It’s still a little early for legitimate opponent scouting for us as fans, but it’s certainly never too early to take a look around the conference, especially as the ACC Media Day approaches. And why not start with the top of the conference? I had the opportunity to talk with Ryan Kantor of Shakin the Southland, our Clemson sister site, about his outlook on his favorite team, what UNC fans might look for when the two match up, and, briefly, what he as an outsider thinks of UNC’s sideline overhaul this year. You can check out my answers to his questions about UNC over at STS, or through following this link. Otherwise, keep reading:
THB: Last year’s Tigers defensive line made waves after deciding en masse to stay in school and hunt a championship rather than be likely high-value NFL Draft picks, and then made good on that vow before making the jump to the pros. Clemson’s obviously got a stable of highly-ranked guys behind them, but what have you seen from the presumed starting defensive front for 2019 and what do you expect this year from them?
RK: Last year’s defensive line, affectionately known as the “Power Rangers,” was really special. Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, and Austin Bryant all chose to put off the NFL draft for another year and joined rising Junior DT Dexter Lawrence for one more go-round. Last year, Bryant actually tore his pectoral muscle, but rather than having season-ending surgery, chose to play through the pain (there wasn’t a significant risk of it worsening) and help his team get back to the top. That group is irreplaceable, but we’ll obviously have to try. Fortunately, there’s great talent ready to replace them.
The first name that comes to mind is DE Xavier Thomas. He is a great pass rusher and had the memorable sack that closed out an epic comeback win against Syracuse. He ended up playing in every game and finished with 3.5 sacks and 10.5 TFLs last season. In addition to him, rising junior Justin Foster also played in all 15 games recording 2 sacks and 6 TFLs. Those two should set the edges and will have some depth behind them with KJ Henry – a five-star recruit – coming off a redshirt year (yup, with Ferrell and Bryant returning and Thomas being so good, we redshirted a five-star). Justin Mascoll and Logan Rudolph round out the depth at DE.
I’m not as optimistic about the middle of the defensive line where we not only lost starters Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, but also their very good backup Albert Huggins. Nyles Pickney is a rising junior who has seen the field and had success, but after that there are a lot of unproven guys who will have to step up. They’re too talented and well-coached to be bad, but I think this is an area where there will be a notable drop off from last season.
Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne might be the best players at their respective positions in the NCAA, and I don’t think you guys would dispute that notion too hard. Assuming you don’t, who among them has a bigger gap between themselves and #2 and why? Also, if you don’t think that’s the case, who is, and might your guy catch them this season?
RK: Nationally I think it’s tough to say. I’d put Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa in a tier with Trevor Lawrence at QB. At running back you’d have to put Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor and arguably Georgia’s D’Andre Swift in that top tier with Travis Etienne. I’d be quicker to say Trevor Lawrence is the best QB in the nation than I would to grant that honor at RB to Etienne. Jonathan Taylor averaged 7.1 YPC across 307 carries alongside a struggling passing game that let defenses focus on stopping him, while Etienne averaged 8.1 YPC across 204 carries, mostly with an elite passing game to keep defenses honest.
I recently was on MarkRogersTV discussing this, but focused on the ACC. Within the conference, I ranked Trevor Lawrence #1 with UVA’s Bryce Perkins at #2 at QB and Travis Etienne #1 with BC’s AJ Dillon at #2 at RB. There, I think the bigger gap is between Trevor Lawrence and Bryce Perkins. That’s not to say I don’t think Perkins in good. In fact, the even bigger gap may be between Perkins and the next best ACC QB (Jamie Newman? Tommy DeVito?). Still, Trevor Lawrence was a work in progress for most of the season and still finished with a 30-4 TD-INT ratio. If he picks up where he left off against Alabama, he’ll be the best QB in the game.
Meanwhile you have to remember AJ Dillon played through injury last season, so his 2018 numbers aren’t quite reflective of his talent. Over BC’s last 7 games in 2017, once they really started leaning on him, he averaged 179 rushing yards and 1.7 rushing TDs per game. I don’t think he’ll return to that ridiculous pace, but he is an excellent running back and very close to Etienne’s caliber.
So we obviously know about Lawrence, Etienne, and Justyn Ross. But who on the offensive side, as well as on the defensive side aside from Isaiah Simmons, do you think is going to break out for the Tigers this season?
RK: It’s been strange, but Justyn Ross’s emergence has almost allowed people to forget about Tee Higgins. Both are true #1 WR targets. Tee Higgins racked up 936 receiving yards and led the team with 12 receiving TDs. He’ll be back and should continue to be one of the top WRs in the ACC.
On defense, I think the aforementioned DE Xavier Thomas will emerge as one of the conference’s better DEs. I also think you’ll see CB AJ Terrell, who played opposite Trayvon Mullen, rise to the occasion and be a lock-down corner with Mullen off to the Oakland Raiders.
On the flip side, what’s looking like the weakest position on the Clemson roster this season?
RK: I mentioned DT being a relative weakness. I think the other will be tight end. Tight end has been a weakness for Clemson the past two seasons and I expect that to continue.
Sophomore TE Braden Galloway seemed set to fill the void at the position this year, but his Ostarine (an NCAA banned substance) suspension was upheld and he’ll miss all of next year. It’s frustrating because it seems like his ingestion was accidental. Further, Garrett Williams, who was our primary TE last year, is likely going to enlist in the United States Marine Corps. I’ll be incredibly proud of him if/when he does, but it would be a blow to what’s already the roster’s weak spot. Junior J.C. Chalk, who has seldom been used in the passing game and early-enrollee true freshman Jaelyn Lay would then be relied upon, but as you can see, it’s a pretty big unknown.
Moving to UNC, what did the Fedora buyout and Mack Brown hire look like to you at first, as outsiders, and what do you think of it now, after a few months and a seeming positive turn for the program?
RK: I think I was one of the last few who liked Larry Fedora, but things grew stale and it was certainly reasonable to move on. I thought Scott Satterfield was the obvious move and would’ve been a good one. I also thought Neal Brown (Formerly at Troy, now at WVU) would have been a strong option. The Mack Brown move surprised me, and while I liked it from the perspective of it being interesting and fun, I didn’t think it was wise. After they hired two very strong coordinators and swiped Sam Howell from FSU, I’m more optimistic. It’ll be interesting to see how [defensive coordinator] Jay Bateman, who is used to playing opposite a triple-option offense, works with Longo, who will install an up-tempo offense. Nevertheless, things look good and at the very least, UNC should be intriguing in the near future.
(answers have been lightly edited for clarity)