RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik was asked if he felt any butterflies about his first season as a starter for the ninth-ranked Tigers.
“I’m excited,” Klubnik said quickly with a smile. He then used “excited” five more times in his two minute answer.
Told of his passer’s exuberance, first-year Clemson offensive coordinator Garrett Riley smirked. “You got to calm him down sometimes, he’s so amped up,” Riley said. “And that’s certainly not a bad thing.”
Especially if the sophomore passer channels high energy into high-scoring performances.
Klubnik grabbed attention as a freshman backup for D.J. Uiagalelei last season, entering when the Tigers’ offense struggled against Syracuse and rallying the team from 11 points down in the second half to a 27-21 victory.
When Uiagalelei struggled again a few weeks later in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game against North Carolina, Klubnik once more got the call and delivered with a high-octane showing in a 39-10 win.
The Tigers and Klubnik were then soundly beaten by Tennessee 31-14 in the Orange Bowl.
Klubnik accepted his mistakes and pledged to improve. He believes he’s found a perfect fit in Riley’s offense, which keeps things simple yet allows all players to showcase their abilities.
“It’s just a confidence and kind of just a peace about it,” Klubnik said of the new schemes. “Just knowing that we can just go play. We’re not trying to prove anything. We’re not trying to do anything. We’re just going to go play ball.”
Klubnik, Riley and the Tigers won’t get to ease into the season. Clemson, which finished 11-3 and won its seventh ACC crown the past eight seasons, starts at Duke on Monday night.
Klubnik will be outmatched in the experience category with Blue Devils passer Riley Leonard, who helped the program go 9-4 and is eager to take another step forward against the defending league champs.
The Blue Devils “respond to challenges very well. We laid all that out there for them for sure,” Duke coach Mike Elko said.
Klubnik and Garrett Riley have connected like kindred spirits since Riley was hired from TCU to re-fire a Clemson offense that still won games, but looked a step behind from its national champion success after the 2016 and 2018 seasons.
The Tigers made six straight College Football Playoff appearances from 2015 through 2020, but has been outside the final four the past two years.
“Winning matters here,” said Clemson sophomore right tackle Blake Miller.
Klubnik understands that and has bonded with fellow Texas native Riley. Klubnik has made quicker, sharper decisions, Riley said, and grown in taking charge of the offense.
Klubnik may not seem like a demanding leader, but he “can hold people accountable,” Riley said.
For Klubnik, it’s about getting the ball to right person each play to make Clemson’s offense as prolific as possible. If that’s to receivers like Beaux Collins or Antonio Williams, runners like Will Shipley and Phil Mafah or tight end Jake Briningstool, it doesn’t matter as long as Klubnik does his job.
Klubnik, at 19, is a self-professed football lifer who spends much of his free time watching film or leading others in tape study groups. He’ll try and disengage from 24/7 football for a bit, but winds up back on the field finding ways to break down opponents.
On walks to class — Klubnik is a marketing major — he might be thinking of outside things when he suddenly snaps back to the upcoming game plan or how to better deliver the ball to teammates.
It’s what suits him best and could bring the Tigers back to the championship picture.
“You’ve got to love (football),” Klubnik said. “If you don’t, then I don’t think you’re going to far as a quarterback. You’ve got to love every single part of the game.”