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‘A match made in heaven’: Klubnik, Riley ready to shine in season opener

Tigers to take on Blue Devils
Katie Bradham
No. 9 Clemson will kick off its 2023 season when it takes on Duke in Durham, North Carolina, on Sept. 4, 2023.

Sept. 4 marks 248 days since the Tigers last took the field. Now, the wait is officially over: Clemson football is back.

On Monday, No. 9 Clemson will gear up against in-conference opponent Duke at 8:00 p.m. in Durham, North Carolina.

The Tigers have something to prove this season following last year’s disappointing loss to Tennessee in the Orange Bowl, and the goal is clear: making a return to the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2020. But it all starts with the Tigers’ new quarterback-coordinator pairing.

Under the guidance of new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley, sophomore quarterback Cade Klubnik will look to shine under center. Starting in just one game last year, Klubnik completed 61.0% of his passes for 697 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions but has taken the offseason to step into a true leadership role for the team.

Riley is impressed with his signal-caller’s dedication to his craft both on and off the field, noting how his study habits have rubbed off on the entire team.

“They’re all eager to watch film, and they’re always kind of watching together as quarterbacks,” he said. “And it’s not us coaches having to be in there to meet with these guys. You got quarterbacks running meetings with receivers, tight ends and running backs.”

ESPN’s College GameDay analyst Pat McAfee went so far as to say, “I think Cade Klubnik, with Garrett Riley, is going to be a match made in heaven. Because if you watch Cade play, there’s some flashes of some real greatness, and I think Garrett will be able to do that.”

As the offense grows into a more cohesive unit, one can speculate how different the Tigers’ offense will look this year. Considering redshirt freshman wide receiver Cole Turner was the only Clemson player to record 100-plus receiving yards in a single game last season, expectations are that Riley will utilize the talents of Beaux Collins, Antonio Williams and Adam Randall more.

When Klubnik and the receivers aren’t the focal point, Clemson’s run game will be in the hands of junior running backs Will Shipley and Phil Mafah, who recorded 1,182 and 515 rushing yards, respectively, last season.

Ultimately, head coach Dabo Swinney believes that Riley will serve as “the shot of confidence that we need” for the Tigers’ complete offense to thrive this season.

The first roadblock for Riley and the Tigers this season is a Duke team led by head coach Mike Elko. Elko enters his second season in Durham coming off a 9-4 (5-3 ACC) campaign in 2022 after previously serving as the defensive coordinator at Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Texas A&M.

Elko’s front four shined last year, led by tackle DeWayne Carter and defensive end R.J. Oben, who had a respective 5.5 and four sacks apiece. However, Duke’s back seven lost defensive back Darius Joiner and linebacker Shaka Heyward, two key contributors, to the NFL in April.

Meanwhile, the Tigers’ secondary returns safeties R.J. Mickens, Andrew Mukuba and Jalyn Phillips. Opposite them will be Duke wide receivers Jalon Calhoun and Jordan Moore, who recorded 873 and 656 receiving yards, respectively, last season.

Throwing to those two pass catchers will be quarterback Riley Leonard, who led the Blue Devils in rushing yards with 699 while throwing for 2,967 and 20 touchdowns last season.

The matchup promises to be an exciting start to conference play this season and will be broadcast on ESPN.

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About the Contributors
Grace O'Donnell, Sports Editor
Katie Bradham, Senior Videographer
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