CLEMSON — The Tigers return five starters off of last year’s offense, but have plenty of holes to fill.
A unit that scored 43.5 points per game last fall is breaking in a new five-star quarterback and also must replace its NFL Draft pick at left tackle, the ACC’s all-time leading rusher and its top two receivers. Yet, the Tigers have plenty of answers.
The offensive line is returning three starters, there is plenty of depth at running back, and D.J. Uiagalelei looks like a future star behind center. Despite all of that, there are still some individuals that need to rise to the occasion and perform to expectations for Tony Elliott’s offense.
Here are the three players who could make or break the Clemson offense in 2021.
A former top-50 recruit in the class of 2020, Parks played in 11 games last year and was a reliable role player for offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell to use off the bench. At 6-foot-5 and 295 pounds, the sophomore has what it takes to contribute at a high level in the ACC. In the spring, the young player flashed some leadership potential.
“We didn’t really give our teammates a fair opportunity from our performance because we weren’t that dominant,” Parks said. “That’s definitely something that we’ve been talking about working on this year. It pisses me off and it pissed the other guys off, too.”
Parks is expected to start opposite of veteran Jordan McFadden at one of the two tackle spots, and that should give the offense two reliable bookends at tackle. Uiagalelei needs to feel comfortable with a new offensive tackle protecting him. Clemson hopes that Parks can play up to the recruiting hype after a Freshman All-American campaign last fall.
The tackle spots are important, but the center position is one of the most underrated in college football. Players in the middle of the line must be effective communicators, in addition to having the strength to hold up against power players weekly. This is a position that requires both brain and muscle.
Rayburn must hold off Mason Trotter, but the redshirt sophomore seems like the next man up in the middle.
A former three-star recruit, he is now in year three in the program with 10 career games played. However, the 320-pound lineman only played 57 snaps last season. His next start will be his first on the collegiate level. Clemson needs to depend on its center while breaking in a new quarterback.
Rayburn will need to step up to the challenge.
The former major recruiting win from California has been getting plenty of attention this offseason. Ngata had a very strong spring that was capped off by a monster performance in the spring game. The junior reeled in six receptions on eight targets, including an amazing 49-yard jump-ball reception in the third quarter.
The Clemson coaching staff is not backing away from expectations for their 6-foot-3 outside receiver.
“This kid is incredibly gifted,” said Dabo Swinney. “He’s still getting 100 percent, but he’s been out there competing. He’s had a great spring. It’s really just having a great summer, getting his body right where it needs to be, continue to really work on his rehab and his recovery. He’s going to make a million plays if he’s healthy.”
The Tigers need a playmaker to complement Justyn Ross. This could come from a bunch of different people, but Ngata feels like the one guy who could make a big-time jump to become one of the best receivers in the country.