In the increasingly inequitable world of college football, what separates the bourgeoisie from the proletariat is an ability to reload, rather than rebuild. In building a dynasty at Clemson — the Tigers have made the College Football Playoff six straight years, winning it all in 2016 and 2018 — Dabo Swinney has demonstrated the ability to do just that.
Notably, Swinney orchestrated an efficient reload in 2018. Then, Clemson faced the predicament of replacing its top four offensive players from the 2017 season, including starting quarterback Deshaun Watson, running back Wayne Gallman, and top two wide receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott. In came true freshman Trevor Lawrence, who led Clemson to a 15-0 season and its second national championship in three years.
The 2021 season presents an almost identical scenario. In addition to losing Trevor Lawrence, the presumptive number one pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Tigers lose running back Travis Etienne. Etienne, a two-time All-American (2018, 2020) and two-time ACC Player of the Year (2018, 2019), is a projected first-round NFL Draft pick. Clemson also loses wide receivers Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell. Cumulatively, Lawrence, Etienne, Rodgers, and Powell accounted for 82% of Clemson’s yardage and 75% of its touchdowns during the 2020 season.
For most teams, losing that kind of production and talent would presage a dip in expectations, the following season. But not for Clemson. In its way-too-early preseason rankings, ESPN ranked Clemson #1 going into the 2021 season, ahead of defending-champion Alabama and runner-up Ohio State. In large part, their preseason hype is owed to sophomore quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, the presumptive heir apparent to Trevor Lawrence.
Like Lawrence, D.J. Uiagaelelei was ranked the number one quarterback in his recruiting class out of high school. Listed at 6’4, 250 pounds, Uiagalelei compiled an impressive resume as a three-year starter for St. John Bosco High School, located in Bellflower, California. In total, he threw for 10,496 yards and 127 touchdowns.
USA Today named him National Offensive Player of the Year as a junior. As a senior, he led the Braves to a 13-1 record and the California Class 7A state championship. Rivals ranked him the #1 overall quarterback and its #2 player overall, behind only fellow Clemson commit Bryan Bresee, a defensive tackle from Damascus, Maryland.
True Freshman Season
Trevor Lawrence’s bout with covid-19 forced Uiagalelei into action earlier than anticipated. He shined in the spotlight. In his first start against Boston College, the true freshman completed 30 of 41 passes for two touchdowns (no interceptions) and 342 yards. He also ran for a touchdown. In the process, Uiagalelei led Clemson to its largest comeback win (18 points) in Memorial Stadium history. In doing so, he joined Watson and Lawrence as the only true freshman quarterbacks to win their starting debuts at Clemson.
Despite losing the following week at #4 Notre Dame, Uiagalelei broke records in his second start. He completed 29 of 44 passes for 439 yards and two touchdowns against the Irish. His 439 yards passing broke the all-time record for passing by a Notre Dame opponent, a record previously held by USC quarterback Carson Palmer, who threw for 422 against Notre Dame in 2002. He also broke the Clemson record for passing yardage by a true freshman, breaking the record of 435 set by DeShaun Watson in 2014.
Vegasinsider.com lists Uiagalelei at +900 to win the 2021 Heisman Trophy. That puts him fourth in line as the betting favorite, behind only incumbent quarterbacks Spencer Rattler (Oklahoma), Bryce Young (Alabama), and Sam Howell (UNC).
All that before turning twenty. Expectations are high. But if anyone can adequately replace Trevor Lawrence, Uiagalelei sounds like the guy.
The Rest of the Tigers
Uiagalelei should reap the protection of a veteran line. Clemson returns three of its starting offensive lineman from a season ago, including OT Jordan McFadden, OG Matt Bockhorst, and OG Will Putnam. Sophomore Walker Parks looks to step into a starting role at OT. Going into spring camp, competition for the starting center spot remains a race to watch.
Despite losing weapons Rodgers and Powell, Clemson should also benefit from the return of several receivers from injury. Notably, Jordyn Ross returns from surgery for a congenital fusion in his spine. After leading Clemson receivers with 66 catches, 865 yards, and 8 touchdowns as a freshman in 2019, Ross missed the 2020 season due to his surgery. Frank Ladson and Joseph Ngata also look to return from injuries.
Replacing Etienne at Running Back
Perhaps the most interesting battle in spring ball will be that for top dog in the Tigers’ backfield. Replacing Travis Etienne, the ACC’s all-time leader in rushing yards, scoring, total touchdowns, and rushing touchdowns, will likely comprise Clemson’s biggest offseason challenge. The battle will be overseen by new running backs coach C.J. Spiller.
Senior Lyn-J Dixon boasts the most experience. He enters 2021 with 1,372 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, total, but saw his workload decrease last season. Junior Chez Mellusi made some big runs last season. He will compete with Darien Rencher, Phil Mafah, Kobe Pace, Michel Dukes, and Will Shipley for carries.
Improbably, Clemson returns all eleven starters on a defense that led the NCAA in sacks and led the ACC in total defense a year ago. In January, LB James Skalski, CB Derion Kendrick, and S Nolan Turner all announced their decision to return to Clemson, making that possible. Skalski, who will play an unprecedented sixth year due to covid-19 allowances, looks to be the veteran leader of the group. Kendrick, a five-star recruit and projected first-round draft pick in the 2021 Draft, might be the most talented; he should be a lockdown corner.
Bryan Bresee, the only recruit ranked ahead of D.J. Uiagalelei in 2019, leads the defensive line. At 6’5, 300 pounds, Bresee had 33 tackles, 4 sacks, a forced fumble, and safety in his freshman campaign. He was named ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year, becoming only the second player to achieve that feat in Clemson history (Dexter Lawrence 2016). As a group, Clemson’s 2021 defense might be Brett Venables’ best unit ever.
The Rich Get Richer
Clemson isn’t going anywhere. In fact, they might be getting better. That is par for the course in college football, these days, where the rich get richer and parity is something used only when discussing college basketball.