When ACC Network studio analyst Eric Mac Lain thinks about the 2022 Clemson Football season, his mind immediately goes to the most important position of the game.
After all, the Tigers’ former offensive lineman has seen firsthand just how much elite quarterback play can uplift Clemson. Mac Lain spent most of his all-conference career blocking for future national champion Deshaun Watson.
Just don’t call Clemson’s 2022 quarterback situation with junior DJ Uiagalelei and freshman Cade Klubnik a contest, Mac Lain said, because that’s far from it.
“Some people want to classify it that way,” Mac Lain told The State during the ACC’s football media days last week. “It’s not. That’s DJ’s job until he loses it. And I don’t think Cade can win it, which may sound crazy. But I don’t think Cade can do anything where he can DJ jump.”
But if Uiagalelei struggles, Mac Lain added he’s confident that “Cade will be ready to play and he’s a winner. It’s competitive as everyone gets out. His best trait right now is being able to move around the bag and get things done. DJ can’t really do that. At least we didn’t see it. Maybe with that new body and weight loss, he’ll be able to.”
Here’s what else Mac Lain, who is entering his fourth year as ACCN senior football analyst, had to say about coach Dabo Swinney’s program, which begins in the fall. Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Loaded on defense
“You look at that defense and that line of defense in particular… I thought so, and Coach Swinney said so: It’s a perfect blend of 2014 and 2018. What I mean by that is it has the depth of 2014, where you are right now has so many guys and the star power of 2018. In 2018 if a guy gets hurt there might be another guy and after that it’s a lot of young guys. This group has the depth and first-round talent.”
“I wouldn’t be shocked at all if you include Trenton Simpson if four defenders or linemen are drafted in the first round, or at least within the first 50 picks. These guys are extremely deep. As a linebacker, it’s crazy that Clemson can lose (Baylon) Spector and (James) Skalski, but I still feel a little better because these guys are very fast. You are very athletic. You come with an advantage. And I think they will take a step forward.
“I think there are a few question marks in the backend just because you lose two first-team All ACC guys at cornerback again. The good thing about Clemson is they reload and guys wait. I think (cornerback) Nate Wiggins is really going to surprise a lot of people. I think (cornerback) Sheridan Jones will hold the other spot. And then Andrew Mukuba, he is my #1 safety in the ACC.”
“I think you should feel confident, Clemson fans, that you have a backup option that you might not have had a year ago. But I think the mindset of these guys – and it really resonates throughout the team – is that they want each other to be successful. They want to push each other, they want to grind and in the end they want their mate, their friend, their teammate to win.
“And at the end of the day, they’ve had great success with it. I think the running back room is a great example of that. I mean, you have three NFL guys (Will Shipley, Kobe Pace, and Phil Mafah) who share football. There is only one ball, and usually only one runs back onto the field. So they will find out. Eventually it’s going to be something that I think will get the (quarterback) position right one way or another.
Looking back at the fights in 2021
“Quarterback is easy to say. It’s easy to point a finger at that. But there was such a lack of consistency. It was such a lack of availability. It falls to the quarterback because that’s the nature of the position and he has to be able to be the glue that holds things together, even if they’re different pieces.
“But geez … you could hardly have the same guys starting every week on offense because of injuries or COVID or lack of availability. Two true newcomers and Will Swinney started for wide receivers at the end of the season. That’s no blow to him, but there’s a slightly higher standard at Clemson than that. They expect five stars to roll there. They did a great job and won a great game (vs. Iowa State in the Cheez-It Bowl), but that lack of availability also took a toll on cohesion.
“In this linebacking corps, you look at a guy who’s just an absolute cracker in LaVonta Bentley. I think he’ll be able to take a really big step forward. With cornerback, Toriano Pride Jr., I think he’s going to be a guy who comes in and plays right away. And then you look at the offensive side of the ball and I think right guard Dietrick Pennington is a guy who can take it to another level. Those are some of the guys I’m really keeping an eye on.”
“Oct. 1 (if Clemson hosts NC State). That’s a massive, massive date. The winner of this game will play in the ACC Championship. The winner of this game will probably go be the ACC champion. Apparently this one is circled.”
“And then the Notre Dame game (on November 5th) for personal reasons. I have family members up there who are big Golden Domer fans. When I did that in 2015 (beat Notre Dame) it was a big deal (laughs).
This story was originally published July 25, 2022 6:00 a.m.