Why Clemson is struggling, and why the Tigers shouldn't panic

It was well past midnight on Oct. 3, but Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei was still out on the field at Memorial Stadium, throwing footballs with one of the team's equipment managers. A few minutes before, his coach, Dabo Swinney, praised the team's effort in a 19-13 win over Boston College. It was another spotty offensive performance, but one in which the Tigers managed 438 yards -- nearly double their season average against FBS foes.

Still, Uiagalelei was frustrated. He had missed some easy throws -- six of them, he would later recount -- and he hoped a few more late-night reps would fix whatever is broken in the most confounding offense in college football.

"I just wanted to get it out of my system," Uiagalelei said this week.

Clemson, too, would love to wipe the slate clean after a dismal offensive start to the season.

Uiagalelei has been off target on nearly 15% of his throws, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and the 3-2 Tigers rank among the worst teams in the country in scoring rate, yards-per-play and three-and-outs. While the Tigers' defense is among the best in the nation -- one of just five teams allowing less than one point per drive so far -- the offense has mired Clemson in its worst start since 2014.

Still, Uiagalelei's late-night routine after beating Boston College was indicative of Clemson's plan to fix things by homing in on the little things -- bad footwork, lazy routes, blocks that needed to be held just a second or two longer. (Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott calls them "missed layups.") The belief internally is that Clemson is close. In the blink of an eye, insiders belive, this will once again look like a championship offense, perhaps starting with Friday's game at 3-3 Syracuse (7 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App).

"Nobody here has forgotten how to coach," one Clemson player offered.

ESPN's FPI still ranks Clemson seventh nationally, giving the Tigers a 33% chance to win their division and about a 1-in-5 shot at winning the ACC for a seventh straight season.

Swinney's optimism is hardwired into his approach, and players insist the locker room remains upbeat despite the Tigers' tumble from the AP top 25. But after a start in which Clemson has topped 19 points just once -- against FCS South Carolina State -- questions remain about whether Clemson's struggles were an inevitable blip after the loss of two elite offensive players or a sign of larger -- and perhaps avoidable -- problems that could haunt the program well beyond this season.

Other dynasties, from Florida State to USC to Nebraska to Miami, have wilted abruptly, with the warning signs largely noticed in retrospect. At the same time, plenty of critics have looked foolish by prematurely predicting the end of Alabama's run. So where does Clemson stand now -- at the precipice of a steep decline or in a holding pattern awaiting more reinforcements?

ESPN spoke to more than a dozen current and former players, as well as a host of opposing players and coaches, to better understand Clemson's early struggles and answer some of the biggest questions looming over the team that dominated the ACC for the past decade.

How much does Clemson miss Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne Jr.?

In 12 games last season, Etienne had 34 explosive plays on his own. Through five games this season, Clemson's entire offense has just 31 -- and 10 of them came against South Carolina State.

Lawrence also maximized what has become a thin receiving corps, too. For years, Clemson churned out elite NFL talent at the position, from Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins to Mike Williams and Tee Higgins. But with Justyn Ross hurt last season, the Tigers relied almost exclusively on Etienne out of the backfield and slot receiver Amari Rodgers, along with occasional deep balls to veteran Cornell Powell.

"Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne covered up a lot of things a year ago," an opposing coach said. "The amount of times on third-and-18 last year that they would throw a checkdown to Etienne and he'd make eight people miss and gain 26 yards, that happened all the time."

Uiagalelei was expected to pick up right where Lawrence left off, just as he had during his brief stint as the team's starter in 2020 when Lawrence tested positive for COVID-19. He stepped in to lead a furious come-from-behind win over BC and threw for a record 435 yards at Notre Dame. But through five games, Uiagalelei is completing just 55% of his throws with four touchdowns and four interceptions.

"There's nobody like Trevor Lawrence," an ACC coach said. "Dabo thinks D.J. is really good, but he ain't Trevor Lawrence."

Danny Hernandez, who trained Uiagalelei in high school, said he has noticed a few small mechanical issues that help explain some of the QB's early missteps, but the larger problems are more about scheme and personnel. With few veterans surrounding Uiagalelei, the offense has struggled to find an identity or even establish a handful of reliable plays the Tigers can use to jumpstart the attack.

The same is true at tailback, where five-star Will Shipley was off to a solid start before a knee injury sidelined him against NC State. That left a backfield-by-committee to handle the workload, and the production, while not atrocious, lacked the reliable spark Etienne provided.

Meanwhile, development at the receiver position has been nominal the past few seasons, and now the scheme that worked so well with a star-studded cast during Clemson's six-year playoff run suddenly looks anachronistic.

Clemson has signed seven receivers in its past three classes, six of whom were four- or five-star recruits, but of that group, only junior Joseph Ngata has grown into a bigger role, while the other six have combined for 17 catches, 141 yards and no touchdowns this season. That has left Ross, Clemson's biggest offensive threat, to toil in the slot out of necessity.

"I still believe he gives us an advantage in the slot," Elliott said. "We feel like we've got him where he needs to be."

Why didn't Swinney look to the transfer portal for help if Clemson was thin and young at key positions?

Few coaches in the country are as averse to transfers as Swinney, and though he conceded last offseason that his approach has softened, moving longtime tight ends coach Danny Pearman into a transfer scouting role, Swinney still declined to add any transfers to his roster.

The conversation around transfers has grown increasingly frustrating for Swinney, who offers a full-throated defense of his decisions while avoiding much in the way of specifics.

"I wouldn't do anything differently," Swinney said this week, lamenting yet another query on the subject. "[To add a transfer] means I wouldn't have taken one of the kids we have here. You can only sign so many players. We all get 85 [scholarships]. ... Should I have gone into the transfer portal to take a veteran over Shipley and [Phil] Mafah? ... We lost to Joe Burrow when he was a transfer quarterback [in the 2020 College Football Playoff championship game], so should I have taken Joe Burrow over Trevor Lawrence?"

It's something of a straw man argument.

Clemson signed just 18 players in the 2021 recruiting class, all high schoolers. The scholarship cap of 85 was expanded for 2021 after the NCAA allowed an extra season for all players because of last year's COVID-19 impact, and Clemson has more than a half-dozen former walk-ons on scholarship now, too, including two of Swinney's sons.

Meanwhile, at one of the Tigers' thinnest positions -- running back -- Swinney has watched three former blue-chip recruits leave the program in the past 18 months. Chez Mellusi, its top running back signee in 2019, entered the transfer portal earlier this year and is now starting for Wisconsin. Demarkcus Bowman, the No. 3 tailback recruit in the country in 2020, left last October and is now at Florida. And earlier this season, veteran Lyn-J Dixon announced he intended to transfer, too.

Swinney noted that if he coached a program that didn't recruit elite high school talent, his approach might be different. But even at Alabama, which signs among the best high school classes annually, Nick Saban filled two critical holes with transfers who have blossomed in 2021: receiver Jameson Williams and linebacker Henry To'o To'o.

Still, Swinney built Clemson on culture as much as personnel, and that's likely his biggest aversion to a more genuine embrace of the portal. While he has consistently said he'll consider transfers in the future, he remains steadfast that this year's team wouldn't have benefited from veteran help from the portal.

"We're not 3-2 because we haven't signed somebody from the transfer portal," Swinney said. "Give me a break. I don't regret any of the kids we signed, at all."

How much of this is on the offensive line?

Here's where Swinney's argument against the portal even riles supporters. A year ago, Clemson's offensive line appeared overmatched against better defenses, causing an elite running back like Etienne to struggle at times. After averaging better than 7 yards per carry in each of his first three years at Clemson, Etienne managed just 5.4 last season -- a decline Swinney and Elliott largely blamed on defenses stacking the box to stop the run.

A year later, Swinney suggested the opposite might be true. With no established rushers in Clemson's backfield, defenses are daring the Tigers to run.

"Last year, where [we] really only had two receivers, and everybody said, 'You're not going to run the ball, let's see you throw it,'" Swinney said, "we were able to do that at a high level. The early part of this season is just the opposite. We have a big-armed quarterback and some dudes outside, and it's, 'Let's see you run the ball.' And we weren't able to do it. There aren't a lot of plays when they've got eight [defenders] deep."

The numbers back Swinney.

Last year, Clemson faced seven or more defenders in the box on about 30% of its offensive snaps. This year, it's just 22% . A year ago, the Tigers saw six DBs on the field for just 20 plays. This year, they've already faced that 21 times.

"NC State played a lot more two high safety defense," said one opposing coach who studied the film from Clemson's loss to the Wolfpack, "and if you did that last year against those guys, Etienne would have had a field day."

The result of the shift in defensive scheme, however, has been an almost twofold increase in sack rate, while the ground game is averaging the exact same yards-per-designed run as it did a year ago.

Some of the blame clearly falls on the line, which has seen declining production two years in a row. Veteran lineman Matt Bockhorst has been among the most outspoken critics of his unit's performance, erupting in a fiery outburst during Clemson's sluggish Sept. 18 win over Georgia Tech that he said underscored the immediacy of the problems.

"There's a standard that's been set by the guys before us and we owe something to that standard," Bockhorst said. "I'm not going to relent on that and I'm not going to let those guys down because I know what they gave. I know what they sacrificed, and I know what that looks like, and I'm going to bring it out of everybody some way."

In the aftermath, Clemson has tinkered with the lineup in the past two games, with mixed results. Clemson allowed a season-low in pressure rate and had a season high in rushing yards against BC.

As several former Clemson players noted, the history of development on the O-line was already spotty. While Clemson has produced NFL talent at every position group, Jackson Carman's selection in the second round of this year's draft represented the highest an O-lineman had gone during Swinney's tenure. This year's group has talent -- the 2021 recruiting class included four blue-chip offensive linemen -- but the production remains a concern.

"Their offensive line play is hurting more than their running back play," one ACC coach said. "Etienne was a great player, but there's a lot of runs where he wasn't touched until he's in the second level, and you're not seeing that right now."

Does Swinney need to shake up the coaching staff?

Amid the early struggles for Clemson's offense, no one has taken more criticism than Elliott, the longtime offensive coordinator who helped lead the Tigers to two national championships. While Elliott has lamented missed "layups" and considered simplifying the decision-making process for Uiagalelei, critics have complained that it's that simplicity that has undermined Clemson's attack.

That simplicity had been a virtue for Clemson in prior years, however.

"It's nothing crazy. They're not going to show us any different looks that we haven't seen before," Syracuse linebacker Mikel Jones said. "I feel like they know what they want to do -- they have their basics, and they just do well."

It's those layups, Elliott said.

"In the past, we'd make enough layups," he said, "that it would lead to a fast break."

The problem is, this year's personnel aren't doing the basics nearly so well, and Clemson has been slow to adapt. What used to be a pick-your-poison offense is now a simplistic scheme without a second gear.

"It's almost like they're still running last year's offense with different people," one opposing coach said. "But those guys are good coaches. I would not be shocked if they don't have something else designed."

Clemson's players have been quick to defend Elliott. But the struggles on offense have sparked debate among Tigers fans about the insular makeup of the Tigers' larger staff, and whether Swinney's emphasis on culture has come at the expense of innovation.

This offseason, Swinney made a rare adjustment to the staff, moving Pearman to the scouting role after years as the tight ends coach. It was a move necessitated, in part, by a controversy that followed Pearman after a former player tweeted about an incident in which the longtime assistant repeated a racist epithet during practice. It marked the first time in a decade Swinney replaced a coach who hadn't retired or left for another job.

At Alabama, Saban has seen coordinators and assistants leave en masse on a seemingly annual basis. At Clemson, Swinney has had just two offensive play-callers and one defensive coordinator for the past decade. Keeping Elliott and defensive coordinator Brent Venables on staff in spite of numerous overtures from other programs has been a foundational element of Clemson's culture, but that consistency also stands in stark contrast to innovative minds like Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, who joined Saban's staff at Alabama, added to the playbook, then moved on to success elsewhere.

Swinney has created a particularly insular approach to his staff, encouraging a promote-from-within hiring practice that has maximized culture but limited external influence. Of the 10 on-field assistants, seven graduated from either Clemson or Swinney's alma mater, Alabama. Seven assistants have never coached at another FBS program prior to their time at Clemson, and two who have -- Venables and offensive line coach Robby Caldwell -- have been on Swinney's staff for a decade or more.

But Swinney's prioritization of stability and culture on his staff has worked beautifully for a decade. Clemson's defense remains elite using the same insular approach, and Clemson's players remain emphatic that the culture developed by the staff will eventually lead to an offensive rebound, too.

"We have a vision for how this will play out," one player said. "And Clemson's culture will be more on display this year than any other year."

So, what's next for the Tigers?

At Alabama, the coaching changes and occasional slow starts have served as grounds for criticism over the years. In every case, Saban made the critics look foolish, with the program rebounding quickly and achieving ever more success.

The lesson was always clear: Predict Alabama's downfall at your own peril. This could also be the case for Clemson, which remains stocked with talent with a track record that demands patience, even amid a rocky start to the season. Clemson isn't far from 5-0, but it's also just shy of 1-4. It's a delicate enough situation to warrant tough questions, even if it's too early to hit the panic button.

Swinney's steadfast approach has served Clemson well for a decade, but if the 2021 season spirals further, questions will mount about how willing he is to adjust to a new era at the top echelon of college football.

Still, if a 3-2 start to the season highlighted a few cracks, Clemson's competition isn't breathing a sigh of relief.

"They're gonna win games, probably a lot of them," one ACC coach said. "I kind of chuckle when everybody says it's like doomsday. They lost to Georgia, and then they lost in double overtime and didn't execute well. Everybody just needs to kind of take a deep breath. This team isn't going away anytime soon."