Clemson sets sights on Georgia opener ... and 4 more things we learned at ACC Kickoff

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As the countdown to the 2021 college football season continues, the annual ACC Kickoff hosted Atlantic Division teams on Thursday here at the Westin hotel. The event was the first time Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, offensive lineman Matt Bockhorst and linebacker James Skalski spoke to the media this preseason.

Here are five takeaways from the day:

James Skalski’s final year

It took sixth-year “super senior” James Skalski almost a full minute to describe how he obtained all 10 of his football championship rings. He earned three in each of his first and third years, one in each of his second and fifth years, and two in his fourth season at Clemson.

Skalski will have a chance to earn a few more and possibly become the first-ever player to appear in six ACC championship games in what will be his final season with the Tigers.

After redshirting and getting a pandemic exemption, he’s officially run out of eligibility this academic year. It serves as an advantage to the younger players like safety R.J. Mickens and freshman linebacker Barrett Carter to have him around along with veterans Nolan Turner and Baylor Spector. Like Skalski, Turner and Spector are both going into their sixth and final season.

“As far as preparation goes, anyone in that room can ask me a question about their job,” Skalski said. “Between me, Nolan and Baylon, the whole back seven, we know the answer. Just helping younger guys come along, grow because literally any position, we’ve got the answer for you.”

Establishing defensive unity

At times in the past season, the Tigers’ defense wasn’t exactly on the same page. Establishing consistency and playing as a unit is something that has hurt the group.

“Like maybe the front seven played well but we didn’t cover the guy,” Skalski said. “Or maybe we covered the hell out of some people and we can’t get to the quarterback. Or maybe the linebackers and D line fit the gaps right but our last fit of the safety’s not there. Just everyone being on their P’s and Q’s as one.”

With that in mind, the Tigers bring back the majority of their defense, which bodes well for getting that fixed. The key to making it happen is time and work.

“You’ve got to know what you’re doing,” Skalski said. “There’s a lot more that goes into it than people think. It’s just a lot of time and understanding your piece to the puzzle.”

Uiagalelei compliments upcoming targets

With sophomore D.J. Uiagalelei ready for his first season as Clemson’s full-time starting quarterback, the icing on the cake is the amount of receivers he’ll have this season.

For one, Justyn Ross, who was named to the Biletnikoff Award Preseason Watch List on Wednesday, is expected to be medically cleared to get back out on the field. The redshirt junior missed the 2020 season after having spinal surgery last June. He had 865 yards and eight touchdowns on a team-high 66 receptions in 14 starts as a sophomore.

The Tigers are also expecting Joseph Ngata, who battled with an abdominal injury in 2020, to take on a bigger role while also welcoming newcomers like Beaux Collins, who played with Uiagalelei in high school for two years at St. John Bosco (California), among others.

“Those are great receivers,” Uiagalelei said. “I got to watch Joe play in high school. I’ve watched Frank (Ladson Jr.). I mean, seeing them, especially playing in college, too, especially when they’re going to be healthy this year, it’s going to be a lot of eye openers for people.”

Tigers’ offensive line ready for Georgia

Clemson hasn’t forgotten the 49-28 College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Ohio State that robbed the team of a chance for a third national championship in five years. The Tigers have banked that feeling and plan on using it as motivation when they open the season against Georgia.

“I think we got punched in the mouth versus Ohio State,” Skalski said. “Georgia, similar mentality (as Ohio State) as a team, so running game, physical, attack mode. So I think we need to prove any (doubters who think) that we’re soft, not physical enough, not experienced enough. We’re going to prove those people wrong on Sept. 4.”

If there’s one group that looks good enough to help that effort, Matt Bockhorst knows it’s the offensive line. Bockhorst has been pleased with what he’s seen from the group this summer.

“The competition that I’ve witnessed from our group is unmatched during my time here at Clemson,” the redshirt senior offensive guard said. “I think the energy of the young guys, coupled with the experience of myself, Jordan McFadden and Will Putnam, I think we’re in store for a special year. I think that all really needs to come to fruition in camp in a couple weeks. I know we’ll be well-prepared heading in to play Georgia, given the fact we get to compete against a good offensive line every day in practice.”

Bockhorst backs Swinney’s playoff opinion

Tigers head football coach Dabo Swinney made headlines Monday after expressing his disagreement with the proposed 12-team playoff format. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick gave a presentation about it, which Swinney attended on Wednesday night but was set on his opinion.

“Money’s driving that,” Swinney said Thursday, doubling down. “I assume that’s what the fans want. But I think most importantly, what do the players want? Go ask these guys to have to show up earlier, to have no open dates, to have no break between the championship game and another game, to play more games. That may be what’s best for the money, what’s best for the fans, but I don’t think that’s what is best for the player.”

Speaking of players, Bockhorst backed his coach, saying that he doesn’t “necessarily feel comfortable” with the idea of adding more games. As an offensive lineman, he cited his reasoning as the kind of toll it would take on his and other players’ bodies.

“I think if we’re going to talk about expansion of the playoff, we also need to consider shortening the regular season,” he added. “As an offensive lineman, when you start getting up to 14, 15 games, that’s quite a few snaps. Given the situation we were presented with last year with lack of depth, the snaps add up quickly. That’s some wear and tear on your body that’s hard to describe. I’m not here to get anyone’s pity, but it’s much easier said than done. That’s where I stand.”

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