When it was announced in May that Clemson starting tight end Braden Galloway would miss the 2019 season after his suspension was upheld for failing a drug test due to ostarine, the immediate thought was that Clemson would struggle at the tight end position this year.
J.C. Chalk is the only other scholarship tight end with any experience, and he was used mostly as a blocking tight end his first couple of seasons. The redshirt junior looked more like an offensive lineman than someone capable of making consistent plays in the passing game as the Tigers exited the spring.
The other two scholarship tight ends are freshmen Jaelyn Lay and Davis Allen. Lay struggled with confidence, the playbook and drops during the spring, and Allen wasn’t even on campus until this summer.
The outlook was so bleak that Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said over the summer that Clemson might use more four-receiver sets in 2019 due to a lack of experience and depth at tight end.
But several weeks later, as the Tigers wrap up fall camp and start game planning for the opener against Georgia Tech, the position that appeared to be a big question mark suddenly looks like one with plenty of promise.
“Everybody in (the tight end room) really likes to work. There’s not a guy that’s lazy that’s going to take a back seat to anybody,” Chalk said. “A lot of people brush them off and don’t think they have much talent, but there’s a lot of guys that can help this team, for sure.”
Swinney has been encouraged by what he has seen from the tight ends throughout fall camp, and it starts with Chalk.
“I think it hit him right between the eyes this summer. He really worked his tail off, changed his body composition. He’s strong. And he’s a smooth guy. He’s got really nice hands. But he’s just gotten a lot more serious. He just carries himself like a veteran,” Swinney said. “I think it got real with him quickly when he looked around and saw, ‘Dadgum, this is my opportunity.’ So I’ve been really pleased with the sense of urgency.”
Chalk went from weighing 261 pounds at the start of the summer to 246 before the first day of fall camp.
After losing 15 pounds he feels like an entirely different player.
“I took my diet really serious this summer... It’s just helped me a lot with my conditioning, being able to move around better. I’ve studied the playbook a lot this summer,” Chalk said. “With so many young guys here it’s really challenged me to have to be a leader and show them what the roots are and explain the playbook to them. Just being able to step up and being mature.”
Chalk isn’t the only player who has upped his game over the past few months.
Lay has gone from looking lost at times during the spring to being someone who is physically and mentally ready to help the Tigers as a true freshman.
Swinney recently called Lay the most improved player from the spring, while co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said Lay has been a playmaker for the Tigers throughout fall camp.
“He’s put in the work, and you’re seeing that natural skillset. He’s catching the ball well. He’s moving well. He’s fighting. He’s tough,” Elliott said. “You’re starting to see those things because the game’s a little bit slower... He’s just a lot more confident, and we’re seeing that.”
Allen has only been on campus a couple of months, but the feedback on him during summer workouts was overwhelmingly positive before he went down with an ankle injury.
The Georgia native should be able to help the Tigers this season once he is fully healthy.
“One thing about Davis is that you can tell it’s important to him. We haven’t seen a change in his engagement at all (since being out)... He’s got a really good football IQ,” Swinney said. “He’s probably a guy that’s going to have to help us, and I’m hoping that he can. But until we see him do it full speed it’s hard to be sure.”
Walk-on Luke Price is another player “who is going to help us, for sure,” according to Swinney.
Between Chalk, Lay, Allen and Price, the Tigers should be just fine at tight end in 2019, a statement that seemed far-fetched when Galloway’s suspension was confirmed three months ago.