August 31, 1996. I was house sitting for my girlfriend’s brother, who was doing his residency in Spartanburg. He had doctor money and a big screen TV. Not an uncommon thing these days, but a luxury for a Clemson senior who ate Raman most of the week just so he could have one night a week at Colombo’s and chow down on their buffet.  He let me invite a couple friends to watch the Tigers open the season at North Carolina. The doctor didn’t have standard cable. Instead, he had a satellite system that didn’t carry local channels, so I had to pay to see the game on his big screen. I think it was about $8.99. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but that was a Colombo’s buffet right there.

Tommy West was in his 4th season as head coach at Clemson.  Mack Brown was in his 9th season at UNC and had the Tar Heels in the Top 10 of the preseason poll. You can probably guess how that game went. Carolina won 45-0. It stunk, but it was just the first game. Shook it off and moved on. Clemson eventually ended up in the Peach Bowl. Those days didn’t compare to the past six years of competing for championships, but Clemson could get thrashed by half a century, then fans moved on to the next one and had a short memory. If they did win a close game by a field goal, it was a win, and we celebrated.

Fast forward twenty-five years to a road victory over Syracuse by a field goal. As time expired, my wife asked if Clemson won. I said they had more points that the other team, but that was about as far as I could go.  Clemson won the game, but it didn’t feel like a victory. Once again, despite a very strong outing by the defense, the opponent had an opportunity to win the game on their last drive.. The offense scored two touchdowns but sputtered so many times that the defense got gassed and gave up an explosive scoring play. The defense can only hold up for so long if the offense can’t keep possession of the ball and put together drives. 

The woes of the offense have been well-documented and thoroughly discussed. I find myself more reflective of how I just couldn’t feel any excitement about this victory. Coach Swinney would probably lecture me about being appreciative of a victory. “We win, we dance.” I’m not part of the lunatic fringe – I have no problem with this team celebrating a win. I get it. It’s important for the team to keep their heads up, to build on the good things, to learn from mistakes and focus on things they can improve, and not get down on themselves for the things that aren’t going their way.

So why am I so blah about this?  I think it’s because I have resigned myself to the belief that things won’t improve unless changes are made, and those changes aren’t likely to happen anytime soon. I think at least one change needs to happen on the offensive staff. It’s time for Coach Caldwell to step down as offensive line coach. I assume Thomas Austin is next man up, and I am fine if that is the choice. Austin has minimal experience as an on-the-field line coach, but Clemson needs to try something else on the line. The players are clearly not prepared, poorly coached and their disorganization sticks out like a sore thumb. Even if the one game of evidence we have that Hunter Rayburn at center is an improvement, we are talking about a group that improved from a D- to a C- grade, at best, when Rayburn played. I am not sure if Coach Caldwell’s message is lost in translation, if his system is too challenging to grasp or something else, but what Clemson is doing clearly isn’t working, and it’s time to try something else.  I am undecided if a change should be made at wide receiver coach. You can make an argument that Coach Grisham did a great job last year without Ross, Ngata & Ladson last year. You can also make the argument that his group has underperformed this season. I need to see the balance of this year to see how things progress. It might simply be that we overrated the ability of these receivers this season. Ultimately, I do not think Coach Swinney will make any changes until after the season concludes, and I’m not 100% confident that he will make them then either.

The other change can happen sooner than later, but again, I lack confidence that Coach Swinney will make the change. The Tigers have tried multiple running backs this season. They have rotated several wide receivers. The starting tight end has changed. For multiple reasons, including injuries, we have seen almost our entire compliment of offensive lineman, including all three of the men that were vying for the center position all offseason. They are trying different personnel combinations to see what works best. Some work and some don’t, but they are making the effort, and I applaud them for trying. 

There is one more change they need to try. It is time to give Taisun Phommachanh and/or Hunter Helms a chance at quarterback with the first-string offense.  I understand that some things are beyond DJU’s control, but there is no way that you can call his performance this season anything other than below average. The reality is that Taisun is a more natural runner than DJU. He doesn’t have DJU’s arm strength, but we may find out that Taisun’s passes are easier to catch. We might find he makes better decisions. We might not. We might find he is no more effective than DJU. He might be even worse. Same for Helms. The point is that it is time to try. Clemson doesn’t have to bench DJU outright. They can give Taisun and/or Helms a drive or two a game and see how it goes.

I have already been shamed by the lunatic fringe for having the audacity to say the DJU is not playing well or that someone else might work better with this offensive group. The worst: how could I possibly question Coach Swinney and his staff? People I normally think of as being the level-headed voices have turned the snark up to eleven because I have dared to question Dabo’s performance.

I get it – the staff thinks DJU is the right choice.  They see them up close.  Their evaluations have been right a lot more often than they have been wrong, but they have been wrong at times.  After all, they told us all season that Bockhorst was our best choice at center.  They didn’t put Rayburn in against BC because he suddenly was playing better than Bock in practice.  The change was made because Will Putnam was injured.  Guess what? That was the best combination of players on the line we have seen this season. Like I said earlier, not world-changing, but the reality is our best option at center was on the bench this whole time. This was a miss by the staff.  People can get huffy about it if they want. It was a miss.  It happens. I haven’t lost confidence in the staff because of one misevaluation. I am simply saying they are human and can be wrong sometimes.  Maybe they are wrong about which quarterback will be most effective too.

Clemson Nation has too many closed minds right now.

I know you are disappointed in me, Coach Swinney. I am working to improve my outlook and perspective so I can take joy in a close victory on the road on a Friday night, but at this point, I am not certain we have put our best foot forward. I, and a lot of Clemson fans, would feel better knowing we have tried the other options we haven’t yet, because at this point, I think it is safe to say we just aren’t sure we are seeing Clemson’s best.  I know the lunatic fringe will say ‘Told ya!’ if it is a shot and a miss. I don’t care. Just please try.

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