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Clemson Football 2012 Outlook

April 3, 2012

The 2011 Clemson football season was one of great accomplishment. For the first time in 20 years the Tigers won the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship with a 38-10 victory over defending champion and third ranked Virginia Tech. It resulted in a berth in the FedEx Orange Bowl, Clemson’s first BCS Bowl appearance.

The Tigers defeated four top 25 teams in the same season for the first time in history, including two top 10 wins away from home and three wins over top 11 teams. The Tigers downed Auburn for the first time in 60 years, defeated Virginia Tech for the first time in 22 years, and registered a perfect 7-0 record at home, Clemson’s first undefeated home record since 1990. Clemson won 10 games for the first time in 21 years.

So what are the prospects for Clemson repeating as ACC Champions and making a second straight appearance in a BCS Bowl?

Dabo Swinney’s Tigers return 49 lettermen, 22 on offense, 24 on defense and four special teams players. The top seven rushers, eight of the top nine receivers and first-team All-ACC record setting quarterback Tajh Boyd return to lead the offense.

Clemson also returns first-team All-American Sammy Watkins, near 1000-yard receiver wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and running back Andre Ellington. Clemson is one of just three schools nationally to return a 3000-yard passer, a 1000-yard rusher and a 1000-yard receiver.

The defense returns six of the top eight tacklers, including leader Rashard Hall, and defensive end Malliciah Goodman, who has a chance to continue Clemson’s outstanding defensive line tradition.

Clemson has a new leader of the defense from a coaching standpoint as former Oklahoma coordinator Brent Venables has joined Swinney’s staff. He brings an incredibly strong resume to Clemson after helping the Sooners to a national championship and seven Big 12 titles. He has coached in 16 bowl games in 16 years as an assistant coach at Oklahoma and Kansas State combined.

The question concerning the Tigers entering 2012 will be experience in the offensive and defensive lines. Clemson must replace three starters from an offensive line that helped the Tigers establish school records for points, touchdowns, total offense and passing offense.

The same goes for the defensive line where seniors Andre Branch, Brandon Thompson and Rennie Moore helped the Tigers to an ACC title by allowing Virginia Tech just 13 points and one touchdown in 120 minutes of football. Branch was a second-team All-American and Thompson a second-team All-ACC tackle. Both are projected to be first or second-round NFL draft picks.

“The biggest question with our team entering the year will be the offensive and defensive lines,” said Swinney, who has taken Clemson to an ACC title, two Atlantic Division titles and two top 25 seasons in his three full seasons as head coach. “We have talented young players competing to move into those vacant positions, but they obviously lack experience.”

Clemson does have an experienced senior leader on each line. Dalton Freeman is a returning first-team All-ACC player from last year who was a finalist for the Dave Rimington Award as the top center in the nation. Goodman returns to lead the defensive line after he recorded 59 tackles, including 43 first hits and four quarterback sacks. He also had 14 quarterback pressures.

“We will look for Dalton and Malliciah to serve as leaders of not only the lines, but their respective units. We only have 11 scholarship seniors on the entire team so their leadership will be very important. But, we feel they can handle this role. They have both been on two Atlantic Division championship teams and know what it takes to be successful and can communicate that to their young teammates.

To achieve similar accomplishments for the second consecutive year, the Tigers will have to navigate a difficult slate of games. The year begins with the “rubber match” of a three-game series with Auburn that will be played in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on September 1.

The Tigers also face state rival South Carolina in the season finale. Clemson is the only ACC team to play two games against SEC opponents. The ACC schedule includes Virginia Tech, the defending Coastal Division champions, who won 11 games last year, and Atlantic Division rival Florida State. The Tigers must go to Tallahassee in September. The winner of the Clemson vs. Florida State game has won the Atlantic Division each of the last three seasons.

“We have a difficult schedule,” said Swinney. “We must be ready to go from the opening kickoff with Auburn as the opener. But, in some ways it is a good thing because there will be a sense of urgency throughout the summer workouts and for the first day of preseason practice in August.”

Offense Clemson returns three first-team All-ACC performers from an offense that averaged a school record 440.8 yards a game and scored a record 58 touchdowns and 470 total points. This is the first time since 1978 that Clemson has returned three first-team All-ACC players on offense. That 1978 team posted an 11-1 record and finished sixth in the final polls.

Harvey White was named first-team all-conference under Frank Howard.

“Tajh had an excellent sophomore year. He is a very hard worker and made so much improvement over the off season last year. He will continue to work hard to get better, that is his nature. We all look forward to seeing what he can do with a full year in this system under his belt.

Boyd is already fourth in school history in touchdown passes. One of the big reasons for his impressive numbers in 2011 was the play of the receiving corps. Boyd does lose first-team All-American tight end Dwayne Allen (50-598 and 8 touchdowns last year), but he does return Watkins and Hopkins who combined for 154 catches for 2,197 yards and 17 scores.

Watkins was a first-team All-American all-purpose player as a true freshman last year, just the fourth true freshman to make first-team Associated Press All-American in history. The others are Herschel Walker, Adrian Peterson and Marshal Faulk. That’s pretty good company.

Watkins finished last year with 82 receptions for 1219 yards and 12 scores. The yardage and touchdown receptions were Clemson records and all three numbers were ACC marks for a freshman and led all freshmen nationally. Watkins was named the ACC Rookie-of-the-Year by the ACC Sports Media Association and was national Freshman-of-the-Year by Sporting News and

“What sets Sammy apart is his all-around abilities,” said Swinney. “He averaged over seven yards a rush and was one of the top return men in the nation. Opposing defensive coaches have to account for him on every play because he has the ability to change the game any time he is on the field.”

Hopkins had an outstanding sophomore year with 72 receptions for 978 yards and five scores. The sophomore is the only receiver in ACC history to have at least 50 catches as a freshman and sophomore. Hopkins actually had a stronger finish to the season than Watkins as the native of Clemson had 25 catches for 347 yards over the last four games, including 7-92 in the ACC Championship game against Virginia Tech and 10-107 in the Orange Bowl.

Not to be forgotten is senior Jaron Brown, who had 31 receptions for 406 yards and four touchdowns a year ago. He had a team high six receptions for 78 yards in the win over Wake Forest that clinched the Atlantic Division title in Clemson’s final home game. The Academic All-ACC performer has 66 career catches for 841 yards and eight scores.

There are three other outstanding true sophomores who will compete for catches and playing time in 2012. Adam Humphries (15-130), Martavis Bryant (9-221) and Charone Peake (4-71) all have bright futures with the Clemson program and make Clemson one of the top receiving corps in the nation.

One of the keys to the success of the Clemson offense under offensive coordinator Chad Morris in 2011 was the unit’s balance. Clemson had a 1000-yard rusher and 1000-yard receiver (almost two) in 2011, just the second time a Clemson team has done that.

Clemson had 3952 yards passing and 2219 rushing last season and the Tigers coach who was named National offensive Coordinator of the Year by last year is hoping to make the ground game even more prominent this year. He spent the winter of 2012 visiting schools that run a similar spread attack as the Tigers who have been successful running the football.

“We want to have a balanced attack,” said Swinney. “That has always been our approach. We did a good job running the ball in this system last year, but we want to be better. We may add a few wrinkles this year to make us even more balanced.”

From a personnel standpoint, Clemson will have the experience to be an improved running game with the return of starting back Andre Ellington. The senior from Moncks Corner, SC had 1,178 yards last year and a 5.3 average to go with 11 rushing touchdowns. He finished the year strong with 125 yards against Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game and 116 in just 10 attempts in the Orange Bowl against West Virginia.

Ellington enters his final season with a career 5.8 average, 2,355 rushing yards and 25 rushing touchdowns. He is 10th in school history in rushing and rushing touchdowns, but he needs 1,612 rushing yards to become Clemson’s all-time leader. Ellington had a career high 212 yards rushing at Maryland, one of five 100-yard games for the second-team All-ACC selection in 2011.

Ellington has some able backups for 2012. Mike Bellamy was Clemson’s second leading rusher with 343 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman. His biggest play of the year was a 31-yard touchdown run at Virginia Tech, that clinched the win over the 10th ranked Hokies for the Tigers.

D.J. Howard and Roderick McDowell are also factors in the running back pictures. Howard had 41 rushes for 230 yards last year, a strong 5.6 average, while McDowell had 14-63, including a 14-yard run for a touchdown in the Orange Bowl.

So who is going to block for these talented skill position players? The aforementioned Freeman is a good start. Now in his fourth year as the starting center, Freeman has been a leader on the top two scoring teams in Clemson history (2009 and 2011). The native of Pelion, SC has 143 career knockdowns and has 2,402 snaps under his belt in 40 games, 36 as a starter. By the end of the season he should have the Clemson record for career starts by an offensive lineman (48).

The two-time Academic All-ACC performer was also first-team All-ACC on the field last year. He was one of six finalists for the Rimington Award last year and winning that award is certainly one of the goals for the Clemson grade in his final fall on the gridiron.

Another returning starter up front is Brandon Thomas, a 6-3, 300-pounder who could play guard or tackle in 2012. Thomas played 777 snaps last year and had 39 knockdown blocks in 13 games, 10 as a starter. His coming out party came against Auburn when he played 89 snaps and had four knockdowns in Clemson’s win over the 19th-ranked Tigers. He also had the distinction of scoring a touchdown on a fumble recovery at Georgia Tech, the first Clemson offensive lineman since 1966 to score a touchdown.

Outside of Freeman and Thomas nothing is etched in stone in the Clemson offensive line. But, offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell is one of the best in the business in developing young talent.

One move that Swinney made after the season was to move Tyler Shatley from defensive tackle to offensive guard. The early returns have been positive and he was running with the first team during spring practice. The athletic player came to Clemson as a fullback and is one of the strongest players on the team. He had 41 tackles in his first two years in 26 games on the defensive side of the ball.

Kalon Davis is another young guard who will challenge for time as a starter. The native of Chester is a 6-5, 335-pounder who played in 12 games last year, but saw only 49 snaps on offensive scrimmage plays.

Gifford Timothy is another sophomore who could see significant playing time in the offensive line as a tackle. He played 45 snaps in seven games a year ago, but two of the appearances were in the ACC Championship game and the Orange Bowl. The native of Delaware has the size (6-6 and 315) to be an outstanding player as he gains experience.

There are many other young linemen who will have a chance to see significant playing time in 2012. The list includes red-shirt freshman tackle Shaq Anthony, offensive tackle Joe Gore, another converted defensive lineman, red-shirt freshman Ryan Norton, red-shirt freshman Spencer Region, and red-shirt freshman tackle Reid Webster.

While Clemson must replace John Mackey Award winner Dwayne Allen at tight end, but the Tigers have a more than capable replacement in senior Brandon Ford. Ford had 14 catches for 166 yards and two touchdowns as Allen’s backup last year and had two touchdowns catches in Clemson’s bowl game at the end of the 2010 season.

Eric Mac Lain was ranked as the number-59 overall player in the nation by coming out of high school. Both should see playing time as well. Darrell Smith is a tight end/fullback who is a two-year letterman as well.

Defense Clemson’s defense will be under new management this year as veteran Big 12 defensive coordinator Brent Venables takes over. The Tigers had some bright moments last year, holding Virginia Tech to just 13 points and one touchdown in 120 minutes of football last year. But Clemson loses four starters from last year, including Andre Branch and Brandon Thompson, the leaders of the first line of defense.

Venables will have some young, but talented players to work with in 2011. “Brent has an outstanding track record and has experience defending spread offenses in the Big 12,” said Swinney. “He has coached against some of the top quarterbacks in the nation in the last few years and developed outstanding young players at both Oklahoma and Kansas State. We could not have hired a brighter, more experienced defensive mind than Brent Venables.”

Venables coached the last 16 years in the Big 12, including each of the last 13 at Oklahoma where he helped Bob Stoops teams to 13 bowl games, including seven BCS Bowls. He coached the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year five times and the Defensive Newcomer of the Year five times. In 2006 he was a finalist for the Frank Broyles Award, which is given to the top assistant coach in the nation. That year Oklahoma led the Big 12 in scoring defense, pass defense and total defense.

Venables first order of business will be to find some linemen who can replace 2011 seniors Branch, Thompson and Moore. Branch was a second-team All-American last year when he had a team best 17 tackles for loss, including an ACC best 10.5 sacks. He had 85 total tackles and nearly became the first lineman to lead Clemson in tackles since William Perry in 1984. Thompson was fourth on the team in tackles with 77, while Moore had 58, including 10 tackles for loss, second best on the team.

Malliciah Goodman had 59 tackles and 14 quarterback pressures as a junior defensive end last year and he will be the leader of the defensive front this season. He has 122 career tackles and four caused fumbles in his 41-game career. He played 767 snaps last year, not only the most among Clemson linemen in 2011, but the most by a Clemson defensive lineman in history. He has played well against Georgia Tech’s option offense the last two years, including last year when he had season high nine tackles.

Corey Crawford is a strong candidate to be at the opposite defensive end position. The sophomore from Columbus, GA had 29 tackles, including two for minus yardage last year when he played in 14 games behind Branch. He also had two passes broken up at the line of scrimmage. He finished the season strong with eight tackles over the last two games. Vic Beasley is a red-shirt sophomore who played in nine games and lettered at defensive end last season.

DeShawn Williams and Grady Jarrett are a pair of young defensive tackles who will challenge for starting roles in 2012. Williams played 138 snaps as a true freshman and made one start. He finished the year with 20 tackles, two of which were tackles for loss. The son of former Clemson football player Ronald Williams (RB, 1990-92) had four tackles, including a tackle for loss in just 20 snaps in the ACC Championship game.

Jarrett played 61 plays in nine games last year and had two tackles. The native of Conyers, GA is a physical clone of Brandon Thompson and hopes to take over his hole as a run stopper on the inside this coming year.

Tavaris Barnes has a lot of promise on the defense line. He played 73 snaps in nine games last year as a red-shirt freshman. Josh Watson, who played 21 snaps in five games last year, is the only other returning letterman in the defensive front. Tra Thomas played in two games last year, while Jerome Maybank is a red-shirt freshman who could contribute in 2012.

While Clemson’s defensive line returns just one starter, the linebacker corps returns all three starters from last year, plus a fourth player who had three starts and ranked 13th on the team in tackles last year.

Corico Hawkins led Clemson linebackers in tackles last year with 80. The rising senior had 62 first hits, second on the team behind Branch, and had five tackles for loss and a pair of pass deflections in 697 plays. He played more snaps than any other Clemson linebacker. He has started each of the last two seasons and has 170 career tackles, second among active Tigers.

Jonathan “Tig” Willard is another returning starter who had 75 tackles last year. Willard started 11 of the 14 games, including the regular season win at Virginia Tech when he had eight tackles and was named ACC Linebacker of the Week. The native of Loris, SC is a veteran of 40 games and has 112 career tackles.

Quandon Christian is a third returning starter on the second line of defense. The outside linebacker had 36 tackles in 14 games, including seven starts. Twenty-nine of his 36 tackles were first hits. He has actually started exactly seven games each of the last two years.

There is a line of sophomores waiting in the wings at the three linebacker positions. Stephone Anthony started three games last year when he had 32 tackles and six tackles for loss. Anthony was a first-team USA Today All-American out of high school and figures to see significant playing time this year. He had two tackles for loss in the ACC Championship game win over Virginia Tech.

Tony Steward is another young linebacker who figures to see playing time this year. Another first-team USA Today All-American in the recruiting class of 2011, he suffered a torn ACL last year after playing just five games and was lost for the season. He is expected to be ready for practice in August.

Lateek Townsend played as a special teams player last year and showed his special talents with 16 tackles, second best on the team. He played just three snaps on defense, but figures to see much more playing time this year.

Spencer Shuey is another linebacker who should see more playing time this year. The junior played in all 14 games and had 27 tackles, 19 of which came on special teams. Justin Parker is a two-year letterman at linebacker who played in all 14 games last year and had 10 tackles.

Rashard Hall is the leader of the secondary and perhaps of the entire Clemson defense. The graduate student had a team best 89 tackles last year to go with three tackles for loss, a sack and two interceptions. He has 10 career interceptions, 13 career takeaways and 217 career tackles, high figures among all active Clemson players.

The native of St. Augustine, FL has played in 40 games, 31 as a starter. The intelligent safety is a two-time Academic All-ACC selection who graduated in just over three years. Hall played with a knee injury much of last year and had surgery to repair the problem in the off-season and did not go through spring practice. He should be ready to go in the fall.

Xavier Brewer is another returning veteran in the secondary. The native of Florida started 13 games a year ago and had 60 tackles, seventh best on the team. He has experience as a cornerback and a safety and ranked seventh in tackles with 60.

Fellow senior Jonathan Meeks is another returning veteran who will contribute to Clemson’s point prevention unity. Meeks led the team in interceptions a year ago with three and ranked sixth in tackles with 60. Seven of those tackles happened in the win over Auburn when he led the team in tackles against the Tigers spread offense.

Bashaud Breeland is a precocious sophomore who started seven games last year and is considered a co-returning starter in the secondary. Breeland had 53 tackles in 643 plays on defense and also picked off two passes, including one in the ACC Championship game against Virginia Tech.

There are other strong candidates for playing time in the secondary this year. Martin Jenkins started three games and played in all 14 games last year when he made 27 tackles and had six passes broken up second on the Clemson team. Darius Robinson is another returning letterman who had 18 tackles and played in 11 games in 2011. Robert Smith started a game as a freshman in 2011 and had nine tackles overall, while Garry Peters had six tackles and played in 11 games.

Special Teams Clemson returns placekicker Chandler Catanzaro, but must replace three-year starter Dawson Zimmerman at punter. The Tigers should also be strong in the return game with the return of all-purpose player Sammy Watkins and starting punt returner DeAndre Hopkins.

Catanzaro was a second-team All-ACC kicker in 2011 when he connected on 22-27 field goals and led the ACC in scoring with 118 points. He set a Clemson record for kick scoring with that total.

The junior from Greenville who was originally a walk-on has been outstanding from long distance the last two years, making 15-21 from 40 yards or more. That .714 figure is best in Clemson history in terms of field goals from 40 or more. Last year he was 22-27 on field goals and 52-53 on extra points. He was 9-12 on field goals over 40 yards and made each of his last eight field goal attempts of the year.

Zimmerman was a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award in 2010 and was a finalist for the Lowe’s Senior Class Award in 2011. He averaged 41.8 yards a punt last year with a 38.4 net. He finished his Clemson career sixth in gross punting average, but his individual net punting average was second behind all-time great Dale Hatcher.

A couple of candidates to replace Zimmerman would be Spencer Benton, the backup last year who had two punts when Zimmerman was hurt. Also, freshman Joey Pinion will be a candidate. The 6-6 punter was second-team USA Today All-American last year as a high school senior. He enrolled at Clemson in January and will go through spring practice.

Watkins was fourth in the nation in all-purpose yards with 176 per game. His 25.0 average on kickoff returns had a lot to do with that figure. He had 826 kickoff return yards for the year, the most in Clemson history. That included an 89-yard kickoff return for a score against Maryland.

Hopkins handled Clemson punt returns last year. Most of the time he fair caught the ball and had 10 returns for 49 yards. Watkins could also see action in the punt return game this year.

As far as coverage is concerned, Clemson returns its top three tacklers on special teams. Spencer Shuey led the way with 19 stops, while Lateek Townsend, who played just the last 10 games, had 16. Darrell Smith was third with 15. Clemson allowed 20.0 yards per kickoff return and 9.3 per punt return a year ago.