Friedlander: Cade Klubnik's Orange Bowl start provides glimpse into Clemson's future
As far as Dabo Swinney is concerned, Friday night’s Orange Bowl game is the “closer” to Clemson’s 2022 season.
And officially, it is.
Practically, however, the matchup against Tennessee is more of a dress rehearsal for 2023.
With another ACC championship already in hand and the College Football Playoff out of reach, there’s little of substance left for the Tigers to gain other than the pride that comes with beating an excellent SEC opponent and finishing with a win.
Far more important than the result is the experience several young players will have the opportunity to gain in expanded roles while filling in for teammates that have either opted out or will miss the game because of injuries.
Of that group, none will be under more scrutiny or pressure to perform than Cade Klubnik.
The highly-touted freshman quarterback spent most of the regular season watching and learning from the sidelines before bursting into prominence with an MVP performance against North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game.
It was a performance Swinney proclaimed to be “a glimpse of our future and what it looks like at Clemson.” But it also turned out to be a look at the present when the coach immediately named Klubnik as the Orange Bowl starter.
Within days, former starter DJ Uiagalelei was in the transfer portal on his way to Oregon State and his replacement was well on his way toward making the offense his own.
Klubnik messaged his receivers on the Tigers’ group chat organizing them to get together during the week before bowl preparations began so that he could start the process of building chemistry with them.
“It was just like, ‘Alright, I’m a leader now. I’m the QB,’” fellow freshman Antonio Williams said. “‘Let’s get on the field. Let’s work.”
Neither Klubnik’s assertiveness nor his performance against UNC should come as a surprise. He arrived at Clemson last spring as the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the nation and figured to be ready to usurp the inconsistent, mistake-prone Uiagalelei at some point during the year.
It almost happened at midseason when Klubnik emerged triumphantly from the shadows in the 2nd half to save the day against Syracuse. But he immediately took a step back by throwing a pick-6 2 weeks later at Notre Dame.
It took 4 more games, a crushing loss to arch-rival South Carolina and a slow start against UNC for him to finally get another chance. This time, he took full advantage.
Entering the game on his team’s 3rd possession of the game, the 6-2, 195-pound Texas native completed his first 10 passes while leading the Tigers to touchdowns on 3 consecutive drives.
— CFB Saturday Slate w/ Mick N Bus (@MickNBus_CFB) December 4, 2022
He finished the night 20-of-24 for 279 yards and a touchdown while also leading the team in rushing while scoring on the ground and catching a pass in Clemson’s 39-10 victory.
Klubnik’s numbers were so impressive that he’s already being included on several lists of leading 2023 Heisman Trophy candidates, including 1 during Fox’s broadcast of UNC’s Holiday Bowl game against Oregon on Wednesday.
Even though he’s yet to make his first start, he already sounds the part.
“My confidence comes from preparation and I love the game,” Klubnik said. “So when I get out there and play, I think another switch just kind of happens that I don’t really have any control over. It just kind of happens. Just another part of me kind of comes out and I just go out there and play.”
The kid clearly has the swagger and he can deliver the ball.
But can he deliver the goods?
It’s one thing to light up a Tar Heels defense that allowed 31 points and 438 yards per game while finishing dead last in the ACC this season. Doing it against an SEC defense and leading the Tigers to victory against the Volunteers will be a much more difficult proposition.
How he handles things at the Orange Bowl in what amounts to a practice test will go a long way toward answering that question and determining the amount of work both he and his offense will have ahead of them this offseason.
Just in case, Swinney stepped out of character by dipping into the transfer portal – something he disdains more than the sound of Sandstorm riling up a crowd at South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium – to bring in Paul Tyson from Arizona State.
Tyson is the great-grandson of Alabama coaching legend Bear Bryant. He started his college career as Bryce Young’s backup with the Crimson Tide and will spend his final season of eligibility at Clemson serving as a safety net for Klubnik.
If all goes well, Tyson will have the best seat in the house at Death Valley next fall. He might even get to take a few snaps in Victory Formation.
He, like Swinney and the rest of us, will get a clearer picture of what to expect on Friday when Klubnik starts the Tigers’ closer at the Orange Bowl and provides a much more accurate “glimpse into the future and what it looks like at Clemson.”