Clemson took it on the nose against the Wolfpack in Raleigh this past Saturday. Not only did the Tigers lose the game in double overtime but starting defensive tackle Brian Bresee was lost for the season due to injury, star freshman running back Will Shipley was injured and will be out at least a month, and defensive point guard James Skalski was also injured. Bresee hurts bad because Tyler Davis is out with an injury until later in the season. Shipley stings because Lyn-J Dixon elected to transfer last week, meaning the Tigers have Kobe Pace, Mikey Dukes, and yet-unseen freshman Phil Mafah at running back until Shipley can return. The feedback on Skalski is that he should recover quickly, but this was another reminder that he has had a hard time with injuries during his career.
The results of these first four games for Clemson have been shocking to Tiger Nation, and the response has been quite varied. Of course, the squeaky wheels are the loudest, and there sure have been a lot of vocal detractors, some of whom have become angry enough that they attack the coaches and players with insults. Then you have the crowd at the other end of the spectrum that lashes out at anyone who dares to question the coaches or the players. This is what I call the lunatic fringe. It’s a small percentage of the fanbase, but every fanbase has one, and Clemson’s lunatic fringe does have healthy numbers compared to the average program.
Most fans are in the middle. They love the program and have come to trust the judgement of Coach Swinney and the staff. They aren’t the only ones: a significant number of the people who are considered experts – on-air personalities, beat writers, sports talking heads, recruiting experts – have clearly come to trust them as well. Even before DJU started two games, and played well, in relief of Trevor Lawrence, most analysts believed he would be the next great QB to helm the Clemson offense. Very few, if any, questioned if DJU was going to be successful. There were very few who didn’t have Clemson in their Top 5 coming into this season. I was one of them.
I am not an on-air personality, a beat writer, a sports talking head, or a recruiting expert. I am one of those fans that exist in the middle between the two extremes of the lunatic fringe. I do, however, write about the Clemson Tiger football team from the fans’ perspective, and college football in general, so I must admit I was one of those voices expecting Clemson to re-load and contend for a national title. I’m certainly not the loudest voice, but I must admit I am a small part of the reason fans are so disappointed right now. The voices and writers didn’t give the fanbase very good perspective this year. Most of us focused on the best-case scenario, just assuming that the worst-case scenario wouldn’t happen, because it’s Clemson.
The reality has set in now, however. We are one third of the way through the regular season, and Clemson is 2-2, and a game behind in the Atlantic Division. The Tigers would need to run the table in the ACC and hope NC State stumbled to two more conference losses just to make it to the conference championship game. Despite the optimism and hopes of the fanbase, there has been no light that has come on for the offense. The 2021 Clemson offense is on a dimmer switch that is stuck in low, and there doesn’t appear to be an immediate way to fix it, and us fans, including me, are sitting here wondering how we got here.
While there is the one end of the lunatic fringe that says even questioning the staff and players is harmful and should be off limits, the frank truth is it is very fair to question some of the decisions that have been made both this season and over the last few years. It is wrong to bash & lash, and that won’t happen here, but at this point some questions are long overdue, and if we had been asking them and being honest about the answers, maybe we would have seen this coming.
Is the offensive strategy outdated?
Coach Elliott has taken a lot of heat as you might imagine, and that shouldn’t be unexpected since he is the offensive coordinator, and has had that role, or shared it, since 2015. He has also been the play caller for the offense during that time. The balance in perspective that is needed to fairly analyze this question is that the Tigers have two national championships and six conference championships with Elliott as the offensive coordinator and play caller. The calls from the lunatic fringe calling for Elliott to be fired or re-assigned don’t make a lot of sense, but it is fair to question whether Clemson’s offensive system has become stale and uninspired.
One of the things that critics of Elliott point out is that Jeff Scott, who is currently the head coach of the USF Bulls, was Clemson’s passing game coordinator from 2015-2019. Scott also served as the co-offensive coordinator, and while Elliott was the primary play caller, Scott had a big role in the game plan. It is fair to say the passing game has not been the same since Scott left after the 2019 season, but you can even question if it was getting stale before that. With big & tall receivers like Mike Williams, Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, Clemson became very reliant on the 50/50 jump ball to get big chunks of yardage. The Tigers had the talent at receiver to pull this off, but also the talent at running back to keep the opponent’s defense honest. The offensive line wasn’t awe inspiring, but it got the job done. Today, Clemson lacks the offensive line and the running backs, and the opponent can now drop more defenders into coverage. Either the staff has taken the 50/50 ball out of the playbook, or DJU is unwilling to attempt those passes.
We need to go even further back, however. I am the first fan to say Chad Morris leaving Clemson for SMU was a blessing in disguise, because Morris was unwilling to adapt to his personnel, and instead insisted that his players adapt to him. It’s the biggest reason why Morris failed so miserably at Arkansas. Elliott & Scott, on the other hand, immediately took over for the bowl game and made Cole Stoudt look fantastic. The offense was still modeled after Morris’s system that had made Clemson unique and powerful, but it was customized. They created a game plan that fit exactly what Clemson had, and it worked brilliantly. Logically, they kept doing it, revamping the offense every season to fit the personnel they had on the field. It worked repeatedly, until this season when it suddenly fell flat. Now, we look at this offense and realize it really has very little in common with the Morris offense. Under Morris and in the first few seasons after he left, the Clemson offense often ran upwards of ninety snaps a game. Today, Clemson is usually in the sixties. Clemson used to have a myriad of options with wide receiver routes. Today, there is very little creativity. Some of that does have more to do with the kind of players that have been recruited, which we will touch on later. About the only thing the typical fan that can spot that hasn’t changed since the Morris days is that Clemson still doesn’t take snaps under center, and most fans would say that’s the one thing they wish Clemson would jettison.
Is it time for Coach Caldwell to retire?
Well, maybe yes. I am not a hater – I like Robbie Caldwell. I have always thought the offensive line coach should be an old school guy with a lot of experience, and Caldwell fit that mold for me. He also had a short experience as a head coach at Vanderbilt, and therefore has a resume bullet point that most position coaches don’t have. Nonetheless, we have seen the quality of the offensive line decrease over the last three seasons since the 2018 national title. Coach Caldwell is 67 years old, and it may be time. I don’t think this is an unexpected situation – Clemson has an analyst named Thomas Austin on staff, who played at Clemson from 2006 to 2009. Austin has a couple of seasons as an offensive line coach at Georgia State, leaving in early 2021 to join Swinney’s staff in an off-the-field role. It would seem Austin is being positioned to step in when Coach Caldwell retires. That honestly leads right into our next question.
Has Coach Swinney made wise decisions in his coaching hires?
This is one area where I have trusted blindly, even though there was a tiny red alert going off in my brain. It hasn’t been unusual for Coach Swinney to bring it position coaches that had limited experience. Coaches Bates, Hall & Conn had either limited experience or had mostly coached at lower levels before coming to Clemson. The one thing they all had in common was that they were Alabama alums, so I figured their hires were as much about their personalities as their resumes. Dabo was building a culture and it sure seemed to be working.
Coach Streeter was the one Clemson alum hired back in those days but that didn’t seem to be the reason he got the job. Streeter was experienced as an offensive coordinator at the FCS level, and had seen success at Richmond, so for someone with his resume to come in as a quarterback coach seemed very logical, and again appeared to work.
The coaching hires of late have led me to question if the staff is going too heavy on personality and ‘keeping it in the family’ instead of looking to add more knowledge and experience. When Coach Scott exited the program, Clemson promoted Tyler Grisham from his analyst position. He had been with the program since 2014, but never had a role as a position coach until he was hired to replace Scott as wide receiver coach. Next, Clemson added CJ Spiller as the running backs coach, which seemed on one side to be a home run, since he is a beloved Clemson athlete who was returning home to the Blue Ridge, and his promotion resulted in Danny Pearman moving into an analyst role, which didn’t disappoint many fans, as he had brought some negative press to Clemson in recent years. There is just one tiny detail – Spiller had zero on-field coaching experience before he became the running backs coach.
Now, as mentioned earlier, if Coach Caldwell retires, Clemson is likely to promote another alum from the analyst team in Austin. He does have a couple years of experience working as Georgia State’s offensive line coach, but that is minimal. I can’t help but notice that both Grisham and Spiller work on the offensive side of the ball, which is where Clemson is having problems. The defensive staff has a good amount of experience, but suddenly the offensive staff has very little, and if Austin’s promotion is inevitable, it will get even greener.
How well has this staff been evaluating & recruiting high school talent?
It is undeniable that Swinney’s staff have made some outstanding evaluations of high school talent in the last ten years, and all you must do is look at the number of alums currently playing in the NFL to recognize their success in this regard. It is a repeating theme, however: has this unprecedented success in recruiting led fans to trust some takes in the last few classes that have not worked out, and has Clemson been missing some components that they need to be successful?
Many analysts will tell you that Clemson’s offensive line has never been elite, but it has always been up to the task during Clemson’s first five seasons in the CFP. A point that has been made is that except for Mitch Hyatt, who started at left tackle as a freshman, Clemson has usually had a reliable rotation of players that often redshirted, played sparingly for their first couple seasons, and then rotated into the starting lineup as juniors and seniors. The offensive line has completely turned over since 2019. Our elder linemen – McFadden, Bockhorst & Putnam – have put in their time and as usual, the Clemson family respects them for their hard work, but we are at the point where we need to concede these three young men haven’t developed the same way linemen have in the past at Clemson. We shouldn’t be shocked by this: only Putnam was rated high by any recruiting service. McFadden was ranked overall in the 800’s in the 247 Composite, and Trotter wasn’t even ranked. Ironically, Putnam is usually the one pointed at as the biggest liability of the three. Additionally, there are only three of them: the only other players who are juniors or seniors are walk-ons. Every other scholarship lineman is a sophomore or freshman. Presently Clemson has a true sophomore in Parks and a freshman in Tate in the starting lineup. In hindsight, Clemson’s 2019 tiny class only included four offensive linemen, and one of them has already transferred. Tayquon Johnson moved from the D-Line to the O-Line, but we have no real evidence to indicate he can become a contributor. Right now, Johnson is injured. The 2018 class was a small class and only included two offensive linemen: McFadden and Jackson Carman, who left a year early for the NFL. Considering all this, we really should have seen this coming from a mile away.
The other unit getting raked over the coals is the wide receiver group. How could you not get excited about Justyn Ross coming back after missing an entire year to a medical condition? He’s going to play the slot? Take my money! Seriously, I was excited about this. Ross played some slot as a freshman and made some plays. Then again, I must reiterate that I am a mere fan who isn’t an expert, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. Clemson’s current receiver crew doesn’t have a player made for the slot. You can point out that Brannen Spector could have filled that role if he wasn’t hurt, and Troy Stellato might have seen more time if it wasn’t for injury, but that is truly speculative. The reality is that Clemson has loaded up on the big & tall receiver that is being neutralized right now because of the offensive line issues. Clemson could really use the next Artavis Scott & Hunter Renfrow right now, but unless Stellato can develop into that, that guy isn’t really on the roster right now. Segway…..
Has it been a mistake to avoid using the transfer portal?
I would argue that it has not been a mistake to avoid the portal to this point, because there have been risks associated with it. So much of what Coach Swinney and his staff have built at Clemson has been based on culture, and one of those points is that the Tigers don’t bring in transfers – if you commit to them as a high school player, they will commit to you as a college player. Clemson’s culture doesn’t always appeal to everyone, but it has seemed to appeal to the right kind of player for the Tigers. When I graduated from Clemson, there was a well-known company in my field that was known for only hiring recent college grads. They didn’t want people from other companies – they only wanted entry-level employees who they could train and immerse in their culture, and they only promoted from within. Those positions were highly sought (I didn’t get one if you were wondering).
I have always had faith in that philosophy of the Clemson staff, but I would agree the logic of using the portal for certain purposes has become apparent in the last couple of years. The most visible area was backup quarterback this past offseason when we thought Taisun would be out for the entire year. Now, quickly I will point out that the lunatic fringe has been re-writing history lately saying that the real failure here is that we didn’t find someone to compete in fall camp with DJU, but that is, like I said, lunacy from the fringe. No one was saying we should be finding someone to compete with DJU, but there were calls for more experience & warm bodies in the room. I would like to think the coaching staff knew all along that Taisun was pointing towards a quick recovery, because I don’t think there was ever much chance that Bubba Chandler was going to play quarterback at Clemson. Others have pointed out that it would have been difficult to bring anything more than a warm body in because any transfer would have known they were coming in to be a backup.
I do still believe the primary reluctance was based in the philosophy of bringing in only high school recruits. Homework may have been done, but it wasn’t likely to be acted upon, in my opinion, and here is why: we can see the potential to bring in a transfer has been there for the offensive line and the slot receiver position for a couple years at least. Because those positions haven’t gotten much scrutiny until this past year at earliest, it slipped under the radar. Should it have slipped under the radar for the staff? No, it shouldn’t, but the reality is we don’t know if it did or didn’t. Danny Pearman has been designated as the person responsible for reviewing portal candidates for transfer, so for all we know, offensive line and slot receiver have been areas he has kept an eye on. The foundation to start using the portal may very well be in place, and they are simply waiting for the approval from the top to begin using it. That may come soon. If fans like me are questioning, it might not be long before the players and the high school recruits begin to question if Clemson’s no transfer policy is hurting the Tigers on the field.
Self-reflection is healthy for everyone, and in Tiger Nation’s current position, asking questions like this can be helpful to everyone. One thing I try really hard to do when writing for Seldom Used Reserve is to avoid using ‘we’ or ‘us’ when talking about Clemson, but the reality is that the fans are a huge part of the Clemson family. We all know the ACC doesn’t bring as much money as the other power conferences. Clemson keeps their athletic programs where they are because the fanbase is the most supportive in the nation. Fans should always be level-headed and avoid the bashing & lashing of the lunatic fringe, but it is alright to question the program in which they invest so much money, time, and heart. Questioning by the fans may not truly influence Coach Swinney and the others in charge, because they are the experts, not us, but being more critical may help us, the fans, avoid the shock and disappointment we are all feeling right now. Understanding that not everything has been going great for the last few seasons helps us stay grounded.
Also, remembering it is just a game and the sun will come up tomorrow will help too.