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Clemson fans have been wearing it for a while.

By William Qualkinbush

“Wearing it” is a baseball term for getting hit by a pitch. I use it broadly to signify an understanding that a person or entity needs to embrace an incoming negative circumstance in any walk of life.

For fans of the football Tigers, 2021 (and now the earliest days of 2022) may feel like four months of sore ribs. We’ve seen a lot around here in that time frame.

A September 4th loss to eventual champion Georgia where the defense allowed three points. Subpar quarterback play. Subpar offensive line play. Subpar receiver play. A rash of injuries that presented a stark contrast from the good fortunes of the previous six seasons.

There were more one-score games in the 2021 regular season than the previous three seasons combined. Fans sat through them all without the payoff of even a division title at the end. A recruiting strategy that has benefited Clemson immensely in the past began to backfire. Brent Venables left. Four major recruits bailed out, only one following him to Oklahoma. He took Miguel Chavis Tony Elliott left. Dan Radakovich left.

Even within this barrage of negative energy, the close to the season provided hope on the horizon. Shutting out South Carolina and winning a one-score bowl game seemed to calm the waters.

Then came January 3rd, when Todd Bates joined Venables and Chavis at Oklahoma. His departure, which went from presumed to surprising over the course of three weeks, seemingly punctuated a four-month slog where nothing seemed to go exactly right. Even when it did, positive developments seemed to be offset by some new negative update to unbalance the scales once again.

Since then, however, things seem to be changing a bit. There appear to be some early signs that the months-long string of disappointments that had Clemson fans convinced their program might be merely mortal could be coming to an end. In less than three weeks, here are a few developments worth noting as the narrative begins to shift back in the Tigers’ favor:

  1. Nick Eason

Bates’ departure left a gaping hole and a slew of questions. For fans who assumed that a promotion and a raise for Bates had brought an end to the period of staff transition, the level of unease rose once again. After making internal hires to fill the other voids, Dabo Swinney went outside to bring Eason over from Auburn.

It is hard to find a box that Eason does not check. He is a Clemson alum held in high regard. His academic acumen and accomplishments in pro football speak for themselves. His ability to connect with players and their families, already a major plus at Auburn, has already been a major asset on the recruiting trail.

Eason brought credibility at a time when Clemson needed some for the first time in a while. It’s one thing for people in Clemson to have faith that Swinney would make sound hiring choices; it’s another thing entirely to convince recruits to sign onto the experiment. Eason’s natural charisma and his ability to sell both Clemson and his own experiences are major assets to a staff that tends to be strong at either one or the other, and that makes him a slam dunk.

  1. Recruiting the “middle”

Clemson has had success in recent years scouring the market for good deals during the period between the early signing period and the traditional National Signing Day. Isaiah Simmons and K’Von Wallace were late bloomers that Clemson recognized late in the game. Travis Etienne was another player who did not jump into the Tigers’ boat until the calendar turned.

With the decommitments trimming an already-small class by design, there is more work to be done in the final six weeks of the recruiting calendar than any time in recent memory. So far, so good in that regard for Swinney and the Tigers.

With a week to go before NSD, the Tigers have added Cole Turner–Nolan Turner’s younger brother–as a piece of low-hanging fruit. Two undervalued defensive backs in Kylon Griffin and Myles Oliver have also committed. Currently, there are about half-a-dozen prospects who could still add their names to Clemson’s list of signees, which could end up pushing the top ten at the end of the process. Not bad in the wake of all the aforementioned bad news.

  1. Defensive ends

The transfer portal is a place where Clemson has yet to sow significant seeds (more on that in a moment). However, the unexpected return of draft-eligible players has a way of feeling like a veteran addition, even if there wasn’t a jersey swap.

KJ Henry and Xavier Thomas provided such a lift for the Tigers after many assumed they were out the door to the NFL. To be fair, there was significant social media smoke to indicate they’d take the plunge into the draft, but both guys have now announced their intentions to come back for a final time.

The defensive end room isn’t lacking for depth, but the lack of highly-touted freshmen and high-profile options stood to be a topic of discussion throughout the offseason. Now, two players who have played a slew of snaps over the years return to give the group some hefty upside aside from rising junior Myles Murphy.

  1. Hunter Johnson

No, it wasn’t the major splash that Clemson fans wanted, or that many of Clemson’s rivals have chased in the portal. Arguably, though, the decision to bring Johnson back filled every desirable hole in the quarterback room.

First of all, he is a veteran with familiarity. He has starting experience, but he doesn’t expect to start now. He can both lend a hand to DJ Uiagalelei and be a mentor to Cade Klubnik. He is fine with being a third option initially, and should some catastrophe strike Clemson’s QBs due to injury or transfer, Johnson feels like a highly-qualified backup.

Check, check, check, check. Folks may want a bigger name or a bigger game, but this is exactly what Swinney needed to get from the portal. He may have found the only unicorn that could give it to him.

  1. Outside fuel

Fans of the ROY bus haven’t had much ability to rev it up lately. Clemson has been given the benefit of the doubt in most corners of the media, but after a season to forget in a plethora of ways, it seems many of those voices have, once again, knocked Clemson down a peg.

Now, that doesn’t exist everywhere. Clemson’s name shows up inside the top 5 of the country in many of the preseason rankings list available on the internet. However, sometimes it only takes one or two anecdotes to create the perception of doubt

So, when Andrew Booth isn’t listed by one outlet as a top five cornerback in the draft, it feels like a slight toward the tradition of Clemson corners, on top of a personal affront to him. Xavier Thomas couldn’t crack a top 20 list of returners that could have declared for the draft. With every new hire, national pundits have argued that *now* is the time when Swinney can prove himself, as if the previous decade-plus never existed.

Don’t poke the bear, folks. The worm is turning, and it seems like many of these people are simply helping it turn faster.