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CFF Discussion - East Atlanta Santa returning Tigers to CFF stardom in 2023?
Tigers QB/WRs should see a CFF boost with Clemson's new staff
Santa Claus of the hood, I pull up with the work
They call me East Atlanta Santa, run up on me get murked
- Dabo Swinney, Clemson football coach / Gucci Mane, musician
Dabo Swinney, otherwise known as East Atlanta Santa (EAS), had a winning formula for a minute there, didn’t he? Of a higher relevance, his Clemson teams produced some massive CFF assets in the mid-to-late 2010s. RB Travis Etienne was a star from virtually day one, Justyn Ross was a star from day one along with his QB Trevor Lawrence. Tee Higgins was also a strong fantasy asset in 2018 and 2019. Prior to that generation there was workhorse RB Wayne Gallman, WR Mike Williams and QB Deshaun Watson. And before that we had WR Sammy Watkins and RB Roderick McDowell.
Clemson’s a fun program to dissect because, while South Carolina is a solid football state, it is not bountiful enough when it comes to high-end football prospects to single-handedly fuel a program like Clemson to reach the heights that it did in the 2010s. There are multiple areas out of state that the Tigers hit hard to make up this deficit, perhaps none harder than the east Atlanta high school circuit. Indeed, East Atlanta Santa has struck gold on numerous occasions recruiting the twilight zone — Gwinnett County, in particular.
QB Deshaun Watson played at (unfortunate name) Gainesville high school in the north east Atlanta metro. Bell-cow RB Gallman played at perennial power Grayson; and before bringing in QB savant Trevor Lawrence, EAS brought in QB Chase Brice out of the Grayson well once again in the 2017 class. Evidently, in the case of Lawrence, the talent was enough to entice EAS to make the trek slightly west over to Cartersville in northern Atlanta, a minor inconvenience for Swinney, as he would have to momentarily change his name to North Atlanta Santa during Lawrence’s recruitment (I imagine he would say it was worth it in the end). There is also a laundry list of stud defenders such as DB Andrew Booth of Archer High in this group also.
Indeed, GC has been kind to the Tigers over the years, and, unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the instate powerhouse UGA. Apparently, EAS has been doing something right on the trail, and it doesn’t look like that pipeline is slowing down anytime soon.
But things have gone awry on the field in recent years. Many are wondering, has EAS lost his touch? Well, he responded by putting the college football (CFB) world on notice with an ambitious hire in former TCU OC Garret Riley (yes, this is the brother of USC head coach Lincoln Riley). The Tigers also formally passed the torch at the QB position late in the 2022 season, declaring the DJU experiment officially over. Swinney’s crew look to usher in the Cade Klubnik era in 2023, with hopes of rekindling that 2010s magic once again. Klubnik should be well equipped with weapons at the WR position, and I think the Tigers’ CFF profile has a good chance to be elevated in 2023.
Coaching & System
In 2023, the Tigers' offense will receive a much-needed boost under the guidance of newly appointed offensive coordinator, Garrett Riley. With a promising track record in his coaching career, Riley, at only 33 years old, is widely regarded as a rising star in college football (CFB). Four years ago he was a mere position coach at App State (RBs), now he’s the OC of arguably a top five program in the country.
In 2022, Riley served as OC/QBs coach for TCU. It’s well documented that TCU had a magical season last year and the success of QB Max Duggan and the WR core were key components of that. Duggan threw for 3698 yards with a 63.7% completion percentage and converted 32 TDs to only 8 INTs. He also added an additional 423 yards rushing on 137 attempts and 9 TDs.
Potential NFL first round draft pick Quentin Johnston caught 60 passes for 1089 yards and 6 TDs; WR2 Taye Barber had a solid season also, catching 37 passes for 613 yards and 5 scores.
Duggan averaged 26.29 fantasy points per game (FPG) in 4-point passing TD formats, while Johnston and Barber averaged 14.3 and 8.6 (1-ppr) respectively.
Prior to joining TCU, Riley OC’d the SMU Mustangs program to great success. In 2021, QB Tanner Mordecai passed for 3628 yards and 39 TDs to 12 INTs. His top three WRs Danny Gray (803), Rashee Rice (670) and Reggie Roberson (625) each went over 600 yards. Gray and Rice led the team in receiving TDs with 9 each in 10 and 12 games respectively, while Roberson caught 6 TDs in 12 games .
The 2020 campaign was less successful from a WR production standpoint, as only slot receiver Rashee Rice went over 600 yards on 48 receptions while securing 5 TDs (note that the Mustangs played in only 10 games this season compared to 12 in 2021). The Mustangs’ QB that season was Shane Buechele, who threw over 3000 pass yards and converted 23 TDs to 6 INTs. He also added 105 yards and 2 TDs on the ground.
Obviously, in addition to Riley there is a strong history of CFF QB/WR play at Clemson under EAS. Though, I don’t know how much of that I would attribute to Swinney. Still, there is enough to like here to warrant a deeper dive into these position groups heading into 2023.
Cade Klubnik SZN
Between his time at SMU and TCU, Riley’s QB’s scored 23.8 (Buechele), 25.44 (Mordecai) and 26.29 (Duggan) FPG. The trajectory appears on the up, as the FPG numbers keep getting fatter every season. If we exclude the COVID season, his QBs average 25.87 FPG.
Arguably, the most talented gunslinger of Riley’s career so far is the one he’ll be working with this season. Klubnik (6’2, 195) was a decorated recruit coming out of Austin, Texas’ Westlake high school. Rated as a five-star prospect on 247 Sports, Klubnik was also named Gatorade Football Player of the Year in Texas for 2021.
In his first year on campus at Clemson, Klubnik primarily served as a back-up to DJU, not getting a start until December 3rd against UNC. He would put in a strong performance, passing for nearly 280 yards and a TD, while also rushing 7 times for 30 yards and another score. These numbers track to 29.85 fantasy points (FPs). The following game vs. Tennessee saw Klubnik use his legs much more, as he ran 20 times for 51 yards and a score, while passing for 320 yards. His overall performance (23.1) was less effective from a fantasy standpoint, though, as he converted zero TDs through the air and threw two picks.
Luckily for Klub and the Tigers, they don’t have any SEC opponents on their schedule in 2023 (okay one, but who really counts SC); and now with DJU out of the picture, the runway is as clear as it’ll ever be for the rising sophomore to put his mark on this program. With a full offseason as QB1 under Riley’s mentorship, Klub should be primed for a big 2023.
The rushing upside is an X-factor for Klubnik. Riley has shown he is not reluctant to use his QBs on the ground at TCU and SMU, and given Klub’s (albeit limited) track record of rushing yardage, I think this is going to be a substantial aspect of the Tigers’ offence in 2023.
The sample size is too small to make any definitive judgements on his passing ability, but his first two starts were good from a yardage standpoint. I suspect the offence overall is going to be more productive under Riley’s system than the previous two years, and if so, that should spell good news for those in possession of Klubnik shares this season.
Riley’s WR numbers aren’t as impressive as the QB numbers, but there is at least one 1000-yard receiver in his three seasons as OC, so at least we can say there is a precedent for what we’re looking for. Excluding the COVID numbers, his WR1 has averaged 946 yards and 7.5 TDs on 54.5 receptions per season. Those numbers by themselves track to just over 16 FPG. That average is certainly nothing special but it is still pretty good, in my opinion. Enough to warrant my attention on the Tigers’ WR room headed into 2023.
Antonio Williams - 5’11, 190
We will start with Williams as he is the lead returning receiver. He is also a different type of player compared to most of the Tigers’ other WRs as he is of the mold of a smaller, slot receiver type.
In 2022, Williams caught 55 passes (75 targets) for 598 yards and 4 TDs. These numbers track to 9.75 FPG. I think it tells you pretty much all you need to know about Clemson’s offence last year that these numbers were good enough to be WR1. Shameful! That’s why EAS brought in Riley, am I right?
Looking at his time at SMU, Riley does have a history of his slot receiver finishing the season as WR1 — Rice in 2020. In 2021 and 2022 Riley’s slot receivers Rice and Barber finished as WR2 on his teams, averaging 641 yards on 50.5 receptions and 5.5 TDs.
Williams is intriguing simply by virtue of the fact that he is the only one out of the big three WRs returning to this team that looks to be a slot player. Unfortunately, Riley’s WR1s lately have skewed more towards the larger boundary type players.
A question that immediately comes to mind is: what was Williams’ target share and production like in Klubnik’s two starts?
Not terrible, but not performances that demand a spot on CFF rosters either.
Let’s take a look at some of the others.
Beaux Collins - 6’3, 210
Collins definitely fits the description of a big bodied boundary receiver. The Los Angeles native finished 2022 with just over 370 yards receiving and 5 TDs on 22 receptions (38 targets). He averaged 9.1 FPG just behind Williams. Collins enters his third season with the Tigers.
Like many on the Clemson roster, Collins was a highly rated recruit. He has yet to convert on his promise; but, 2023 could be the recipe to unlock his ceiling. As mentioned, Riley’s got a history of larger WR usage in his systems, in particular with Johnston last season at TCU.
It doesn’t appear that Collins had the type of chemistry with Klubnik in 2022 that CFF managers were hoping for as he only saw three and two targets in the two games Cade started. Unfortunately for Collins, it might be difficult to develop that chemistry for 2023 as he is limited this spring with a shoulder injury.
I’m not ready to write him off just yet, however, there is not a lot about his profile that compels me to draft him.
Adam Randall - 6’2, 230
The first thing that stands out about Randall is that he is thicc. He is the heaviest of the three WRs and his build matches that more of a hybrid TE or H-Back. The rising sophomore caught 10 passes (25 targets) for 128 yards in his true freshman season last year.
Randall is something of a hometown hero for the Tigers as he is a South Carolina native, albeit from the other side of the state in Myrtle Beach. He was a highly touted recruit in the 22 class and looks poised to occupy a boundary receiver role in the offence this season.
In each of Klubnik’s starts, Randall saw three targets, of which he caught one for 5 yards against UNC and three for 44 yards vs. Tennessee.
He was singled out by the Tigers’ coaches during the 22 season for his work ethic in practices; former OC Brandon Streeter vowed to supply more opportunities to Randall last October. While he would see a slight uptick in targets relative to before (you can only go up from zero) the volume was still nothing extraordinary.
He made headlines early on in spring camp this time last year, as CFF analyst Nate Marchese points out in his tweet below:
His performances in spring ball were enough to garner him the nickname ‘baby Julio’ (a nod to NFL WR Julio Jones) and draw comparisons to former Tiger standout WR Mike Williams. Unfortunately, Randall would suffer a major knee injury in early April of that year, but would remarkably still find his way to the field that season making his Clemson debut on September 17th only five and a half months post ACL tear. Now in year two with a full offseason of (hopefully) good health, Randall could be in for a major sophomore breakout.
If I’m drafting the three WRs, I would probably still take Williams first, due to his proven production. My next player would be Randall — I like idea that he is still scratching the surface of what he’s going to be, and he fits the profile of some of Riley’s most prolific WRs in the past.
Of note, Riley had a 1000-yard rusher last season in Kendre Miller. The implications of the new staff for RB Will Shipley will be covered in another article at a future time.
OK. So we covered a lot. Let’s take inventory of what we’ve been thinking:
The new OC Riley will probably boost the CFF stock of this offence as a whole, particularly the QB. There may also be a breakout candidate at WR.
Of the three WRs, the lead returner is a slot player. That doesn’t fit the profile of Riley’s last two WR1s but he did have success with Rashee Rice.
Of the two boundary players, I am more intrigued by the upside of Adam Randall.
I think there will be more of a boost to Klubnik’s CFF profile than to the WRs. While there is a track record of success, the WR1 numbers under Riley aren’t insane either.
Dabo should definitely adopt the nickname East Atlanta Santa — that is, if he hasn’t already when he’s out on the trail.
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