It is no secret that this year’s Clemson Tigers do not have the same amount of preseason expectations the defending ACC Champions have become accustomed to having. It’s a program that has spent the better part of the last decade consistently in the National Championship conversation. This preseason they have not been talked about as much in the same regard. Not after a season that did see Clemson win its 21st ACC Championship, but also ended with an 11-3 record and a #7 ranking in the final College Football Playoff rankings. That meant Clemson missed out on a spot in the CFP for the second consecutive season. Now heading into the 2023 season, they find themselves on the outside looking in on the CFP conversations.
Five Key Players to Clemson Tigers’ 2023 Success
Much of this has to do with all the changes happening within the program this season. Many players from last year’s team have either headed for the NFL like defensive end K.J. Henry, or some have even entered the transfer portal like quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei. There is even a new offensive coordinator on campus, Garrett Riley from TCU, after Clemson let go of former coordinator Brandon Streeter. With all of this change though, there are still 14 returners to the program who Athlon named as part of their 2023 preseason All-ACC teams. After examining the list of players that made these All-conference teams, five stuck out as players who could be key to Clemson’s success in 2023.
1. Cade Klubnik: QB (Third-Team All-Conference)
Everything starts with the quarterback, right? Well for this list Cade Klubnik is the perfect player to start with. The true sophomore Quarterback spent much of last season as the backup behind Uiagalelei. Inconsistency in quarterback play eventually lead to Klubnik subbing for Uiagalelei in the ACC Championship. Klubnik had gotten a few reps sparingly earlier in the season. Most notably a fourth-quarter comeback to beat #14 Syracuse. The ACC Championship though, is what should and will be considered his coming out party. He went 20 of 24 passing, giving him an 83% completion percentage with 279 yards and one passing touchdown. Not only did he play big through the air though, he also ran seven times for 30 yards and a rushing touchdown. He even caught a 19-yard pass en route to winning the MVP award.
His next game would be his first start college start in the Orange Bowl against #6 Tennessee. That performance did not go as well. Klubnik passed for 30 of 54 resulting in a 56% completion rate along with 320 yards but no touchdowns.
Overall Klubnik finished at an exact 61% completion percentage for the year with 697 yards, two touchdowns, three interceptions, and a 120.1 passer rating on the year. He has shown he can play with the best of them. The 2021 top-rated Quarterback recruit by 24/7 sports, Rivals, and Prepstar has the talent to perform very well in today’s college football landscape. He’s got a strong arm, can run the ball very well, and plays with so much confidence already so early in his career. His decision-making is not always great but is something that more playing experience can fix. The thing that could plague him is the same thing D.J. faced. It is consistency or the lack thereof. If Riley can get Klubnik comfortable in his offense early on in the season and get consistent high-level play at the position again, the Tigers can be very successful in 2023.
Will Shipley: RB (First-Team)
Will Shipley might not just be the best overall football player returning to the Clemson Tigers. Not even just to the ACC. He might be the best overall college football player in the nation. He was a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award (The most versatile player in the nation). First-Team All-ACC in THREE different categories as a running back, all-purpose back, and a specialist. And Shipley was the only player in the country last year with 1,150+ rushing yards, 200+ receiving yards, and 300+ kick return yards. Shipley finished 2022 with 210 rushing attempts for 1,182 yards overall and 15 touchdowns. He also had 38 receptions for 242 yards.
Shipley is the true definition of an all-purpose back. He could be on the field and given the ball all three downs in any situation. First and 10, third and short, and everything in between. He can be handed the ball, catch it out of the backfield, or even line up in the slot. Shipley is someone Riley should have huge plans for. He should want to get the ball in his hands as many times as he can, in as many different ways as possible. From there it will be up to Shipley himself to make tons of plays for a Clemson offense with a new, and still young starting quarterback. This though, is something he has already proven he is more than capable of doing.
Will Putnam C (Second Team)
Remember when we said everything starts with the quarterback? This is where it really starts, upfront across the offensive and defensive lines. Luckily for the Tigers, they have some well-experienced big guys on that offensive line starting with center Will Putnam. He is one of the most tenured players on this 2023 Clemson football roster. The fifth-year graduate player has the most snaps of anyone on this list at 2,611 career snaps from scrimmage at both guard and center. That is the 19th most in Clemson football history! He is a three-year starter with 36 overall starts and has played in 47 career games. This abundance of experience is going to come in handy in protecting the first-year starter in Klubnik. It should also help to improve an offense that struggled quite a bit in 2022.
As a center, Putnam is an aggressive blocker on the interior of the Tigers’ offensive line. He plays low and does a great job getting under big interior defensive linemen. He keeps a great base, moves his feet well, and does an excellent job getting to the second level on run plays. In the passing game, he’s able to use those feet and that base to stay in front of defenders strikes hard on chip blocks and communicates great on blitz pickups. His greatest strength this year though will be his leadership. As the center of this o-line, it will be up to him to keep all five guys on the same page. The better those five play, the more Klubnik has a chance to do well. It will be a task, but watching how he handles those big front guys this task shouldn’t be too large.
Tyler Davis: DT (First-Team)
Tyler Davis has been a big-time player for the Clemson Tigers since the first time he stepped on the field for the program. The graduate player already has three All-ACC selections, two of them being back-to-back first-team honors. This ties him for most career selections by a defensive tackle in Clemson history along with Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, and William Perry. In his Clemson career Davis has 122 total tackles, 26 for a loss, 17 sacks, three fumble recoveries, and four pass deflections. In 2022 alone he had 32 total tackles, (nine-and-a-half of those were for a loss), six sacks, a fumble recovery, and two pass deflections.
The best part of Davis’ game is his motor. Every play he is fighting from snap to whistle to get off of blocks and find the ball. His feet are constantly moving. Even when it seems he might’ve gotten stood up, or when he is fighting a double team. It is because of this and his size that on run plays he can clog up holes and create penetration. On pass plays, he can beat an offensive guard using either his quick feet to slide by them or just using his power to drive them into the backfield. With many big-time players from the Clemson defense leaving for the draft this year like former fellow interior lineman Bryan Bresee, it will be up to returners like Tyler Davis to be very productive for Clemson’s defense. Being a productive defense will be important and it starts with Tyler Davis.
Jeremiah Trotter Jr. LB (First-Team)
When it comes to defensive production, junior linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, Jr gives lots of it. The son of former NFL Linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, Sr filled the stat sheet last season for the Tigers’ defense. In 2022, Trotter led Clemson in tackles with 92 total, tackles for loss with 13.5, and tied for the team lead in sacks with six-and-a-half. Along with that he also had six pass breakups, a forced fumble, and an interception he took back for a touchdown against in-state rival University of South Carolina. He is ranked as Pro Football Focus’ top returning Linebacker in all of college football this upcoming season.
Trotter plays much like an old-school linebacker. He loves to get downhill and hit ball carriers hard. He can also play sideline to sideline. Trotter will make tackles tracking backs down as they try to get outside the offensive tackle. He’s even shown he can play in coverage coming up with both pass breakups and picks in the 2022 season. Trotter will have some help playing next to fellow linebacker Barrett Carter, another preseason All-ACC first-team member. His production can’t slow down though. Rounding out his game some more and becoming an even bigger threat as a pass defender would be great. This while still being a game wrecker as a run defender will be crucial.
Photo courtesy: The Independent Mail-USA TODAY NETWORK