Trio of Clemson Underclassmen Mulling Their Futures

Brad Senkiw

CLEMSON  Receiver Tee Higgins became the first Clemson underclassman to enter the NFL draft on Wednesday. Junior defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney said Thursday on Twitter that he's returning to school for his fifth year of eligibility. 

Three other Tigers have yet to officially make their intentions known. Here's a look at how those underclassmen profile at the next level and what they're deciding before the Jan. 20 deadline to enter the NFL draft:

Isaiah Simmons, LB

Lowdown: There might not be a more versatile defender in college football than Simmons, who played at all three levels on Brent Venables’ defense in 2019 and led the Tigers in all the meaningful stats. That should certainly attract teams at the next level.

2019 stats: 102 total tackles, 66 solo tackles, 16 tackles for a loss, eight sacks, 3 interceptions, 8 pass breakups, 5 QB hurries, 1 forced fumble.

Strengths: You name it, he has it. Simmons is exactly the type of player NFL teams need in this passing age. He can defend in the slot, drop back into coverage as a safety or rush the passer and stop the run near the line of scrimmage. He has good ball skills and impressive closing speed.

Weaknesses: There isn’t a lot for him to work on. A defender can always get better at reading and understanding offenses, so recognition improvements will come.

NFL projection: Simmons is a bonafide first-round pick and likely to be one of the first 10 names called. His stock has risen throughout the season and could still go up after he flashes his athleticism at the NFL combine. Some draft experts think he could stay in the Carolinas and go No. 7 overall to the Panthers.

Decision prediction: It's just a formality at the point. He's very likely going to go pro. It's too hard to turn down top-10 money for another collegiate season.

Travis Etienne, RB

Lowdown: After becoming Clemson’s all-time leading rusher in just three years, Etienne will go down in school history as one of the best to every carry the football at a school that’s produced C.J. Spiller, Raymond Priester, Terry Allen, Wayne Gallman and Andre Ellington, among others.

2019 stats: 207 rushing attempts, 1,614 yards rushing, 7.8 yards per carry, 19 rushing touchdowns, 32 receptions, 432 receiving yards, 4 receiving touchdowns.

Strengths: Etienne possesses an elite combination of speed, power and vision. He’s much harder to tackle than people think. Etienne led the nation in broken tackle rate, and he improved greatly in receiving out of the backfield in 2019.

Weaknesses: Whether Etienne returns or not, pass protection is an area that still needs improvement. NFL teams might want to see him work on that in college. Also, running back isn’t a position of high value at the next level, which pushes down his draft stock.

Draft stock: Etienne is a borderline first-round pick in a pretty loaded year for rushers. He's likelier to go in the second round right now. That still might be high enough to lean toward the pros.

Decision prediction: Running backs have only so many miles they can run, but Etienne has never been a high-volume rusher. Still, there’s not much else he can accomplish at Clemson, so it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go pro. Returning would be more of a surprise.

A.J. Terrell, CB

Lowdown: The junior cornerback didn’t have his best game against LSU in the national championship, and his draft stock will fall in many experts’ opinion, but Terrell has been grooming for the NFL the last two seasons and looks like a guy with staying power at the next level.

2019 stats: 34 tackles, 24 solo tackles, 2 interceptions, 3 pass breakups, 0.5 tackles for a loss, 0.5 sacks.

Strengths: At 6-foot-1, Terrell has good height for his position and uses it well. He anticipates and jump routes with solid fluidity and long limbs.

Weaknesses: Terrell struggled running with LSU Ja’Marr Chase, and there will be a lot of Chase-type receivers at the next level. At 190 pounds, Terrell could use some more weight and needs to prove he’s strong enough to handle physicality better.

Draft stock: You could argue there’s been some overreaction since the LSU game, as he’s plummeted on some draft boards. But he still profiles as a potential first-round pick. Second round might end up being more realistic post-combine.

Decision prediction: He feels like a three-year player who wants to prove himself at the next level, and he’s not going to let one bad game/matchup change that. It would be a surprise to see him return.