Season Outlook: Clemson offense loaded for title run in 2020
|Sunday, September 6, 2020, 8:01 AM-|
One year after Clemson returned a school-record 61 lettermen for the 2018 season, the Tigers entered the 2019 campaign with a roster that included 80 freshmen and sophomores. Clemson’s 2020 squad is a mixture of youth and experience, as Clemson once again expects 61 returning lettermen, yet still features a roster that includes 78 players classified as freshmen or sophomores.
Clemson opens its 125th season at Wake Forest on Sept. 12, and the Tigers enter with a combination of lethal talent and experience at some key positions alongside an exciting collection of youth ready to excel as opportunities become available.
Let’s take a look at the offensive outlook, courtesy of the Clemson Football Media Guide:
Clemson enters 2020 in the midst of one of the most prolific stretches of offense in college football history. One year after scoring a school-record 664 points in 2018, Clemson scored 659 points in 2019. Clemson now accounts for two of the 22 650-point seasons in major college football history, including two of only 16 since Division I split in 1978. Clemson was the first school with back-to-back 650-point seasons since Yale in 1888-89. Yale’s accomplishments predated the start of official NCAA recordkeeping in 1937, and the second year of their feat (1889) was coincidentally the year Clemson was founded.
Clemson’s offensive stability got a somewhat-unexpected boost on Jan. 17, four days following the national championship game, when running back Travis Etienne (Jennings, La.) announced his intention to return for his senior season. Through his first three seasons, Etienne had already cemented his status in Clemson and ACC history, becoming Clemson’s all-time leading rusher and its first 4,000-yard rusher while also securing ACC records for career rushing touchdowns, career total touchdowns and career points by a non-kicker. Now, Etienne, who was the first running back to win back-to-back ACC Player of the Year honors since Mike Voight (North Carolina) in 1975-76, will attempt to become the first three-time winner in ACC history and join Herschel Walker, a three-time SEC Player of the Year from 1980-82, as the only players to win conference player of the year honors three times in a career.
But Clemson’s returning production is not limited to the man wearing #9. Returning for his third campaign at Clemson is junior quarterback Trevor Lawrence (Cartersville, Ga.), who enters 2020 with a 25-1 career record as a starter and the highest winning percentage among qualified quarterbacks in school history (.961). Lawrence has completed 527-of-804 passes for 6,945 yards and 66 touchdowns in his 30-game career, including his first four career contests, when he entered in reserve. The dynamic passing/rushing combination of Lawrence and Etienne represents one of the most productive returning duos in of college football history.
Of the 139 career 4,000-yard rushers in FBS history, only 14 accrued 4,000 yards prior to their final season. Of those 14, only two returned alongside a career 6,000-yard passer, placing the 2020 Clemson Tigers alongside the 2018 Washington Huskies (Jake Browning, Myles Gaskin) and 2001 Oregon State Beavers (Jonathan Smith, Ken Simonton) as the only programs in FBS history to return a duo with a 6,000-yard passer and 4,000-yard rusher.
The composition of Clemson’s quarterback room has changed for 2020, as Lawrence will no longer be backed up by Chase Brice, who will finish his career at Duke. The position behind Lawrence could be contested by a pair of freshmen, including redshirt freshman Taisun Phommachanh (Bridgeport, Conn.), who appeared in three contests while redshirting in 2019, as well as true freshman D.J. Uiagalelei (Inland Empire, Calif.), who enrolled in January after signing as a consensus top-10 recruit in the 2020 class. With Etienne’s return, Clemson’s running backs group returns entirely intact. Junior Lyn-J Dixon (Butler, Ga.) has been extraordinarily productive in limited opportunities while spelling Etienne over the past two seasons, ranking second in Clemson history and seventh in ACC history among qualified players in yards per carry (7.12). The group also benefits from the leadership of former walk-on Darien Rencher (Anderson, S.C.), a fifth-year senior who is one of the program’s top vocal leaders on and off the field.
Wide Receiver U added another to its NFL ranks in April, as Tee Higgins was selected 33rd in 2020 NFL Draft. Higgins used an explosive junior season in 2019 to help catapult him into a tie for Clemson’s record for career receiving touchdowns (27) and into consideration as a potential first-round NFL Draft pick. Clemson will be without the services of another potential first round pick at wide receiver, as junior Justyn Ross (Phenix City, Ala.) was expected to be Clemson’s receiving leader among returning players with 112 career catches for 1,865 yards and 12 touchdowns, but will miss the 2020 season after surgery was required after spring tests revealed a congenital fusion and a bulging disc.
One of the veteran voices in the receivers room belongs to senior Amari Rodgers (Knoxville, Tenn.). Rodgers’ diligent rehab from an ACL tear in the spring of 2019 produced a near-miraculously quick recovery, as he returned to game action 166 days later in Clemson’s second game and finished 2019 with 627 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns (including one via rush).
The versatile slot receiver and returner is expected to ditch his knee brace in 2020 and is one of only five Clemson players since 2000 to record a touchdown by rush, reception and punt return in a career. Beyond Rodgers, Clemson’s receiving corps features a number of returning players - younger and older - ready for larger roles. That group includes fifth-year senior Cornell Powell (Greenville, N.C.), senior Will Swinney (Clemson, S.C.), sophomores Frank Ladson Jr. (Miami, Fla.) and Joseph Ngata (Folsom, Calif.) and redshirt freshman Brannon Spector (Calhoun, Ga.). Clemson’s tight end unit saw a boost in production in last year’s College Football Playoff upon the return of Braden Galloway (Seneca, S.C.).
Galloway, now a junior, had a key downfield block on Lawrence’s 67-yard touchdown run against Ohio State and then caught two passes for 60 yards - including a career-long 42-yarder - against Louisiana State. Fifth-year senior J.C. Chalk (Argyle, Texas) started 14 of Clemson’s 15 games at the position last season, playing 415 offensive snaps, while original walk-on Luke Price (Dillon, S.C.) transitioned to the position admirably after opening his career at linebacker. The group has an influx of youth as well, returning sophomore Davis Allen (Calhoun, Ga.) and redshirt freshman Jaelyn Lay (Atlanta, Ga.) while welcoming midyear enrollee Sage Ennis (Graceville, Fla.).
A year ago, Clemson started four seniors along the offensive line, its first time doing so for the majority of a season since 2007. All five starters earned AllACC honors, with the four seniors all collecting either first- or second-team selections. The group that has produced 22 all-conference selections in the last five seasons (the most in the Power Five) will look to continue its recent run of trench domination with a largely fresh cast of characters.
The lone returning starter on the offensive line is left tackle Jackson Carman (Fairfi eld, Ohio), a 2019 third-team All-ACC honoree who seamlessly stepped into the position held previously by All-American four-year starter Mitch Hyatt.
He is expected to be joined on the line by the other Ohio native on the roster, redshirt junior Matt Bockhorst (Cincinnati, Ohio), who played 421 snaps at guard a season ago, including rotating in capably for fourth round NFL draft pick John Simpson. The other side of the line could be anchored by redshirt sophomore Jordan McFadden (Spartanburg, S.C.), who has played 332 snaps in 17 career games, 315 of which came in 14 games last season. Blake Vinson (Ocala, Fla.) could compete at a myriad of offensive line positions as well after missing most of 2019 with a patella injury.
Spots on the interior of Clemson’s line were heavily contested in the shortened spring among a group that includes fifth-year senior Cade Stewart (Six Mile, S.C.), sophomore Will Putnam (Tampa, Fla.) and redshirt freshmen Hunter Rayburn (Pensacola, Fla.), Mason Trotter (Roebuck, S.C.) and Kaleb Boateng (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). The group also includes six scholarship signees from Clemson’s 2020 recruiting class, the most offensive line signees in a single class under Swinney