Ahead of this weekend’s meeting with the mighty Clemson Tigers, Gobbler Country had the chance to catch up with Tom Dianora of our sister site, Shakin the Southland, to give me the rundown on all things Clemson.
It was a fun chat as Tom enlightened us on a number of Clemson topics such as Trevor Lawrence, Tony Elliott as a possible fit at Virginia Tech and some of the Hokies’ recruiting misses in recent years, among other things.
Is there a chance Trevor Lawrence returns for one more season?
I don’t think so. Lawrence has said there’s no reason for him to say with 100% certainty that he’s leaving after this season, but I think that’s the way he’s going to go. He recorded a thank-you message for fans after the Tigers’ most recent game against Pitt, as it was presumably his last game in Death Valley. He also said going into the season that in his mind, this was likely going to be his final season. In addition, Lawrence is set to graduate, and he is nearly a slam-dunk to be the No. 1 overall pick in the next NFL Draft. So coming back would not make any sense, as much as I’d love to keep watching him play for the Tigers.
How good do you believe DJ Uiagalelei will be? Does he follow in the footsteps of Boyd, Watson and Lawrence as Clemson’s next star passer?
I think DJ (let’s just call him that for now...or we can call him by his nickname, Big Cinco, haha) will indeed be Clemson’s next superstar quarterback. As a true freshman, he looked excellent stepping in for Lawrence for two games, when Lawrence was dealing with COVID-19. He bailed out an injured and underperforming defense in leading a comeback against Boston College, and then kept a similarly shorthanded Clemson team in the game against Notre Dame. Despite the Tigers ultimately losing that contest in double overtime, it was not at all Big Cinco’s fault, as his 439 passing yards were an all-time high for any quarterback against Notre Dame. He is extremely poised and calm, and he has an absolute cannon of a throwing arm to go along with some formidable size (6-foot-4, 250 pounds) that can make him a threat in the power run game. While I will obviously miss Lawrence, I am very excited for DJ’s future as Clemson’s next star quarterback. Clemson fans have definitely been spoiled in getting to watch these QBs over the years.
Where do you see Travis Etienne’s NFL potential? I have enjoyed watching his career and I think he has done things this year that make him an even better pro prospect come April.
It’s hard to gauge how running backs will do in the NFL nowadays, as they appear to spend less and less time in the league. That being said, I think Etienne has great NFL potential. While his rushing numbers have taken a hit this year, it’s through no fault of his own, as Clemson’s offensive line has, frustratingly, been very poor in run blocking all year. So there shouldn’t really be any concerns over his rushing capabilities. To your point, he has further rounded out the other parts of his game this season, making him a more complete running back and a better NFL prospect. He has 40 receptions this season for 511 yards, which are both career-highs, as is his 12.8-yards-per-catch average. Etienne first emerged as a significant pass-catching threat last season, and has built on that this season. Given the aforementioned struggles of the offensive line, it’s been a great way to get him out in space, where he is lethal.
Etienne has also added more strength and muscle to his frame over the years, and has become an improved pass blocker, which is something he could barely do at all as a freshman. So it’s been great to see him grow.
Outside of Amari Rodgers, who are Clemson’s primary weapons we should know about?
Rodgers is definitely having a great season, as he is fully healthy and someone Clemson can deploy in a plethora of different ways. As for other receiving weapons, besides Etienne emerging as a threat out of the backfield, fifth-year senior Cornell Powell has really stepped up this season, especially lately. He has had at least 100 receiving yards in each of the past three games, including 160-plus in each of the last two. His emergence has been vitally important, as other presumed WR weapons this season—sophomores Frank Ladson and Joseph Ngata—have barely been able to stay on the field because of injuries.
Other guys to keep an eye on in the receiving game are tight ends Braden Galloway and Davis Allen, each of whom Clemson has sprinkled into the offense throughout the season, but not quite to the extent that I’d personally like to see. I would also look for highly-touted freshman WR E.J. Williams to continue to play more of a factor in the offense; he has 15 catches on the season and hauled in his first career touchdown last week to open the scoring against Pitt.
I want to pick your brain on the coaching staff. What are the chances Tony Elliott or Brent Venables leave Clemson? With Venables, it seems unlikely, but do you think Elliott is ready for a head coaching gig? He seems like a great place to look for the Hokies, if there is a vacancy.
I agree that Venables seems more likely to stay with Clemson for the long-term. He seems genuinely content as a defensive coordinator, and is paid very well for someone in that role. I get the sense that he doesn’t have the head coaching itch like many others do, and is happy where he is. But it’s always possible that changes.
Elliott, on the other hand, seems more likely to leave sometime in the relatively near future. Clemson has had great continuity in its coaching staff since becoming an elite national program over the past number of years—more so than most other programs that reach this level, as their coaching staffs are often poached. But co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott took the South Florida head coaching job after last season, leaving the OC responsibilities solely to Elliott. Perhaps Elliott will be the next Clemson coach to leave for a head coaching gig. I certainly think he is ready, despite the fact that I somewhat often yell at my TV when I watch his play calls unfold.
If the Hokies oust Fuente and thus are looking for a new head coach, I think Elliott would be a great fit. Beyond just his offensive schemes, he could help instill the types of cultural hallmarks that have been a huge part of making Clemson the program it is today. Selfishly, I want him to stay, but unselfishly, it’d be cool to see him get a head coaching opportunity, and it being at a place like Virginia Tech would definitely make it more palatable for me.
Obviously Bryan Bresee has been outstanding, but who are some of Clemson’s top freshmen this season?
Bresee is definitely fun to watch, and it’s exciting to think about how much he’ll improve over the next couple of years. His fellow freshman on the defensive line, five-star recruit Myles Murphy, has also had an excellent season; his 3.5 sacks are tied for the team lead. Freshman linebacker Trenton Simpson has also shown flashes of great athleticism, but he is still pretty raw and needs to refine his game. He’s been thrust into more action than Clemson would like this year because of some injuries at the linebacker position, but the Tigers are starting to get healthy.
On the other side of the ball, I mentioned wide receiver E.J. Williams, and then of course there’s Big Cinco as Lawrence’s backup QB.
We all love recruiting (well, in our case have had our hearts broken far too often), and Virginia Tech has recruited a number of current Tigers. Jordan Williams and KJ Henry come to mind. How are those players doing? Have they lived up to expectations?
Yes, Clemson does like recruiting out of Virginia; Tajh Boyd and Clelin Ferrell are some big names from the past that come to mind. As for Jordan Williams and KJ Henry, I would say that for me, they have both fallen a bit short of expectations, but they are still reasonably effective players overall. Williams, a redshirt junior, has been surpassed by Bresee at this point, and as such, only has six total tackles on the season. I had very high hopes for Henry (now a redshirt sophomore), but he has yet to emerge as a consistently disruptive force at the DE position. Still, he has accumulated 15 total tackles and 2.5 sacks this season, so he’s definitely flashed at times, but I had very high expectations given how big of a recruit he was. There is still time for him to find another level, and hopefully he does next season (assuming/hoping he returns).
Also, Sheridan Jones and Malcolm Greene? How are they doing?
Jones has quietly been a very effective cornerback for the Tigers this year. I guess when you’re a corner and your name isn’t mentioned frequently, that’s actually often a good thing. He’s only a sophomore, so I’m looking forward to him continuing to improve and be solid in coverage for Clemson. He actually missed last Saturday’s game against Pitt, but should be back for this weekend’s game against the Hokies.
Greene, a freshman corner, actually had his best game of the season most recently against Pitt, as he was thrust into more action given the absences of Jones and Derion Kendrick (the latter of whom was in coach Dabo Swinney’s doghouse love shack, as he called it.) He had an interception and three total tackles, and was active all day long. For a defense that’s been battling injuries for much of the season and was shorthanded in the secondary again against Pitt, it was great that Greene was able to step up.
Do you believe this season’s national championship comes down to Alabama and Clemson once again?
Hard to say, especially in this weird 2020 season, and with some concerns (i.e., run blocking) I have with the Tigers this year more so than I’ve had in other years. But that’s where I’d place my bet. I think Alabama and Clemson are the two best teams, even if they are not quite the best versions of themselves compared to what we’ve seen in recent years. Clemson’s loss to Notre Dame was frustrating, but besides Lawrence being out, the Tigers’ defense was extremely shorthanded, and yet it still took an almost-miraculous final regulation drive, and two overtimes, for the Irish to squeak by a diet Clemson team at home. Assuming the Tigers are healthy for a potential (obligatory use of the word “potential” so I don’t seem too assumptive about this Saturday’s game ;)) ACC championship game rematch against Notre Dame, I’d expect a much different outcome. And then, who knows? Clemson might have to play Notre Dame for a third time in the playoff.
The wild card to me is Ohio State. The Buckeyes look very talented, but they might have trouble even getting into the playoff given their shortage of games, and their defense looks more vulnerable than it did last year. So it’ll definitely be interesting to see what happens with them. But again, if I had to bet on which national championship game matchup would manifest itself this season, I would say Alabama vs. Clemson...again.
This was a great look into the 2020 Clemson Tigers and we want to thank Tom again for his time.