From Old Virginia previews Clemson Tigers football.
9/8: Ball State
9/22: @ Florida State
9/29: @ Boston College
10/6: Georgia Tech
10/20: Virginia Tech
10/25: @ Wake Forest (Thu.)
11/3: @ Duke
11/17: NC State
11/24: South Carolina
Skip: Miami, North Carolina, Virginia
QB: Tajh Boyd (rJr.)
RB: Andre Ellington (5Sr.)
WR: Sammy Watkins (So.)
WR: DeAndre Hopkins (Jr.)
WR: Jaron Brown (5Sr.)
TE: Brandon Ford (5Sr.)
LT: Brandon Thomas (rJr.)
LG: Kalon Davis (rSo.)
C: Dalton Freeman (5Sr.)
RG: Tyler Shatley (rSo.)
RT: Gifford Timothy (rSo.)
DE: Malliciah Goodman (Sr.)
DT: Grady Jarrett (So.)
DT: DeShawn Williams (So.)
DE: Corey Crawford (So.)
SLB: Quandon Christian (rJr.)
MLB: Stephone Anthony (So.)
WLB: Jonathan Willard (5Sr.)
CB: Darius Robinson (Jr.)
CB: Bashaud Breeland (rSo.)
SS: Jonathan Meeks (Sr.)
FS: Xavier Brewer (Sr.)
K: Chandler Catanzaro (rJr.)
P: Spencer Benton (5Sr.)
Coach: Dabo Swinney (5th year)
(Italics indicate new starter.)
Media prediction: 2nd, Atlantic Division
2011 1st team: QB Tajh Boyd, WR Sammy Watkins, C Dalton Freeman, TE Dwayne Allen, DE Andre Branch
2011 2nd team: RB Andre Ellington, K Chandler Catanzaro, SP Sammy Watkins, DT Brandon Thompson
2011 HM: OT Philip Price, OT Landon Walker, P Dawson Zimmerman
2012 preseason: WR Sammy Watkins, C Dalton Freeman, QB Tajh Boyd, RB Andre Ellington
(Italics indicate departed player.)
Nice job, Clemson - and I mean this both sincerely and sarcastically. Sincerely because I enjoy an ACC championship game won by someone not named Virginia Tech or Florida State, and then sarcastically because Clemson took their reward for winning that game and shat on it. Their 70-33 loss in the Orange Bowl set the ACC's bowl reputation back to the Stone Age, as if it needed the help. Despite returning most of the offense that carried Clemson to the Orange Bowl in the first place, though, Clemson is still pegged by the ACC media as their divisional runner-up.
Clemson's offense was electrifying last year, and it took most of the season before an opponent figured out how to stop it. Gamebreaking running back Andre Ellington might have been the story of the season if he hadn't been overshadowed by freshman sensation Sammy Watkins at wide receiver. The only thing that's likely to stop Watkins from repeating his 1,200-yard receiving season is the off-field distractions he seems to have created for himself.
Watkins has his quarterback back: dual-threat beast Tajh Boyd out of Phoebus in Hampton. Boyd is a big guy and not blazing fast, but he's athletic enough to be a running threat that Clemson's opponents must at least respect. That gives him a lot of room to operate with his arms, and he uses it to good effect, with 33 passing touchdowns on the season, good for eighth in the country. There are some really good quarterbacks in the ACC this year, but Boyd is right in the middle of the conversation for the ACC's best. The media certainly thinks so, voting Boyd the conference's top QB in the preseason.
It's not just Watkins that he throws to, too. Only one of his main targets (TE Dwayne Allen) has moved on, and DeAndre Hopkins's 72 catches and 978 yards would've easily been tops on most other ACC teams. Both he and Watkins are serious downfield threats. And it's likely Clemson will get a mostly seamless transition at tight end from the loss of Allen, as replacement Brandon Ford has the talent to be just as big a receiving threat as Allen was.
Of course, it's all for naught if the O-line can't block, and Clemson has more than the usual attrition in the trenches. There's very little experience on the right side, especially at right guard where Tyler Shatley is a converted defensive tackle. Shatley was a "2011 strength all-American", though, so he's got the physical tools in spades. At left guard there's not much more experience than that: Kalon Davis took only 3-4 snaps a game in his redshirt freshman season last year. The tackles are in better shape, though, especially at left tackle where Brandon Thomas has plenty of starting experience at both tackle and guard. The brightest spot on the line, though, is right where you want it: at center with Rimington finalist senior Dalton Freeman, a durable stalwart with 36 straight starts stretching back to his freshman year.
Freeman's leadership should smooth over any problems Clemson might have with inexperience elsewhere on the line. For most of the season he'll be Clemson's unsung hero, and the foundation of an offense that once again, no defense will want to face this year.
This unit, though, nearly sabotaged the season. In a way it did, with that 70-point debacle on the big stage; Clemson, frankly, appeared to just roll over and watch the West Virginia players roll with impunity to the end zone. It cost DC Kevin Steele his job, and Clemson enters this season with a new man in charge of the defense.
Up front, there's precious little experience, with only one upperclassman - DE Malliciah Goodman - playing anywhere on the defensive line. Goodman was overshadowed last year by some excellent players and didn't rack up anything resembling gaudy stats, but he'll have to be the leader this year. Of the rest of the group, DT DeShawn Williams is the grizzled old veteran of the bunch;a sophomore who played in all 14 games last year and started one. Despite the struggles of the defense, the D-line shined in 2011, and this year it will almost certainly take several steps backwards.
Part of the fallout from the terrible showing in 2011 was that Corico Hawkins, a two-year starter at middle linebacker, got shuffled to the weak side where Jonathan Willard is the incumbent. That makes room for sophomore Stephone Anthony to take over the middle; Anthony was a five-star recruit in 2011 and showed some real flashes of that talent last season. The strong-side guy is the underproductive Quandon Christian, who will begin the year as the starter but may not finish it that way.
At safety, it's a three-way rotation. I listed Rashard Hall as a starter at neither position, but Clemson lists him as the "or" starter at both free and strong safety, and the truth is he'll probably end up with the most snaps of any of the three. Hall was last year's leading tackler, and you know what they say when a safety is your leading tackler. He, Xavier Brewer, and Jonathan Meeks make up the safety rotation, and all are seniors. Clemson's cornerbacks are unremarkable; Bashaud Breeland and Darius Robinson each started about half of last season's games, and they're not terrible but not going to blow anyone away, either. Most of Clemson's interceptions last year came from the more talented safeties.
Obviously, this unit has to get better. The West Virginia debacle wasn't the only problem game for Clemson's defense; they nearly lost to 2-10 Maryland and gave up 45 points in the process. There were some bright spots, like holding VT to a measly field goal, but almost all the talent departed from the line, and neither of the other two units have any stars. It's not likely the defense will distinguish itself much this year; if they can be "good enough" that's probably the best they can hope for.
Sammy Watkins is a touchdown threat as a kick returner and averaged 25 yards a return, but Clemson got very little from DeAndre Hopkins on punt returns. Chandler Catanzaro gives the Tigers quality placekicking, but there'll be a new punter this year; like with Boston College, Spencer Benton is a fifth-year senior who's spent his whole career behind a long-time starter.
Despite the presence of an extremely talented Florida State team, anything short of the division title will be a disappointment for Clemson. They're good enough on offense to get there, and they have maybe the league's best combo of skill players: a workhorse running back, a top-notch quarterback, and a pair of wide receivers that nobody can cover. But they'll only go as far as the defense will take them. That defense is good enough to make sure Clemson goes to a very good bowl, but at some point it'll probably trip up and put their ACC title hopes at risk.
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