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APTOPIX CFP National Championship Clemson Alabama Football

Clemson's Travis Etienne celebrates after the College Football Playoff Championship 44-16 win over Alabama on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif.

CLEMSON--Clemson’s eye-popping, record-setting offensive campaign in 2018 was authored at the skill positions in large part by underclassmen.

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The group was led in passing by true freshman Trevor Lawrence (3,280 yards), in rushing by sophomore Travis Etienne (1,658) and in receiving by sophomore Tee Higgins (59 receptions, 12 touchdowns) and freshman Justyn Ross (1,000 receiving yards).

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But even with the majority of the Tigers' record-setting offense returning, the coaching staff is not about to compare the 2019 squad to the 2018 one.

"I can remember, offensively, us going from winning the national championship (in 2016) to that next year not being the same," co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. "Obviously we have different guys, but still you want to have that consistency and get better. That's the challenge for this group is that we have to start over and even though last year was one of the best years of offense in Clemson history, we want to be better than that."

The 2019 season will be only the second time in school history that Clemson will return a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,500-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard receiver from the previous campaign.

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The only other Clemson team to welcome back such a trio was the eventual national champion 2016 squad, which returned quarterback Deshaun Watson, running back Wayne Gallman and wide receiver Mike Williams.

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"It just feels like it gets better and better every year. You can go back and we're watching cut-ups with that group of Sammy (Watkins) and Nuk (Hopkins) and Andre Ellington, Dwayne Allen, Tajh Boyd -- pretty special group," Scott said. "And the next group that kind of came behind them with Deshaun and Mike (Williams), Wayne (Gallman), Artavis (Scott), Jordan Leggett. When that group left, you are like, 'Is this going to be a little while before we have another group like this?' Then it's just like they keep getting better and better.

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"Part of that is because of what those groups did before them. That's why these guys ... it's because they watched guys like Mike Williams make plays when he was younger. At the same time, there's a strong message that talent's great, but talent doesn't win. Team wins. You've gotta develop the talent. And so, it's the character to go with the talent and I feel like we have that. So that's what I'm most excited about is I think we've got some talented guys that are eager, hungry and want to work."

Clemson was one of only three FBS programs to produce a 3,000-yard passer, 1,500-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver in 2018 and one of only 20 teams (including only nine Power Five teams) to accomplish the feat this decade.

If Clemson repeats the feat, it would become the first program this decade to produce a player in each category in back-to-back seasons.

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However, the coaching staff understands that even with the talent returning on offense, there is still a learning curve as they look to break in a few new pieces to the offensive puzzle.

"You know, it's hard to compare because it's a different, you know, different unit," co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. "Obviously I'm working somebody new at center, you know. Travis (Etienne) is out there performing at a high level, the backs have been pretty solid throughout the course of spring, breaking in new tight end.

"So you know, it's a little bit different ... Not quite as efficient, you know, as we've been in the past. And that's the area we're really going to challenge these guys to make sure that we stay ahead of the chains and not just try to live on the explosive play. Whereas last year we were just trying to come in and figure out how can we generate the explosive play, because we were very efficient in 2017."

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Zach Lentz is a Clemson University alumnus who got his start working with the Tigers basketball team from 1999-2004. Now a resident of Orangeburg County, he reports on Clemson sports as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat. He also serves as a co-host of Solid Orange, seen at 11 p.m. Wednesdays on WACH FOX 57 in Columbia. He is editor of www.ClemsonMaven.io

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