Clemson have had a nice run of success under Dabo Swinney lately, posting consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time since their ‘87-’90 streak under Danny Ford and Ken Hatfield, and earning the Tigers their first conference title since 1991, blowing out of a good Virginia Tech squad. There is a “but”, though. After each of the 3 seasons, one could understand the Clemson faithful being left with a sour taste in their collective mouth. Of the 8 losses over that 3-year period, not one was by less than 10 points. After the highs of the league crown in 2011, the Tigers were flattened 70-33 by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. While there has been good wins over the likes of Georgia, LSU and Ohio State, a 1-5 record against Florida State and South Carolina has been very disappointing, especially with a combined score of 98-192 in the 5 losses. Now with many of the stars of the last few years gone, Clemson are in rebuilding/reloading mode, depending on who you ask. The talent is there, but can Swinney put it all together? He’s surprised the FBS world before, so let’s not write him off just yet.
It doesn’t require saying (but I will anyway) that senior quarterback Tajh Boyd was the driving force of the offense the last few years. What does require saying is Boyd shouldn’t be held entirely accountable for the team’s failings in big games. While he had his bad days, in other games he looked like the only guy who showed up, and he and his 3851 passing yards and 34 TDs (11 interceptions) will be missed. He also added 411 yards and 10 scores on the ground. Part of the problem was pass protection, as the offensive line allowed 99 sacks (35 in 2013) in the 3 years Boyd was at the helm. While having a mobile quarterback often equates more sacks, the line gave up 9 sacks combined to FSU and the Gamecocks. The running attack was more consistent than in 2012, but they averaged 184 yards in their wins, and just 125 in their 2 losses. Boyd was a big part of the running game, finishing second on the team, but Roderick McDowell came on strong over the second half of the season, finishing with 1025 yards and 5 TDs. Zac Brooks and DJ Howard also saw plenty of action, combining for 459 yards and 4 TDs. Sammy Watkins had a disappointing sophomore year, and with a big NFL payday looming, and 2012 star DeAndre Hopkins in the NFL, all eyes were on the talented receiver. Watkins delivered with a monster season, catching 101 passes for 1464 yards and 12 TDs. He had 8 games in excess of 100 yards, and finished his career in style with 16 receptions for 227 yards and 2 scores against the Buckeyes in the Orange Bowl. Martavis Bryant was a distant, but none-too-shabby, 42 catches for 828 yards and 7 TDs, while Adam Humphries chipped in with 41 for 483 yards and another 2 scores. Now the fun begins. The offense is suffering a major clearout of all-ACC talent. Boyd is gone, as is McDowell, Watkins and Bryant, while the line loses left tackle Brandon Thomas and right guard Tyler Shatley. Also gone is right tackle Gifford Timothy, who’s retiring for medical reasons, but will join the coaching staff. The first order of business will be replacing Boyd. With the dismissal of Chad Kelly, Cole Stoudt looks to be the starter in all but name. Stoudt has played well in reserve duty. The arrival of Stanford-transfer David Olson may shake things up in the summer, but Olson has yet to throw an FBS pass. Brooks and Howard will get the chance to replace McDowell, who was only a one-year starter, but there are some nice freshman options arriving. CJ Davidson and Wayne Gallman could be a factor too, but Davidson has played sparingly to date, while Gallman is a redshirt freshman. Replacing Watkins may be the toughest job for the offense. Charone Peake (8-84-1) looked good before a torn ACL ended his season just 2 games in last year – he and Humphries are back this year. Mike Williams (20-316-3) showed some ability to get downfield as a freshman, while Stanton Seckinger (21-244-4) will be in the mix this year. No one has stood out in camp, so it’s still open season on starting spots, and like at running back (and maybe more so), the incoming freshman class could have a major impact here. The pleasant surprise in the spring game was the play of sophomore tight end Jordan Leggett; the Tigers have no reservations about making a tight end an integral part of the offense. The offensive line needs to replace 2½ starters. The Tigers have had their problems on the line, but they were far from awful. Center Ryan Norton should remain as starter, but he’s been banged up in spring. Isaiah Battle is the likely starter at left tackle. He started the last 4 games on the right last season, but has the size and ability for the left. David Beasley was in and out of the starting lineup at left guard last season, but should return there after he serves an opening game suspension. He is huge, as is Kalon Davis who split time with him. Davis should take over on the right side. Shaq Anthony saw some action at right tackle last season, but couldn’t hold down the starting job. He’ll get a second shot in camp. If the players can keep focused, this could be a strong unit.
The defense was an aggressive, gambling unit last season that led the nation in tackles for loss with a massive 123, including 38 sacks, while also adding 30 interceptions. They had their share of struggles too, mostly against the run, but it was a solid unit overall. When you boast a good defense, it usually starts with the front 4, and Clemson had a good one. Defensive end Vic Beasley was the star, making 23 of his 41 tackles in opposing backfields, taking down quarterbacks 13 times. He also added 5 hurries, broke up 6 passes and forced 4 fumbles. Corey Crawford was no slouch opposite him. He managed just 2½ sacks, but had 5 hurries, and made 10½ tackles for loss and broke up 4 passes. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett also had 10½ tackles for loss. At linebacker, weakside guy Spencer Shuey led the team with 93 tackles, while middle linebacker Stephone Anthony was second on the team with 86 tackles, and was also second with 15 for loss. The secondary was generally a strong unit. They gave up 767 yards to Georgia and Florida State, but just 1846 to everyone else. The unit allowed a completion percentage of just 53.3, and only 14 TDs against 18 interceptions. Cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland and Darius Robinson combined for 7 interceptions and 11 passes broken up, while safety Robert Smith made 71 tackles, picked off a pass and broke up 4 more. The good news heading into 2014 is the entire starting defensive line is back, and the unit is so deep, it should be one of the best in the country. Beasley, Crawford and Jarrett will return at their spots, but there should be a battle at the other tackle slot where 4 different players started. Josh Watson and DJ Reader were the most productive, but there is no shortage of options. Linebacker is a different story, with Shuey and strongside ‘backer Quandon Christian gone. Anthony will be back in the middle to provide leadership. Tony Steward and Ben Boulware are competing hard to replace Shuey, although it looks as if the former is the favorite for now. Keep an eye on Kellen Jones, who should be fully recovered from his 2013 ACL tear by summer. In the secondary, Smith and Travis Blanks are back at safety, but both corners need to be replaced. Garry Peters has played regularly over the last 3 years, and could finally get his day in the sun. Jayron Kearse showed some big-play ability as a freshman, and could push for time at safety or corner, while Mackensie Alexander has been dynamite in camp.
Chandler Catanzaro has been an outstanding kicker over his 4-year career, and has missed just 1 field goal in each of the last 2 seasons (13/14 last year). Punter Bradley Pinion only had a gross of 39.4, but that may have had more to do with the success of the offense. He had a decent net of 37.8 and dropped 24 of his 56 punts inside the 20, with zero touchbacks. He also had 38 touchbacks on 78 kickoffs. Watkins averaged a pedestrian 21 yards per kick return, but Humphries was solid returning punts (10.6). Both coverage units were excellent.
Catanzaro has finally run out of eligibility, and will be tough to replace. Ammon Lakip is first in line. Pinion may get a chance to test his leg strength more this season if the offense struggles. A kick returner will be needed, but there is no shortage of talent available. Humphries should keep the punt return job, and may take on kicks too.
The Tigers may be losing some key pieces from last season’s defense, but they are hardly going green with the replacements, as there is plenty of experience and talent all across the board. The defense may even have to carry the offense while it finds its identity. Stoudt should be good enough at quarterback to keep the offense ticking over, but the running game needs to carry over from last season. Catanzarro may be missed greatly this season.The tough part of the schedule is at the beginning, with trips to also-reloading Georgia and Florida State sandwiching a home cakewalk (we hope) against South Carolina State. Clemson gets potentially tricky North Carolina and the Gamecocks at home though. Even with all the questions, the Tigers still must be considered one of the favorites to win the ACC. Who knows, perhaps a move away from a quarterback-centric offense may be just what the doctor ordered.