Defying the odds, ACC football was able to navigate the turbulent waters of the mid-pandemic offseason and plan for a 2020 season that seems well-positioned to succeed. The Clemson Tigers, who will enter the season ranked atop both major polls, are positioned to lead the pack throughout the course of the ACC slate with a second consecutive undefeated regular season and College Football Playoff berth serving as likely outcomes for Head Coach Dabo Swinney’s squad. Junior quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, and senior running back, Travis Etienne, are back in the fray for the Tiger offense and the Heisman Trophy candidates could very well establish them as all-time college football greats. On defense, the Tigers are led by middle linebacker, James Skalski, and defensive tackle, Nyles Pinckney, both of whom are redshirt seniors looking to finish off their Clemson careers in style. Of course, the aforementioned stars are accustomed to the spotlight and will be expected to step up for the Tigers each and every game this season. The X-factors will come in the form of the underrated players who are lurking in the shadows and gearing themselves up to earn their own spotlight cameos.
One such player is a veteran wide receiver who opted to stick around for his redshirt senior season in Tigertown after mulling a transfer in the offseason. Cornell Powell has never quite garnered the opportunity to flourish within the Clemson offense because of the consistent depth boasted by the “Wide Receiver U” receiving corps. However, in the wake of starting wideout Justyn Ross’s season-ending surgery, Powell will likely be a key cog in the Tigers’ passing attack. Powell recorded 15 receptions, two receiving touchdowns last year and his production should be expected to increase within a 2020 receiving unit that, aside from senior slot receiver Amari Rodgers, is fairly young.
Per usual, the Clemson defensive line is teeming with talent this year and a breakout star who is primed to burst onto the scene in the coming weeks might be the most promising talent up front for the Tigers defense. Redshirt sophomore defensive end, K.J. Henry was rated as the No. 6 high school player in the nation when he committed to play for the Tigers in 2017. The former five-star recruit has yet to establish himself as a dominant pass rusher and the reasons for that are quite similar to the previously mentioned rationale behind Powell’s inability to stand out thus far. The tremendous depth that has been a fixture of Clemson’s front four has delayed Henry from earning a starting job, but like Powell, an injury has opened the door for Henry to establish himself this fall. Junior defensive end, Xavier Thomas, is slated to miss the majority of the regular season due to medical concerns and Henry is expected to take the reins and fill the void left behind by Thomas’s absence. Henry sports all of the intangibles necessary of being a reliable pass rusher at the college level and he may be in line to amass a multitude of sacks this season.
One of the most notable, pivotal plays of the Tigers’ 2019 season was the late-game interception that free safety, Nolan Turner, made against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl. Securing the come-from-behind win for Clemson, Turner came through in the clutch and helped send the Tigers to their second straight national title game. Turner was a role player in the Clemson secondary last season, playing behind two veteran starting safeties. This autumn, Turner will have his chance to shine in the defensive backfield, as the redshirt senior is tentatively penciled in as Clemson’s starting free safety. Turner, whose late father, Kevin, played alongside Swinney as a member of the Alabama Crimson Tide, has come a long way since enrolling at Clemson. The hard-hitting ball hawk notched 66 tackles, 10 pass breakups, two interceptions and one forced fumble last year, arguably foreshadowing what Turner would achieve upon being inserted into the starting lineup.
More than just X-factors, these three rising stars are “impact players” that are flying under the radar for now but nearing their respective opportunities to make a significant impact on the Tigers’ quest to win a national championship. Powell, Henry and Turner are three of many such players on the Clemson depth chart as Swinney and his coaching staff have done an excellent job of building a well-rounded roster that features great talent from top to bottom. With that being said, the trio of impact players outlined in this breakdown could have an impact that is felt across the entire college football landscape and the drive to compete at the highest level and compete for College Football Playoff glory will be the fuel that drives these three players as they take on the 2020 season.