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2020 Wake Forest Football Opponent Preview: Clemson Tigers

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Looking at the Deacs’ first (and probably toughest) opponent of the season

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Louisiana State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Note: Expected starters courtesy of clemsonsportstalk.com and my brother, who is a Clemson football fan, in addition to being a Wake fan.

Today begins our series of previewing Wake Forest football’s 2020 opponents based on the new schedule released last week by the ACC due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Clemson Tigers came out on the losing end of the National Championship game last winter, and will start the 2020 season with the goal of returning to the championship and winning their third title in five years. Head coach Dabo Swinney will face perhaps his biggest challenge yet (assuming the season actually happens-which I have my doubts about) in getting his team ready to play during a global pandemic where things will look much different than anyone currently playing or coaching has ever experienced.

Clemson is once again the favorite to win the ACC, having won the previous five ACC Championships.

The Tigers lost a fair amount of players from last year’s team to graduation or the NFL, as well as losing star wide receiver Justyn Ross to a potentially career-ending injury (congenital spinal issue).

On offense Clemson will have to replace receivers Tee Higgins (chose to forego his senior season and enter the NFL Draft) and Diondre Overton (graduated), and offensive linemen John Simpson (left guard, graduated), Sean Pollard (center, graduated), Gage Cervenka (right guard, graduated), and Tremayne Anchrum (right tackle, graduated and drafted).

On defense the Tigers will have to replace defensive end Logan Rudolph (graduated early and ended his football career), linebackers Isaiah Simmons (NFL Draft) and Chad Smith (graduated), safeties K’Von Wallace (graduated and drafted) and Tanner Muse (graduated and drafted), and cornerback A.J. Terrell (NFL Draft).

Offense

Junior Trevor Lawrence returns as the starting quarterback, and could be the #1 pick (or at least a high first round pick) in the 2021 NFL Draft. Lawrence has repeatedly stated on Twitter that he and his teammates want to play this season in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawrence will be backed up by redshirt freshman Taisun Phommachanh, as last year’s backup Chase Brice transferred to Duke where he will start for David Cutcliffe. D.J. Uiagalelei, a five star freshman, could also see time at quarterback in relief of Lawrence.

Leading rusher and All-ACC performer Travis Etienne chose to return for his senior season, and will once again lead the Tigers’ backfield after rushing for 1614 yards and 19 touchdowns last year, as well as catching 4 touchdowns and having 432 receiving yards. Backing up Etienne will be junior Lyn-J Dixon, who rushed for 635 yards and 6 touchdowns last season.

Not having Ross in the receivers corp is a big blow for the Tigers. Senior Amari Rodgers will lead the group after having 30 receptions for 426 yards and 4 touchdowns last year. Rodgers will be joined by sophomore receivers Frank Ladson who had 9 receptions for 128 yards and 3 touchdowns, and Joseph Ngata who had 17 receptions for 340 yards and 3 touchdowns, as well as junior tight end Braden Galloway.

The offensive line lost four starters from last season. Starting left tackle junior Jackson Carman is the lone returning starter. Junior Matt Bockhorst, senior Cade Stewart, junior Jordan McFadden, sophomore Will Putnam, and junior Blake Vinson are all likely to see significant time on the line.

The Tigers will have a lot of work to do to maintain the same offensive efficiency they have been known for the past several seasons. Co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott left to take the head coaching position at South Florida, but Tony Elliot remains the offensive coordinator so the offense shouldn't change too much.

Defense

Last season Clemson didn't have too much trouble replacing the best defensive line in the country in 2018 after all four starters were taken high in the NFL Draft. This season the Tigers will have to replace the production from the secondary and linebackers.

Clemson returns four players who all started games on the defensive line last season, losing only Logan Rudolph. Senior Justin Foster returns at defensive end, and redshirt sophomore K.J. Henry (from Clemmons, NC and West Forsyth High School) will likely be the other starter. Junior Xavier Thomas will redshirt due to a slow recovery from COVID, but should the season be held he will be a strong contributor in the four games allowed by the redshirt rule.

Graduate student Nyles Pinckney returns at defensive tackle, and sophomore Tyler Davis and redshirt junior Jordan Williams will see time at the other tackle position.

Senior James Skalski returns at middle linebacker as the lone returning starter in the linebacking corps. Sophomore Mike Jones Jr. and junior Baylon Spector likely step in as the other two starting linebackers. Jones will probably start at the Sam where Simmons played last season, and Spector will start at the Will. Jake Venables (son of defensive coordinator Brent Venables) will also see some time.

In attempting to replace the production in the secondary, senior Nolan Turner is sure to be a starting safety, as he is the only safety on the roster with collegiate experience. Sophomore Lannden Zanders, sophomore Jalyn Phillips, and freshman Ray Thornton III are all candidates to start at the other safety spot and will likely all see time in the secondary. Junior Derion Kendrick will start at one corner, and sophomore Andrew Booth, sophomore Sheridan Jones, and junior Mario Goodrich should all see significant playing time and are candidates to start.

The defense may not be quite as dominant as last year’s or the year before’s, but defensive coordinator Brent Venables will be sure that they cause plenty of problems for opposing offenses and be among the nation’s best yet again.

Special Teams

Junior B.T. Potter will handle kicking duties again after converting on 13 of 21 field goal attempts last season, with a long from 52 yards. If Potter struggles, redshirt freshman Jonathan Weitz could be ready to go as the backup.

Senior Will Spiers will again be the punter, but redshirt freshman Aidan Swanson will be the backup if Spiers struggles as he has at times.

Will Swinney (yes, Dabo’s son) will serve as the holder again.

Junior Jake Maddox is likely to be the long snapper after the graduation of Patrick Phibbs.

Derion Kendrick and Amari Rodgers are candidates to be the punt returner, and Joe Ngata or even Travis Etienne could return kicks for the Tigers.

Wake Forest gets Clemson in the first game of the season on September 12th in a season in which nothing will be normal, assuming it even happens. If there were ever a time for the Deacs to take down the Tigers, this is it.