Clemson football: 5 critical players against Miami

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Dabo Swinney and Clemson football faces the first challenge of the season this coming week. The No. 1 ranked Tigers face the No. 7 Miami Hurricanes and versatile quarterback D’Eriq King. Along with Notre Dame, Miami presents one of the few obstacles for Clemson in the ACC. If the Tigers come up short against the Hurricanes, Clemson likely won’t make the College Football Playoff. The Oct. 10 matchup at Death Valley is a battle for title aspirations.

Clemson hasn’t lost to Miami in over a decade, and the combined scores from the last two meetings favor the Tigers 96-3. However, King and running back Cam’Ron Harris bring a new dynamic to Miami’s offense. Clemson needs all of its star players performing at a high level for this season-altering game.

Amari Rodgers, WR

Before the season and even during the first few weeks, I believed Clemson football needed wide receiver help from one of their younger players. However, my concerns seem irrelevant based on how well Amari Rodgers is playing. While Clemson wants more production from Frank Ladson Jr., Joseph Ngata and E.J. Williams, Rodgers can carry a heavy offensive load.

Through three games, Rodgers has 12 receptions for 206 yards and three touchdowns. He leads Clemson in all three categories. For reference, the senior’s best season came in 2018 when he caught 55 passes for 575 yards and four touchdowns in 15 games. At his current pace, Rodgers should finish the regular season with 44 receptions, 755 yards and 11 touchdowns. The speedy 5-foot-10 receiver is doing a masterful job standing in for injured star Justyn Ross.

Ladson is Lawrence’s second-favorite target this year. The sophomore has nine receptions for 179 yards and two touchdowns. He and Rodgers should carry Clemson’s passing game against Miami.

James Skalski, LB

Watching James Skalski, Clemson fans can’t help but remember Ben Boulware flying around, making plays on the 2016 national championship team. Like Boulware, Skalski possesses incredible instincts. He finished second on the team in tackles last season, only trailing ACC Defensive Player of the Year Isaiah Simmons.

At middle linebacker, Skalski has the task of shutting down Miami’s running game and containing King. Simmons possessed ideal speed and athleticism to keep up with the dual-threat quarterback, but he’s no longer with the program. That leaves Skalski as Clemson’s primary weapon for combating any trouble King and the Hurricanes cause at the defense’s second level.

Myles Murphy and company

Myles Murphy is only a freshman, but the 265-pound defensive end already has two sacks, five tackles for loss and 15 tackles this season. At this rate, he’ll be an All-American before leaving Clemson. Murphy is far from alone on the best defensive front in college football. Fellow freshman Bryan Bresee already has 1.5 sacks. The two freshmen are only small cogs in Clemson’s pass rush, which has 11 players with sacks this season.

The Tigers should get veterans Tyler Davis and Justin Foster back in time for next weekend’s showdown as well. David tallied 6.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss as a freshman, while Foster finished 2019 with 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. Extra snaps also have K.J. Henry and Nyles Pinckney playing at career levels.

Clemson boasts the best defensive line in the country. It features talented veterans and superstar freshmen. Against Miami, this unit must get in King’s face and force the Hurricanes to abandon the running game. Clemson can easily defeat a one-dimensional team, but it only reaches that point if Miami’s ground game gets swallowed up.

Trevor Lawrence, QB

The Hurricanes blazed their trail to the No. 7 spot in the country, scoring more points each week. King’s offense averaged 43 points per game through three weeks. Miami hasn’t faced a defense like Clemson’s yet, but even the Tigers might struggle against the overpowering offense. If Clemson’s defense fails, this matchup could turn into a shootout.

The Tigers specialized in deep, surgical strikes with Tee Higgins and Ross last season. Without those towering receivers, the same throws might not be possible. Clemson needs some extra sparks from Trevor Lawrence against Miami. A 40-point performance by the Tigers should crush the Hurricanes and maintain Clemson’s spot at No. 1 in the nation.

Travis Etienne, RB

The best way to deal with King’s versatility and Miami’s high-scoring offense is to keep them off the field. Between Travis Etienne and Lyn-J Dixon, the Tigers possess the best running back duo in the ACC. Etienne is the two-time ACC Player of the Year, and Clemson needs a vintage performance against Miami.

Etienne hasn’t had a 20-carry game since 2018, but the Tigers should consider feeding their future NFL back. He has the speed and strength to grind down defenses. Etienne is also one of the most efficient backs in college football, averaging 7.7 yards per carry throughout his career. Clemson should also get Etienne involved in the passing game. He led the Tigers with 114 receiving yards against Virginia.

Swinney doesn’t want to wear down his dynamic back before the playoffs, but Etienne is the key to breaking Miami’s will. Clemson football will put its season on the line this coming weekend.

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