Tiger offense set to roar into record books

CU Athletic Communications

Two dominant themes of Clemson’s record-setting offensive performance a year ago were balance and explosiveness, both of which should feature prominently again for the Tigers in 2019.

In terms of balance, Clemson’s 2018 campaign joined the 2015 season as one of only two in school history to feature 4,000 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards. Clemson, Oklahoma and UCF were the only FBS programs in the country to average at least 245 yards passing and 245 yards rushing per game in 2018.

The balance was reflected not only in the team’s run/pass production, but also in the sheer number of players who contributed to the team’s scoring output. A school-record 22 different players scored touchdowns for the Tigers in 2018.

Clemson’s explosiveness was reflected in its school-record 7.35 yards per play average, which shattered the previous record of 6.50 from 2006. The Tigers ranked in the top two in the nation in plays of 20-plus yards (104, second), 30-plus yards (59, tied for first), 40-plus yards (35, first), 50-plus yards (23, first) and 60-plus yards (13, tied for second). They also recorded a school-record 19 touchdowns covering 50 yards or more, annihilating the previous record of 14 set by the 2006 squad. Players who scored 18 of those 19 touchdowns of 50 yards or more a year ago return for Clemson in 2019.

Given the prominence placed on the position and his success as a true freshman a season ago, the eyes of college football will likely fall on sophomore Trevor Lawrence (Cartersville, Ga.), who completed 259-of-397 passes for 3,280 yards with 30 touchdowns and four interceptions in 15 games (11 starts). A repeat performance in 2019 would make Lawrence only the third quarterback in Clemson history with multiple 3,000-yard, 30-touchdown campaigns, joining Tajh Boyd (three) and Deshaun Watson (two).

Also returning at quarterback is sophomore Chase Brice (Grayson, Ga.). As observers continually referenced Lawrence and his predecessor Kelly Bryant throughout the 2018 preseason, Swinney was adamant that he had three quarterbacks with whom he could win the ACC, including Brice. Brice played a pivotal role in that regard, cementing a place in Clemson lore with by leading a 94-yard game-winning drive against Syracuse, including a key conversion on fourth-and-six, in place of an injured Lawrence.

Clemson’s quarterbacks will be joined in the backfield by the reigning ACC Player of the Year, junior running back Travis Etienne (Jennings, La.). In his sophomore campaign in 2018, the All-America selection shattered Clemson records in rushing yards (1,658), rushing touchdowns (24) and total touchdowns (26). He became only the second Clemson running back ever to be named a Doak Walker Award finalist, joining Clemson legend C.J. Spiller (2009).

But while Etienne set records in a number of rushing categories last season, he did not lead the position group in yards per carry. That distinction belonged to Lyn-J Dixon (Butler, Ga.), who set a school record among qualified players by averaging 8.82 yards per carry. As a true freshman, Dixon scored five rushing touchdowns, three of which covered at least 50 yards. Dixon tied for eighth in the country in carries of 50-plus yards (four), and he reached that ranking on only 62 carries while all other members of the Top 10 recorded at least 125 attempts.

While college football fans and observers will note the absence of long-time target Hunter Renfrow, the Tigers return their top three receivers from 2018 in terms of both receiving yardage and receiving touchdowns.

Sophomore Justyn Ross (Phenix City, Ala.) announced his presence on a national stage in a big way as a true freshman in 2018, combining for 12 catches, 301 yards and three touchdowns in College Football Playoff games against No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 1 Alabama. Despite not starting a single game, he led Clemson with 1,000 receiving yards a season ago, including nine touchdowns among his 46 receptions. He joined Sammy Watkins (1,219 in 2011) as the only players in school history to post 1,000 receiving yards as a freshman.

Junior Tee Higgins (Oak Ridge, Tenn.) led the Tigers a season ago in receptions (59) and receiving touchdowns (12), gaining 936 yards while starting all 15 contests. He collected second-team All-ACC honors as he became only the fourth player in school history to catch 12 touchdown passes in a single season. Fellow Tennessee native Amari Rodgers (Knoxville, Tenn.) returns at wide receiver as well following a sophomore season in which he posted 575 yards and four touchdowns while finishing second on the squad with 55 receptions. Between Rodgers and Higgins, the Tigers will have two receivers coming off of 50-catch seasons returning for the first time since 2015 (Artavis Scott and Mike Williams). Rodgers injured his knee during spring practice, but the program is hopeful for a potential return sometime during the 2019 campaign.

Among the other returning targets at wide receiver this season under the guidance of 2018 Broyles Award finalist Jeff Scott are senior Diondre Overton (Greensboro, N.C.), junior Cornell Powell (Greenville, N.C.) and sophomore Derion Kendrick (Rock Hill, S.C.).

Overton had three touchdown catches in 2018 including a key score in a road win at Texas A&M. Powell returns after a mid-career redshirt after four games a season ago, and Kendrick is a versatile, explosive option who has contributed with the ball in his hands at kick returner and quarterback in addition to his role at receiver. The group also returns juniors T.J. Chase (Plant City, Fla.) and Will Swinney (Clemson, S.C.), both of whom caught at least one touchdown pass in 2018.

Opportunities abound for Tiger tight ends in 2019. Veterans Milan Richard, Cannon Smith and Garrett Williams combined to play 161 career games for the Tigers from 2015-18. Richard and Smith have since completed their careers and Williams is evaluating whether or not to forgo his final season of eligibility to enter the military. The most experienced member of the unit entering 2019 is junior J.C. Chalk (Argyle, Texas), who has appeared in 24 career contests. Sophomore Braden Galloway (Seneca, S.C.) opened his career with a touchdown reception in his debut last season and would provide 12 games of experience if deemed eligible in 2019. Additional contributions could come from a pair of incoming freshmen, Davis Allen (Calhoun, Ga.) and Jaelyn Lay (Atlanta, Ga.).

Despite losing the most experienced player in Clemson football history, Offensive Line Coach Robbie Caldwell will return an offensive line whose extensive experience will be matched by its versatility. Gone is left tackle Mitch Hyatt, who recorded school records in career snaps from scrimmage (3,754) and career starts (57). However, the unit, which was a semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award, welcomes back three All-ACC performers among nine returning linemen who played at least 100 snaps a season ago.

The unit will be anchored by four seniors, Tremayne Anchrum (Powder Springs, Ga.), Gage Cervenka (Greenwood, S.C.), Sean Pollard (Jackson Springs, N.C.) and John Simpson (North Charleston, S.C.). Anchrum was a second-team All-ACC selection in 2018 who started all 15 games at right tackle. Cervenka, who holds a share of the Clemson position record with 43 bench press reps at 225 pounds, is a candidate at center after playing primarily at guard a season ago. Pollard is a returning second-team All-ACC selection who has played at both guard and tackle throughout his career and has been a revelation for Clemson as an option at center this spring. Simpson was a third-team all-conference honoree whose 858 snaps a season ago are the most of any returning player on the roster.

Beyond that veteran group, the unit is fortified by a number of players who saw playing time through the 2018 campaign. Two Ohio natives, sophomores Matt Bockhorst (Cincinnati, Ohio) and Jackson Carman (Fairfield, Ohio), could both be in line for larger roles after providing a physical presence along the line in 2018. Junior Cade Stewart (Six Mile, S.C.) started at guard for Clemson in a road win at Texas A&M. Lettermen expected to return on the two-deep also include junior Chandler Reeves (McDonough, Ga.) and sophomore Blake Vinson (Ocala, Fla.), and redshirt freshman Jordan McFadden (Spartanburg, S.C.) could also factor into the mix.