Clemson started spring practice for the 2022 season this week, marking the first official checkpoint in the build-up to a campaign that has as much as intrigue as we’ve seen around Dabo Swinney’s program in years. For the first time in seven seasons, the Tigers are not taking the field as the reigning ACC champions. Instead, they’re a team hungry to reclaim the program’s preferred position atop the league.
The run of six consecutive ACC Atlantic titles, conference championships and College Football Playoff appearances all came to an end in 2021. Clemson dealt with injuries, inexperience and a bumpy start to the schedule, but rallied with six straight wins to finish what became the program’s 11th consecutive 10-win campaign.
Any notion that this would be a page-turning moment for Swinney’s program was fortified by the offseason departures of both coordinators for head coaching opportunities. Swinney’s message to the team during offseason conditioning drills earlier this year was that the “torch has been passed.” With many of the players and coaches from the six-year playoff run gone, now is the time for the 2022 team to leave its own mark in pursuit of that championship standard.
So, while this marks the 14th spring practice with Swinney leading the program, it feels like the beginning of a new chapter in Clemson football history.
After years of being mentioned as a potential target for head coaching positions, defensive coordinator Brent Venables was hired by Oklahoma to replace Lincoln Riley. Venables arrived at Clemson in 2012, and by 2014, he had the Tigers checking in as one of the best defensive units in the country. Swinney’s choice to fill the vacancy left by Venables came from internal options with Wes Goodwin being elevated to the position after 11 years in off-field roles across two stints. Goodwin will be the co-defensive coordinator along with Mickey Conn, who has served as both safeties coach and special teams coordinator since first joining Swinney’s staff in 2017. Another notable defensive adjustment was the hire of Nick Eason, a former All-ACC standout at Clemson, as defensive tackles coach to replace Todd Bates, who left with Venables for Oklahoma.
Tony Elliott similarly had been mentioned as a potential candidate for power conference jobs in the past, so it came as no surprise when he was introduced as the next coach for Virginia. Elliott is the third offensive coordinator since 2014 to leave Clemson for a head coaching position, and just like the previous instances, Swinney has elected to promote from within, elevating quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter to the OC role. The pipeline of home-grown coaching talent again provided for Clemson, as Thomas Austin moves into an on-field role overseeing the offensive line with longtime assistant Robbie Caldwell transitioning into an administrative role. Kyle Richardson, a member of the support staff from 2016-21 and a three-time state champion as a high school coach in South Carolina, takes over tight ends and serves as passing game coordinator.
With so much continuity in terms of keeping the coaching roles in the family, there may be an assumption that not much will change from a scheme perspective. But there’s also opportunity for new ideas with new voices leading the way on both sides of the ball, meaning we may think we know what Clemson will look like, but nothing will be certain until the Tigers hit the field.
Names to know
D.J. Uiagalelei, quarterback: The former five-star prospect entered the 2021 season with Heisman Trophy hype after a two-game sample size as a starter during his freshman season suggested stardom was on the horizon. Uiagalelei fell short of those expectations, however, recording more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine) and a passer rating that ranked 12th among ACC signal callers. After starting last year with Heisman hype, Big Cinco enters 2022 spring practice simply looking to secure his position as the team’s starter.
Cade Klubnik, quarterback: The No. 1 QB from the 2022 recruiting class enrolled in January and is expected to be right in the mix for starter’s snaps in spring. Klubnik was 27-0 as a starter for 6A powerhouse Austin Westlake and the first Texas high school quarterback to go undefeated while winning back-to-back 6A state tiles since Kyler Murray. The raw talent and projected ceiling for Klubnik makes him a worthy competitor in this potential quarterback battle. While Uiagalelei has a leg up with experience, there is a recent history of blue-chip quarterbacks taking over the starting job during their freshman seasons. Like Klubnik, Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence were one-time early enrollees, and though neither were named QB1 exiting spring, they were the unquestioned starters by the end of their freshman seasons.
Beaux Collins, wide receiver: With wideouts E.J. Williams and Will Taylor among the many notable players that will miss some or all of spring practice due to injuries, there will be an even brighter spotlight on Collins. The sophomore has already proven to be opportunistic after enjoying a breakout effort in the second half of the 2021 season. Collins became just the seventh player in the Swinney era to record at least 30 receptions and 400 receiving yards as a freshman, joining the likes of Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins, Hunter Renfrow and Justyn Ross. He was Uiagalelei’s high school teammate and is poised to be one of the most dominant receivers in the ACC this fall.
Last year’s injury issues had a silver lining in that they set Clemson up with waves of depth. The Tigers ended 2021 with just 30 scholarship players available, but as a result, 37 players enter 2022 with at least one career start and 54 letterman have playing experience. Unfortunately, many of the biggest names are still going to be out for spring practice as they work their way back to full health for the fall.
Star defensive tackle Bryan Bresee is not expected to be full go this spring, nor will Will Shipley and Kobe Pace — the dynamic running back duo that combined for 1,380 yards and 17 touchdowns during their freshman seasons. Starting tight end Davis Allen is also out, and the offensive line will be shuffled plenty due to injuries and the competition to replace starters along the interior. Shoring up the back end of a defense that lost two cornerbacks to the NFL Draft, as well as solidifying the offensive line and wide receiver rooms, remains important.
However, nothing feels as urgent as the quarterback battle. Uiagalalei was terrific in a comeback win against Boston College and an overtime loss at Notre Dame in 2020 but could not recapture that level of production as a sophomore. The supposedly smooth transition from Lawrence to DJU was anything but, and the inability to be a dynamic passing team — Clemson ranked outside the top 100 nationally in passing yards per game, yards per attempt and passer rating — put a ceiling on the Tigers offense. The defense was elite all season, but scoring was a struggle.
Clemson could ride a strong ground game and an elite defense to an ACC title, but without top-tier quarterback play, it seems unlikely to project another run at a national championship. Uiagalelei’s development since the end of last year and Klubnik’s readiness to compete at a high level will dictate not just the offense, but the ceiling of this team. That makes the quarterback battle at Clemson one of the most intriguing, and nationally significant, position battles in the entire country this spring.