Duggan to a second-place finish in the Heisman voting last year. Duggan was the backup going into last season, but the starter was injured in the opener, and the rest is history. I can't wait to see what Riley does with a quarterback as talented as Cade, who was named Elite 11 MVP as a senior in high school over the likes of Quinn Ewers.
Cade had ups and downs in his role as backup last season but was brilliant in the ACC Championship, earning MVP honors. He made some mistakes, however, in his first career start in the Orange Bowl. He threw two interceptions and, most notably, demonstrated poor clock management at the end of the first half, opting to run twice with no timeouts, allowing the clock to run out when they were well inside field goal range. He also took a couple sacks that he shouldn't have. Chalk all that up to the growing pains of a freshman quarterback. It was his first loss as a starting quarterback since middle school, and I'm sure he still has that bad taste in his mouth. You can bet that he has learned from those mistakes and won't repeat them. Sure, he will make more mistakes this season, and that's all part of the process. But he is a born winner, and the game will slow down for him with each game as he gains experience.
The Tigers have a solid backup in former walk-on Hunter Helms. He's had plenty of offers to transfer elsewhere and be the starter, but he has stayed the course because he loves Clemson so much, and now he's just an injury away from being the starter. Helms played very little last season behind DJ, Cade and Hunter Johnson, but he's shown his capability going back to the spring of 2022. I was told that in the scrimmages, he moved the ball better than DJ did, and he performed about as well as Cade did last spring. Hopefully Cade will remain healthy all season, but if Helms is called upon, I truly believe the Tigers are in good hands and can win with him behind center.
Helms sprained his foot a couple weeks ago in practice and was wearing a boot. It was initially thought that he'd be out 2-3 weeks but ready for the opener if needed. However, he's always been a fast healer, and he was able to play in the scrimmage just a week after the injury. Just after the injury, Dabo told me that Paul Tyson, the transfer from Alabama and Bear Bryant's grandson, would be the next man up behind Helms. Freshman Christopher Vizzina is a star in waiting, but he's not ready yet, and they are hoping to redshirt him this season.
Obviously, the Tigers have a dynamic duo in Shipley and Mafah. We all know what they are capable of, and if they can stay healthy all season, it might be the best one-two punch in the country. James Davis is back on the staff, alongside his old running mate CJ Spiller, so we now have the original Thunder and Lightning coaching version 2.0!
The depth behind those two might be better than you think. I was impressed with Dominique Thomas last spring, and he's followed that up with a solid August. In fact, I'm told he had a great scrimmage last week. He has great hips and vision, and his teammates don't call him "Quadzilla" for nothing. That means powerful legs, in case you didn't know. Freshman Keith Adams, Jr. is a little behind Thomas because of his youth and inexperience, but he is a very capable backup who runs like a sledge hammer. You'd expect that from the son of linebacker like Keith Adams--he plays running back with the aggression of a linebacker. Dabo says that it's a business decision when you tackle Adams.
The next tier would be redshirt sophomore Kevin O'Neal from Tuscaloosa and the 3 freshmen: Jarvis Green from Irmo, Jay Haynes, also from Alabama, and Peyton Streko. None of the freshmen were high in the recruiting rankings, but Dabo has been high on what he's seen from them.
Most people think of Garrett Riley's Air Raid brand of offense as throwing the ball all over the field, but is very dependent on the run game as well. In fact, TCU's top two rushers combined for over 2,000 yards last season. So you can expect to see heavy doses of Shipley and Mafah this season!
Clemson has been known as "WRU" for the last decade. Clemson and Ohio State are tied for the most receivers drafted by the NFL since 2013. Throughout the Tigers' 6-year playoff run, a common denominator was always a talented and deep receiver room with consistent play-makers. However, over the last 2 seasons, the receiver position has been a weakness instead of a strength--in part due to a plague of injuries--and it's no coincidence that the offense has struggled and the Tigers have missed the playoff for two straight seasons. Albeit, they would have made it last year if not for a fluke one-point loss to the Gamecocks, ending one of the longest home win streaks of all time.
The Tigers might look like "WRU" again this season if they can stay healthy for the most part--again, something that has plagued them over the last two seasons. In 2021, Beaux Collins was a freshman and relied upon more than a freshman should be, resulting in many drops. Last season, he battled injuries. He's a junior now, looks fantastic physically, and could have a breakout season as one of the premier receivers in the ACC. Sophomore Antonio Williams is the perfect complement to Collins. He isn't a tall, 50/50 ball type receiver like Collins, but he is fast, a good route runner and has great hands. He had an outstanding freshman campaign last year and should be even better this season. Cole Turner, younger brother of former Clemson safety Nolan Turner, red-shirted last season but was able to play in post-season games, and he demonstrated why Dabo had been talking about him since last summer. He might be the fastest player on the team and has great hands, like you'd expect from a basketball player. He's put on some much-needed muscle in the offseason, and one would expect him to be much improved after 8 more months of learning the position. I saw him make a couple nice catches in practice this month.
Those are your three starters. Behind them are sophomore Adam Randall and graduate Brannon Spector. The coaches were raving about Randall in his first spring as a true freshman, but then he tore his ACL. He played sparingly last season after rehabbing his knee, but was never able to consistently show brilliance we heard about. With a whole healthy offseason under his belt, this could be his breakout season like Antonio Williams had last year. Spector has been a reliable backup slot receiver and will continue to be behind Williams. Then there is redshirt sophomore Troy Stellato, who Dabo keeps telling us is as talented as anybody they've got, but he's never seen the field because he's always injured. He was ranked as high as the No.120 player overall coming out of high school, but after just 23 snaps in two games, he suffered a season-ending injury in 2021. Then, just when he was looking great in 2022 fall camp, he was injured again and missed the entire season. As Dabo always says, the most important ability is availability. Let's hope Stellato is finally available this season!
The next tier of receivers would be the freshmen. Noble Johnson from Texas, Tyler Brown from Greenville, Ronan Hanafin from Massachusetts and "Tink" Kelley from Daniel have all flashed at times during camp. Hopefully, none of them will be pressed into service, but if they are, they can hold their own. And, of course, the Tigers have some very capable walk-ons as well, like Hampton Earle and Hamp Greene.
Between this group of talented, experienced receivers and the Tigers' dynamic run game with Shipley, Mafah and Klubnik, we should see the offensive numbers we were used to prior to 2021.
Next to quarterback, this may end up being the most critical position group for the Tigers because of a lack of depth. For the past couple seasons, the Tigers had a dynamic duo at tight end in Davis Allen and Jake Biningstool. They combined for 64 catches and 9 touchdowns last season, among the most in the nation at the position. Allen has moved on, and Briningstool is poised to be the guy like Jordan Leggett was in 2016. However, it is crucial that Briningstool remain healthy all season. In addition to Allen, the Tigers lost Luke Price, who was a valuable blocking tight end, especially in short-yardage and goal line situations. Behind Briningstool is Sage Ennis, who is capable but has very little game experience. Then there's redshirt freshman Josh Sapp, who the coaches are high on, but he is still developing and has virtually no game experience. I did see him make a couple nice catches in practice this month. Walk-on Banks Pope had a nice spring game but no game experience. He was rehabbing in 2021 and did not play last season. The Tigers have a couple talented freshmen in Olsen Patt-Henry and Markus Dixon, who were ranked by ESPN as the No.11 and No.16 tight ends, respectively, coming out of high school, but Dabo would like to redshirt them.
The Tigers have enough offensive weapons that they could get by without Briningstool, but the offense will be much better if he can remain healthy.
The Tigers are in great shape up front this season, returning 4 of 5 starters. The only departure is OT Jordan McFadden, who is now in the NFL, and OG Marcus Tate is back from injury. At this time last year, center was a big question mark because Will Putnam, who had never played the position, moved from guard to take over as the new starting center, and he did a fantastic job last season. Starting along side with Putnam and Tate will be senior Walker Parks at right guard and sophomore Blake Miller at right tackle, who got a ton of experience last season as a freshman. Co-starters at left tackle, replacing McFadden, are redshirt sophomore Tristan Leigh and redshirt freshman Colin Sadler. Dabo has raved about the improvement of Tristan Leigh since he arrived as a freshman, saying no one on the team works harder than him. You may recall he ran down Andrew Mukuba in the spring game, preventing a would-be pick-six. Sadler was highly recruited out of high school and is now ready to show what he can do in a game.
The Tigers are as deep as they've ever been along the offensive line. Dabo said that he really feels 8 or 9 players are worthy of starting. That list includes Mitchell Mayes, Trent Howard, John Williams, Dietrick Pennington, Ryan Linthicum and true freshman Harris Sewell, who the coaches are very high on. Pennington had an unfortunate injury last year, but he's massive at 6'5 and 340 pounds, and I look forward to seeing him on the field. Mitchell Mayes has a ton of experience at tackle and will play both tackle and guard. Trent Howard will play left guard but also back up Putnam at center along with Linthicum.
The Tigers have one of the best back fields in the country with Shipley, Mafah and Klubnik, and I can't wait to see what they can do behind this talented and deep offensive line!
Clemson has earned the reputation as DLU over the past decade, and the Tigers will live up to that reputation once again in 2023. Clemson is the only program to post 40 or more sacks in every year of the College Football Playoff era, and the Tigers are going to be living in their opponents' backfield again this season. Off to the NFL are KJ Henry and first-round draft picks Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy, but the Tigers don't rebuild on the D-Line, they just reload. Tyler Davis, Ruke Orhorhoro and Xavier Thomas all put the NFL on hold to return this season to win a national title. It feels a lot like 2018 when Wilkins, Ferrell and Bryant all did the same, and one of the most dominant defensive lines in college football history did just that! Incidentally, Xavier Thomas was a freshman on that team, and all of those guys were working out in Clemson this summer. Thomas was just a young pup in 2018, ranked by some as the No.1 recruit in the nation, and he has come a long, long way since then, now in his sixth year. He has matured both mentally and physically. I thought last year would be his breakout season and even commented on how incredible he looked in August camp, but a foot injury just before the season opener derailed his season. He showed a glimpse of how unblockable he is in the Boston College game last season, and I can't wait to see what he can do if he can stay healthy all season!
It will be hard to double-team Thomas because of the talent across the front. Opposite XT at the other end is Justin Mascoll, who is also a super senior that was a freshman on that 2018 team. He has paid his dues and is ready to finally be the starter. Behind Tyler Davis and Ruke is freshman phenom Peter Woods, who has lived up to the hype and then some. He dominated the spring game and has had a great camp, being named a co-starter at defensive tackle. He is poised to have an instant impact as a freshman like Christian Wilkins did in 2015 and Dex Lawrence in 2016, maybe even more so. Wilkins played for a small private high school in the northeast, whereas Woods has been playing big-time football for 4 years in Alabama, winning 4 straight 6A championships. Of course, we shouldn't forget about the phenomenal freshman season Tyler Davis had in 2019 either, and Bryan Bresee was ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2020. The Tigers have had a remarkable run with freshman defensive tackles!
The Tigers have great depth on the interior. Behind the three-headed monster of Davis, Ruke and Woods are Page and Capehart, who have a lot of experience under their belts, and there should be very little drop off when they are in the game. In addition, Tre Williams will be ready to go soon. Dabo told me that he could probably play in the opener if he had to, but they are taking their time with him because he's dealt with so many injuries. In fact, they are so deep at tackle that they will try to redshirt Williams and play him in 4 games at the end of the season. The Tigers aren't quite as deep at end this season. There is talent there, but it's young and inexperienced. Redshirt sophomore Cade Denhoff and highly heralded true freshman TJ Parker will back up XT and Mascoll on the edge.
If the Tigers stay healthy on the line, this unit could potentially be as dominant as that historic 2018 group that blew out Alabama for the national title, and it could be deja vu all over again for the Tigers!
The Tigers could very well have the best starting linebackers in the nation. Trotter and Carter are both preseason All-Americans, and Wade Woodaz is a future star who will start at the SAM linebacker position but will also play some WILL behind Carter. The Tigers' depth took a hit with the dismissal of TJ Dudley from the team just before August camp, so let's hope the three starters can stay healthy. True freshman Jamal Anderson, son of the NFL Pro-Bowler for the Falcons' "Dirty Birds," will back up Woodaz at the SAM linebacker position. Behind Trotter in the middle at the MIKE position are redshirt freshman Kobe McCloud, brother of Ray-Ray, and true freshman Dee Crayton.
The starting trio are the best Dabo has ever had but, again, it's critical that they remain healthy this season.
What a difference a year makes! At this time last year, the secondary was the biggest weakness on the team, and it was exposed at Wake Forest, but now it's a real strength as we head into the 2023 season. All 4 starters return--5 including the nickel package--and there is depth as well. Corner Nate Wiggins is the perfect example of how much this unit has improved. He could not have had a worse game than the one he had at Wake, but he had the PBU in the end zone to win the game in overtime, and by the end of the season, he was Defensive MVP of the ACC Championship Game! At the other corner spot is the reliable redshirt senior, Sheridan Jones. Seniors RJ Mickens and Jalyn Phillips are the starters at strong safety and free safety, respectively, and junior Andrew Mukuba, who had a bit of a sophomore slump, is the starter at nickel. He is backed up by true freshman Khalil Barnes, who had a great spring game, including the game-winning pick-six. The backup corners are sophomores Toriano Pride and Jeadyn Lukus, who gained some good experience last season--especially Pride. Sophomore Sherrod Covil also gained some good experience last season and will back up Mickens at strong safety. Finally, redshirt freshman Kylon Griffin will back up free safety Jalyn Phillips.
This deep and talented group should give that nasty front seven plenty of time to get to the quarterback this season!
This was the biggest question mark of the offseason. The Tigers will have to replace an all-timer in BT Potter at kicker, and the punter job was up for grabs as well. Aidan Swanson, the starting punter last season, edged out talented redshirt freshman Jack Smith in August camp. The new starting kicker, as expected, will be redshirt freshman Robert Gunn. He was ranked as the No.3 kicker coming out of high school a couple years ago and has a big leg. He did not attempt any field goals last season but made his only PAT attempt and forced touchbacks on all 5 of his kickoffs. The Tigers have been fortunate enough to have some all-time greats under Dabo, including Catanzaro, Huegel and Potter. Let's hope Gunn is the next in line!
Returning punts again will be sophomore WR Antonio Williams, and RB Will Shipley will handle the kickoff returns again. True freshman WR Tyler Brown, who really impressed Dabo during camp, will also return kickoffs with Shipley, and he'll see some punt return action behind Williams.
The Tigers are favored by 13 points in their first trip to Wallace-Wade since a 56-20 win in 2012. The crowd will be fired up, and it will be a big stage with the whole nation watching. I expect Duke to put up a good fight early, but I think that the Tigers are too talented and too deep for the Devils to keep up with for 4 quarters. And I think that the Tigers' defense will be playing with a big chip on their shoulders. Leonard will make some plays but not enough. The Tigers begin another win streak.
The Prowl toward another ACC Title and College Football Playoff begins....
CLEMSON 34 DUKE 17
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