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Clemson’s offense has been under fire for its struggles this season.
The Tigers’ scoring average is down over 20 points from 2020 with a new quarterback in D.J. Uiagalelei, new running backs and a depleted offensive line. Continuity is lacking and the Tigers have yet to find an offensive rhythm through seven games in which they’re 4-3 overall, 3-2 in the ACC and looking up at other teams in the conference standings.
It’s a big change for a program where winning the ACC and advancing to the College Football Playoff became an annual expectation.
Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott thinks their woes could be a result of performance anxiety and the offensive unit’s lack of a natural vocal leader — most current players prefer to lead by example, he said. The biggest voice was offensive lineman Matt Bockhorst, who is now out for the season after tearing an ACL against Pitt.
The State spoke with two well-traveled football coaches and one former Clemson player to get their viewpoints on what’s ailing the Tigers the most. They are not identified by name to allow them to speak candidly.
“Right now, the quarterback doesn’t seem to be very accurate,” a prominent S.C. high school football coach told The State. “He looks good throwing and has all the tools but just has to get some accuracy and confidence about him.”
The coach also noted how he would approach running the offense.
“I would go 12 personnel with two tight ends and let the big boy (Uiagalelei) run the ball some and try and get eight in the box, and then try and get (Joseph) Ngata, Justyn Ross or whoever is healthy go one-on-one and throw the ball to them,” he said.
The State went deeper on the issue with a former college coach and a former Clemson player. Here’s what they said about what’s happening with Clemson’s offense this season.
Note: These answers have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Alexis Cubit: What is/are the biggest problem(s) for Clemson’s offense?
Former player: “There truly isn’t just one thing. I think it is interesting to see other folks that try to single one out or if they have a stronger opinion on one or the other. Like some people really want to go after D.J. Some people really want to go after the offensive line. Some go after play calling and coach Elliott.
I think it’s really just such a combination because I know what I’m watching. It truly is something different, it feels like, every other play in that there’s just a different person on the wrong page whether it’s blocking on the edge, Ajou Ajou or Justyn Ross just blatantly missing a guy, getting a receiver killed. Or if it’s the offensive line, if there’s a lack of communication or somebody just gets manhandled or someone goes the wrong way on a certain play. D.J. is just throwing the ball in the dirt or sailing it through the crowd — or somebody dropping it when he does throw a great ball.
And then of course sometimes play calling like that short yardage against Boston College is one that sticks out in my head where Braden Galloway gets absolutely blown up and we’re running like a pitch option. We don’t do that. It truly is just this combination of all of it. … In my Clemson-educated opinion, if one of those things were fixed, it would all be OK.”
Former college coach: “I think Dabo’s hit the nail on the head in that I think a lot of it’s got to do with confidence. He’s got a young team. He’s got a tremendous amount of injuries. He lost some very talented players. The standard has been so high in the past there offensively. Then all of a sudden, just a couple things get out of sync.
People don’t understand the intricacies of offensive line play and how any kind of injuries at the position or inexperience affects your running game and your passing game. Then you throw in an inexperienced quarterback, you lose a guy like (Travis) Etienne, some injuries at wideout, the explosiveness they’ve had. It’s kind of like the perfect storm, which they have avoided for the last maybe eight or 10 years. It’s all hitting at the same time, from what I’ve seen. …
Unfortunately, they can’t be corrected on a week-to-week basis. Those are things that are going to have to get guys healthy, going to have to get experience, some continuity on the offensive line. Those things take time. He’s established a standard that’s so high, people are impatient.”
Cubit: How can these problems be fixed?
Player: It’s interesting to see, OK, is this complacency? Is it starting with the quarterback … (who had) unbelievable performances twice a year ago and where the heck did that guy go? Is it just mental for him where he can hopefully go in this offseason and really figure things out?
Is it a change in personnel with various folks here and there? Is it a change in recruiting strategy and recruiting different guys? We have a lot of receivers that look very similar. Do we need to go and get more of a variety of guys? It is going to be interesting to see just moving forward what kind of changes do we see quickly, what kind of changes do we see — even us not in those meeting rooms or practices — that we will be able to notice because I think that’s going to be interesting.”
Coach: “Time only fixes some of the experience and the injuries healing. The experience at offensive line, the experience at quarterback and then the continuity on the offensive line, you can work as hard as you want to on fundamentals. That’s important, but again time, I think, is the biggest issue. Addressing the offensive line injuries and inexperience at quarterback.”
Cubit: Do you think they can be fixed this year or is it more of a long-term thing?
Player: “I’ve kind of been hanging on to this saying that we can fix it. There might be a way. There might be an ‘aha’ moment, but honestly at this point I don’t think you can. I think it’s going to take an offseason, it’s going to take a spring, it’s going to take winter workout — all that to just get your mind back to being the team that you know you can be.
It’s unfortunate for some of these seniors. It’s unfortunate for some of these guys who have sacrificed so much that this is their last hurrah, but that’s just a part of the game. It’s a circle at the end of the day and the highs eventually turn to lows and they’ll get back to highs. The matter with them is how quickly that happens.”
Cubit: In terms of confidence, do you think it can be built over these next five games?
Coach: “Confidence usually comes with success. They’re not having success on offense, so I think that’s going to be one of those things where a lot of the other ingredients are going to have to be in place until they get that confidence. I would say their confidence is growing, but you’ve got to remember 18-, 19-year-olds and the degree of social media and the negative social media that Clemson is getting right now. The doubt and indecision it creates.
Tony Elliott is as good of an offensive coordinator as there is in the country, so those guys I’m sure read the negative things about him. It creates doubt and indecision. Those are things that Dabo and Tony have to address in team meetings. That kind of slows the growth process from a confidence standpoint.”
Cubit: How many games do you think Clemson will win out of the final five games?
Player: “I’m honestly a little worried about this weekend, which is nuts to say.. ... The injuries, I think, are a really big thing, too. I want to go ahead and say that. I think that has really hurt these guys because you’re having so many young guys have to step up, inexperienced guys and it’s just thrown a lot of stuff off. …
So, we’re looking at Florida State this weekend, Louisville next. Two really dynamic quarterbacks. That’s going to be interesting. It’s tough to go against. The good thing is, Louisville’s defense is terrible, so hopefully Clemson can score there. For argument’s sake, I’ll say 1-1 there. They’ll beat UConn and they beat South Carolina. I think there’s four, I guess you can call it guaranteed wins. I would guarantee at least four wins. I don’t think we’re missing postseason, that’s for sure.”
Coach: “They can win them all because they’ll have better players. All it does it take just a little bit healthier body, a little bit of experience on the offensive line. All of a sudden, the quarterback’s feeling a lot more comfortable. Those things are going to happen because they’ve happened in the past. (Dabo’s) got a staff that knows how to make those things happen. They’ll be favored in probably all of those games. Any time you’ve got a good defense — Clemson does — you have a chance to win every single game with that defense right now still playing really good. They’re going to have a chance to win every game. It wouldn’t surprise me for them to finish up 9-3.”
Taisun Phommachanh came in for two drives against Pitt. What’s your opinion on the quarterback situation with D.J. Uiagalelei? Do you think he should be benched?
Coach: “Since I’ve coached and I know how I’d make a decision like that. No. 1 is based off game performance, and it’s also based off of practice: who’s practicing better, retention of offense, making decisions during the course of the week. Then they feel comfortable enough, they can make those in the game. …
Knowing Brandon Streeter and Tony Elliott and Dabo, the right guy is playing quarterback because they see all those things and they’ve made those decisions accurately. They’re looking at everything I just mentioned and they’re playing the right guy. If that’s the guy they’ve chosen, then I agree with their decision because I know what they’re looking at as a head coach, quarterbacks coach and Tony’s offensive coordinator role.”
Player: “There is no other position in any sport, on any team that has that much responsibility and that much control of the entire game. Everything is centered around that position, so you talk about mental, you talk about confidence, all these things play into it, so there’s this fine line that you have to ride. If D.J. was an offensive lineman and he’s not performing, get his a-- out. Get somebody in because it’s just so different from that position.
But when it is a quarterback, you’ve got to handle it appropriately. You’ve got to handle it at a certain part of, ‘OK, if we make a change we have to understand and be OK with he might never, ever be the same.’ So if you’re good with that and if you understand that maybe the guy behind him is better, then do it, but I don’t think that’s the case here at Clemson, at least right now. Moving forward when new people come in or people get better, maybe that’s a circumstance that we see. He’s so talented. It’s like he can’t get out of his own way. The game, for whatever reason, is not easy for him right now. It’s something that I think he has to work really hard on if he wants to be good. …
I know social media has to be just almost unbearable for him just because of the terrible world we live in and just decisions that he wants to make. Does he need to go somewhere else to get a fresh start? Does he stay and battle it out and become the unbelievable player that we all think and know he can? The future’s going to be very interesting in the next three to four months for Clemson.”