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Clemson lets almost the whole roster play, destroys good teams anyway

The Tigers have long liked to involve a lot of players. Now they’re doing it and still beating up on quality opponents.

Syracuse v Clemson Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

Dabo Swinney’s Clemson is known for letting plenty of guys see the field. A 41-7 drubbing over a previously undefeated NC State has to be near the epitome.

A look at Clemson’s box score shows that the Tigers played 84 (eighty four) players on either offense, defense, or special teams. That’s almost all of the 95 total players listed on the roster. Only 85 are even allowed to be on scholarship.

Just for comparison, from the same day: Alabama listed 44 players as having seen the field in its similar blowout win over Tennessee, and Oklahoma listed 49 during an easy win over TCU.

The Tigers played more than that in just the first quarter, so it wasn’t like their depth guys only played in garbage time in this key division game:

A review of Clemson’s participation charts in the past shows the Tigers love to play a lot of players.

  • 2017: 102 of 105 rostered players played at least a snap during the season
  • 2016: 97 of 98
  • 2015: All 84
  • 2014: 89 of 92

And Clemson seems to be increasing this trend as its roster becomes more and more talented.

The Tigers played 91 players against The Citadel last season, but that was The Citadel. What’s more typical is the 64 players the Tigers used against Florida State last season. Plenty of players, but not the entire complement of scholarship players, even though that game was at home and would also become a comfortable win.

For a while, Clemson’s all-inclusive approach was a possible reason the Tigers struggled to destroy teams. After all, how can you put away an opponent’s starters with your own backups on the field?

Well, apparently that’s not a worry any more.

In the past couple years, Clemson’s struggled to really impress S&P+ at times because it took a long time to put away opponents. In one 2017 game against Boston College, the Tigers let 75 players see the field and went into the fourth quarter tied at 7 before pulling away.

2018 NC State doesn’t look elite, but the Wolfpack are probably better than 2017 Boston College. Clemson built a 24-0 halftime lead despite emptying the bench on Saturday.

It’s a pride point for Swinney and Clemson to play lots of players, maybe owing to the coach’s past as a walk-on.

For the last few years, the ACC has had a travel roster size of 72 players, a cost-saving measure. So the fact that this game was at home has plenty to do with the heavy number of players available to play. But Clemson loves using as many guys as possible, especially at the skill positions. The Tigers make a selling point of that, as in a media guide last year:

-Clemson is one of the few teams nationally that uses four running backs virtually every game. As a result, no running back has played more than 350 of the offense’s 978 snaps this year.

-Like the running-back contingent, the wide-receiver corps is also balanced in terms of participation, as nine receivers have played at least 149 snaps this year.

Swinney’s talked about the participation before, and how getting players on the field is a big deal for him.

“I just know that I play as many guys that deserve to play as much as we can,” Swinney said. “You might have one guy that gets 80 percent and one guy that gets 20 percent, but that 20 percent is really critical to the development of your team and that player as you go throughout the course of the season. I think it’s huge by the end of the year when you have a fresh team, a team that’s still got a lot of tread on their tires.”

Maybe this has a bit to do with Swinney’s own past as a walk-on backup who played sparingly, then earned his way onto the field as a receiver at Alabama.

Also, the NCAA’s new redshirt rule that lets players have up to four games while not losing eligibility makes doing this easier.

Two takeaways here: 1) If you go to Clemson, you’re probably gonna get to play at some point, 2) it won’t just be against The Citadel, and 3) this is one reason Clemson can keep reloading so easily from year to year.

The Tigers are good enough to get next year’s starters and backups reps against live competition and keep their record clean this year. That’s a win-win.