The Tigers have regularly had one of the best offenses in the nation each year, and 2020 should be no different, with Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne—the top two players in the ACC according to the preseason media vote—returning to the offensive backfield. Trevor was voted Preseason ACC Player of the Year, but Travis is the two-time reigning POY and has a great chance to be the first-ever three-time winner. Despite the loss of Tee Higgins to the NFL and Justyn Ross to an off-season neck surgery, the 2020 Clemson offense could be the best in the nation. So let’s break down the offense by position group and take a look at the Tigers’ depth chart leading into the quickly approaching season.
As mentioned, the Tigers will have to replace their two most productive receivers from 2019 in Higgins and Ross, but the stable is far from bare. Sophomores Frank Ladson and Joseph Ngata missed much of August camp, but they are back at practice and look great according to Dabo. In their absence, Cornell Powell picked up where he left off last spring to emerge as the most consistent receiver in the group. Dabo has been waiting years for the light to come on for Powell, and it appears that he is finally ready to play a major role in the Tigers’ offense. Powell scored 3 touchdowns in the Tigers’ first stadium scrimmage in August, and Dabo said that he was the best player on the field. Powell is listed as a co-starter with Ladson, and he can play all 3 receiver positions. In the slot, of course, the Tigers return starter Amari Rodgers, who is faster and stronger than he’s ever been and has been practicing without the knee brace he wore last season after recovering from a torn ACL. Rodgers is poised for a huge season and will also be used on punt returns. In addition, the Tigers have three very talented freshmen who can make a splash. Redshirt freshman Brannon Spector is the new No.13 in the slot, but he’s a little different than his predecessors—Renfrow, Humphries and Grisham—who wore the number. Brannon, the younger brother of veteran linebacker Baylon, is stronger, taller and faster than the past three greats to wear No.13. It remains to be seen whether his hands are as good as Renfrow’s, Humphries’ or his position coach Grisham’s, but Dabo has raved about him since last spring and thinks Spector is going to be a superstar. In fact, Dabo said that Spector was so good last year that they almost didn’t red shirt him. With the new eligibility rule enacted due to the pandemic, Spector could have an even longer career than Renfrow. As a red-shirt freshman, Spector could potentially play for the Tigers for the next 5 years! The Tigers also have true freshmen EJ Williams and Ajou Ajou, who both impressed in August. Williams was a high school teammate of Justyn Ross, and in addition to matching Ross’s physical stature, Williams is even faster! Canadian Ajou Ajou is another impressive physical specimen that Dabo is very excited about. He was having a great camp before tweaking his hamstring, but you can expect to see plenty of Ajou in the second half of the opener at Wake and several other games this season.
Along with all-everything Travis Etienne, who is currently 3rd all-time nationally at 7.8 yards per carry in his career, the Tigers might have the best stable of backs in the country. Lyn-J Dixon is coming back from a solid sophomore campaign as Etienne’s backup, and sophomores Chez Mellusi and Michel Dukes each got a ton of experience last season with all of the Tigers’ blowout wins. Add to the mix talented true freshmen Demarkcus Bowman and Kobe Pace, who Dabo has dubbed “Thunder and Lightning” 2.0, and the Tigers have an abundance of explosiveness in the backfield—as much as Dabo and Tony Elliott have ever had. And they can all catch the ball. Don’t forget about Darien Rencher, by the way, who has emerged as a real team leader and is both productive and reliable when he gets his opportunities. Speaking of “Lightning,” CJ Spiller officially joined the staff a few weeks ago as an unpaid graduate assistant, so he will be able to mentor Bowman, who drew comparisons to Spiller by Dabo. It’s not a comparison Dabo would make lightly, so I can’t wait to see Bowman’s speed in game action. He also showed up to camp “thicker” than Dabo expected. You may see Bowman in the return game at some point as well!
The Tigers might also have the best group of tight ends in the nation, although they suffered a loss when Luke Price tore his ACL last week after making a spectacular catch in practice. After transitioning from linebacker, Price was not prominent in the passing game last year but made some key blocks that led to touchdowns. Fortunately, the Tigers are still loaded at the position, led by Braden Galloway, who missed the entire regular season last year due to his suspension. Galloway has been in the program two years now, and he will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. Davis Allen had some flashes last season as a true freshman, and you can expect to see much more of him in 2020. Veteran JC Chalk also returns along with sophomore Jaelyn Lay, who could be another Dwayne Allen down the road. The tight end position has not figured prominently in the Tigers’ passing game since 2016 with Jordan Leggett, and that should change in a big way in 2020!
Perhaps the biggest question mark on the entire team this season is at offensive line, which must replace 4 starters from last season. The only returning starter is LT Jackson Carman, who could have an All-American season, but the new starters have plenty of experience under their belts. The Tigers have had a great run at the center position over the last 5 years, from Guillermo to Falcinelli to Pollard, and they hope that Cade Stewart is ready to carry the torch. All reports from camp have been very positive on Stewart. The new right tackle opposite Carman will be Jordan McFadden, who the coaches have been excited about for a long time. You can expect him to be playing on Sundays in a couple years. Joining Carman on the left side is fellow Ohio native Matt Bockhorst, who plays with a mean side that you love to see in offensive linemen. Rounding out the starting five will likely be Will Putnam, who has been very solid in practice. So there shouldn’t be much drop off, if any, from the starting group up front. However, the second group is a talented work in progress. Blake Vinson has the most experience of the backups, but he has had to battle injuries. It will likely be several games before Dabo is comfortable with his depth on the offensive line.
Finally, this may seem repetitive, but the Tigers might have the best quarterback room in the nation despite the loss of backup Chase Brice, who is now the starter at Duke. Trevor Lawrence was voted Preseason ACC Player of the Year and is just about everyone’s favorite for Heisman. He’s also been earmarked for the No.1 selection in the 2021 NFL Draft ever since he torched Alabama in January of 2019. Behind him, there is a nice competition going on between sophomore Taisun Phommachanh and true freshman DJ Uiagalelei. Dabo said that if there had been a spring game, he would have let Trevor sit out and watch the two backups go head to head. That didn’t happen, of course, and Dabo has not revealed whether one has moved ahead of the other. The competition will be ongoing, but if I had to guess, I’d say the elder Phommachanh will likely be the first of the two to see the field at Wake Forest, but the freshman will play about an equal amount. DJ has the higher upside and is likely the future of Clemson Football, but Taisun is a very capable dual-threat quarterback and has more wiggle to his run game than DJ has. It will be fun to watch them both under center this season!
The Tigers lost Co-Offensive Coordinator Jeff Scott, who is now the head coach at South Florida, but Dabo’s former WR Tyler Grisham has not missed a beat as the new WR Coach, and Tony Elliott will continue to be the primary play-caller. Expect this Clemson offensive unit to look like a well-oiled machine right out of the gates and light up the scoreboard all season long!
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