At my peak running the site Clemsonpaws, I was spending 25 tedious hours a week going through film and charting plays, formations, scheme, and personnel performance. I think that film work is essential to really know what you’re talking about. I’m no longer putting in that kind of work, but I also still like to bring my opinions of Clemson football to the surface every now and then. I am a diehard fan after all.
2021 gave us a perfect storm of offensive problems for the Tigers that converged in a way where a top 10 team in offensive talent finished September with the 114th ranked offensive production. Most of the problems were glaring and obvious and certainly didn’t require hours of film work. So here, I’m going to discuss a couple things that weren’t talked about by the Clemson universe.
The most important contributor of having a perfect storm like this can be identified by asking yourself a simple question. Which offensive veterans showed up in 2021 improved from 2020? It’s a very short list, right? Basically, Ngata and maybe Pace. Now, how many regressed?
Players have a 7-month offseason where coaches are limited from working with them and 5-months where coaches can work with them. At the end of the day, players are required to motivate and dedicate themselves in the off season whether it be by personal initiative or player-led leadership. We’re conditioned to always blame coaching, but it’s often accurate to blame the players for their own complacency. The key offensive players need to take most of the accountability for this regression. All the other culprits (inexperience, injuries, playcalling, scheme) were exaggerated by poor individual preparation for the 2021 season.
If you saw the defensive improvement from 2020 to 2021, you saw what the exact opposite looks like. Two years in a row, the defensive side was embarrassed and humbled in the CFP. The national narrative was that the offense could do their part, but the defense could not stop the elite offenses. The defense returned in 2021 with complete improvement across the depth chart and within every position group. That side of the ball also dealt with the same debilitating injuries the offense did but were in no need of such excuses. Unfortunately for them and Tiger Nation, we didn’t get to see this defense avenge ‘19 and ‘20 in the CFP. They were able to hold the one playoff team they faced, also the eventual national champion by the way, out of the endzone. I couldn’t be happier with how they rebounded this year.
So, let’s go ahead and dig into the offensive issues and start with a philosophy change that I have never seen mentioned in Clemson media.
Circa 2018, the staff made a decision to alter the role of the 2WR. This is the WR that lines up outside on the wide side of the field. You will remember 2WRs Sammy Watkins, Artavis Scott, and Ray Ray McCloud on sweeps, screens, motions, and other Wing T-style principles that Chad Morris brought in.
In 2018, the staff made a decision I 100% supported at the time. They stopped recruiting the prototypical 2WR and changed its role in the offense. Amari Rodgers was the last prototypical 2WR on the roster and he was eventually moved to 5WR (the slot). Derion Kendrick was moved to CB in 2019. Cornell Powell was benched in 2019. This move was made in favor of having a 2nd 9WR-type (ie. D.Hopkins, M. Williams, T.Higgins, J.Ross) on the wide side of the field.
Why do this? One of the reasons they did this is because they became able to consistently land 6’3” NFL-style freakshow WRs as well as 6’4” 5-Star QBs. The other reason is because having two elite 50/50 ball threats on either side of the field would stop the two main ways the offense was being defended by opponents. First, it would move the SS out of the box and into the deep half. This would help production in the run game. It would also make the defense pay for rotating coverage to the 9WR. If the defense tries to stop the run with numbers by bringing down a safety, the 2WR would get a one-on-one matchup (ie. 50/50 deep ball) anytime they want (and almost every first down). You may remember the complete obliteration of Alabama’s defense in 2018 with 9WRs Higgins and Ross on the field together.
This plan worked as expected the following year. The 2019 team with Higgins and Ross became the most efficient offense of the Dabo-era at 7.38 yards per play and Trevor Lawrence had the highest yards per attempt of the Dabo era at 9.4. Unfortunately, since 2019, this strategy has failed to deliver the same elite level results. I see 5 reasons why.
- A very poor run blocking OL in 2020 and most of 2021. You actually have to have a run game that would make the defense want to bring the safety down in the first place. The defense won’t bring the safety down if they can stop the run with the front 6.
- Failure to develop elite WRs from the 2018-2020 recruiting classes. Other than Ross, who missed 2020 and was not the same in 2021, the Hopkins/Mike Dub/Higgins quality wasn’t there. This is evidenced by Cornell Powell being able to beat out Ngata and Ladson in 2020 even though they were gifted all his reps in 2019.
- Poor QB play in 2021. DJ Uiagalelei was shockingly bad and unprepared. His 6.0 yards per attempt were the worst of the Dabo era (even worse than Cole Stoudt’s 6.3 ypa in 2014).
- Failure to develop a 5WR that commands respect underneath like Hunter Renfrow. Renfrow graduated in 2018 and we have yet to replace what he did, although Rogers was very productive in other ways from the slot. Brannon Spector and Troy Stellato were recruited to play the 5WR and haven’t seen meaningful snaps as of yet. Beaux Collins was productive here at the end of the season, but in a way similar to Rogers.
- Failure to develop an elite TE threat in the passing game since Leggett left in 2016. Braden Galloway was one of those who regressed in 2021. Schematically, the staff seems to ignore the TE for long stretches as well.
So, what we’ve had is less elite level personnel in 2020 and 2021 than we had from 2015-2019 in a scheme that can’t function without it.
The staff moved to correct the WR makeup in November when they offered Antonio Williams. Williams is the first 2WR-type we’ve signed in years. The staff clearly understands they have to have the versatility provided by speedy jitterbugs who can run routes, get open, and do damage after the catch. A great offense will challenge all areas of the field and not just the deep thirds. As we saw this year, Georgia Tech has enough talent to scheme that up.
My opinion of some of the other narrative out there:
Wasted scholarships on walk-ons, nepotism, and 5-Hearts are holding Clemson back.
While I respect the opinions of a lot of the people making this claim, this is a non-starter for me that should’ve died after the first National Championship, let alone the 2nd Natty and the 6 straight playoff appearances.
The things that a highly successful organization are doing differently than others are more likely to be the distinguishing factors making them great, than they are likely to be the problem. In this case, Dabo’s differences are clearly designed to be unifying factors within the organization. This is the culture of “walking the walk” when it comes to touting motivational concepts like family, hard work, being all in, and togetherness. He shows the team with his actions that what they are doing is bigger than the sport of college football. This is the methodology of how the results become greater than the sum of the parts. That’s the Holy Grail in team sports. This is why a countless number of programs openly admit they are trying to find their “Dabo.”
I think many smart people can under-value the emotional component of team building. This feeds into the logical, but purely hypothetical theory that if you just take the emotion out of it and go by the star rating, the team will get better not worse. Yet, many other programs are doing exactly that, and not having anywhere near the same sustained success as Dabo and Clemson.
Oh yeah, but what about Saban?
You can absolutely argue that there is one, and only one, program out there with more sustained success in college football that is doing that, but invoking Saban validates Dabo’s methodology. Yes, Alabama is the top college football program of all time with their greatest coach of all time…and Dabo beat them twice for the National Championship. Dabo is younger and has more rings than Saban did at the same age which means, if he’s not done learning, his methodology is currently on schedule to end up passing Saban one day. Furthermore, if you invoke Saban without invoking all the other schools doing what you want less successfully, you have a theory based entirely off of a single outlier that Dabo is still out-performing at a similar age. Again, this argument is a non-starter for me.
I do agree that Dabo should fully evaluate opportunities within the transfer portal, but I understand why he might be hesitant to just bring in “anybody with talent” for the same reasons I just listed about scholarships. It would be interested to see him to bring in an OL or two from the portal and then have them explain the differences between Clemson and their previous program. Perhaps that could get to the bottom of some of the theories about the lackluster OL performance we’ve had for years.
What about the new coaches?
So, this is great because we are going to get to see Dabo’s culture and succession plan come to fruition now. All of the things I just wrote about scholarships above also apply to how Dabo replaces departing members of his staff. This is another uniquely Dabo move and we’ll see if this method works over the next couple of years. We had our first look at this succession plan when Elliot and Scott replaced Chad Morris. The next year, Clemson began their run of 6 straight playoff appearances. Was that just good fortune or should that be the expectation?
Losing the OC and DC in the same offseason (and DL and OL) is not to be scoffed at, especially if one of them was the best DC in the game. However, I do think there was some staleness creeping into the program, and I’m hoping this puts the chip on the shoulder of the program back to where they feel like they have something to prove.