The D.J. Uiagalelei era came to a close during the ACC Championship game early on, where Dabo Swinney once against benched his former top recruit for Cade Klubnik. The results were undeniable, as the Tigers went on to blow out North Carolina over the next couple of hours.
Klubnik stabilized the offense, finally getting the chains moving after a slow start behind Uiagalelei, who has since entered the transfer portal. This is now Klubnik’s team, and his moment will continue in the Orange Bowl against Tennessee.
Clemson struggled all season offensively, as Uiagalelei never settled in. Swinney finally turned to another five-star quarterback in relief, and it certainly looks like he found something to work with.
“Like most of their team he’s really talented,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “He has a strong arm, strong release. He’s played some reps, obviously not the lion’s share, the other kid did outside of the North Carolina game. He’s an athlete. We went back and watched his high school film, tremendous athlete with a strong arm.”
Klubnik gets a Tennessee defense that ranks near the bottom of the barrell against the pass. The secondary has been a mess down the stretch, dealing with several injuries at cornerback. South Carolina and Spencer Rattler took this defense apart, scoring 63 points in a blowout that ended Tennessee’s championship hopes. But then, Tennessee pitched a shutout against a hot Vanderbilt team to end the season. Go figure.
However, Clemson will be a different challenge, obviously. Klubnik was the sixth ranked player in the class of 2022, another elite prospect coming out of the state of Texas.
“He’s talented — I can see why he’s there,” Banks said. “I can see why those guys are so high on him. We’re going to have our hands full, but we’ve obviously played a ton of talented quarterbacks within this league. He’s just the next guy up.”
So how will the offense change with Klubnik running the show? That’s something that Banks doesn’t have a ton of tape on just yet.
“I will tell you from that perspective the sample size is small,” Banks said. “When he was in there, whether it was the North Carolina game or some of the other games he got in late, very similar, particularly in the throw game, what they ask him to do. He’s connected on a bunch of deep balls, and like I said, they’ll run him. You just don’t know. But I think he’s capable of doing the same things that the other kid did. It’s just a matter of whether they decide to use him that way.”
Klubnik does have 22 carries on the year for 88 yards and a score.
The Clemson offense will still center around running back Will Shipley, who ran for over 1,100 yards this season and scored 15 touchdowns in the process. But if Klubnik can open things up in the passing game, Clemson will have something to work with in 2023. That preview begins on December 30th against Tennessee.
Can Tennessee’s offense — playing without Hendon Hooker, Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt — keep up? That’s up to Joe Milton, Ramel Keyton, Bru McCoy and Squirrel White. How much will this passing game fall off without their main cogs available? Can Tennessee get Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright going on the ground?
This game has plenty of question marks coming in, and Clemson’s five-star freshman quarterback is one of those. Tennessee’s 86th ranked defense has some issues, but one thing they will do is bring aggression to the table. How will Klubnik handle Banks’ blitz packages? That’s a key in this one, because we know Banks will try to bring some heat.
It’ll be interesting to see if Klubnik can back up his ACC-title performance in Miami.
Kickoff for the Orange Bowl is set for Friday, December 30th at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.