Entering the 2014 season all the questions about the Clemson football team surrounded the Tiger offense. Head Coach Dabo Swinney had to replace quarterback Tajh Boyd, the ACC’s career leader in touchdown responsibility and the 2012 ACC Player of the Year, Sammy Watkins, the ACC’s third -ranked receiver in history in terms of receiving yardage and a first-team All-American, leading rusher Roderick McDowell and two-time All-ACC tackle Brandon Thomas.
But, the program had recruited well and three freshmen, quarterback Deshaun Watson, receiver Artavis Scott and runningback Wayne Gallman all took advantage of their opportunities and Clemson finished the year averaging over 30 points and 400 yards per game, just the ninth team in Clemson history to reach those levels in scoring and yardage in the same year. The season concluded with nine wins it the last 10 games, including wins over rival South Carolina and a 40-6 victory against Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl. It marked first time Clemson had won its rivalry game and a bowl game in the same year since 2005.
Clemson finished they year with a No. 15 national ranking in both polls and a 10-3 record, the fourth straight year Clemson had won at least 10 games, something only Alabama and Oregon have also accomplished among Power Five Conference teams.
Now, as we enter the 2015 season, all the questions are on the other side of the football. Clemson’s defense was dominant in 2014, as it led the nation in total defense, allowing just 260.8 yards per game, 50 yards per game better than any other ACC team. Clemson also led the nation in pass efficiency defense for the first time, paced the country in tackles for loss, third-down conversion defense, fewest first downs allowed per game, and fewest yards allowed per play.
That defense was led by first-team All-ACC players Vic Beasley (consensus All-American), Stephone Anthony, Grady Jarrett and Garry Peters. These seniors, plus classmates Corey Crawford, Tony Steward, Josh Watson, Deshawn Williams, Tavaris Barnes and Robert Smith were all four or five year players in the program who brought great leadership to the entire team, not just the defense.
A documentation of the Clemson talent level on defense was revealed in February when six Tiger defensive players were invited to the NFL Combine, more than any other school. It was a balanced defense as well. No Clemson defender ranked in the top 25 in the ACC in tackles per game and just one ranked in the top 48.
But, Head Coach Dabo Swinney has the same philosophy as he had a year ago when he saw a young group of players on the offensive side of the ball report for the beginning of spring practice.
“I like our personnel. We have recruited well and we feel we have talented players on the defensive side of the ball who will move into starting positions,” said Swinney. “We have talented players returning, but they lack experience, chemistry and overall knowledge relative to what we had last year.
“We lost 13 lettermen on defense who were part of the most successful senior class in Clemson history. There is no doubt that is a big loss. We lost eight starters from one of the best defenses in Clemson history.
“But that is what we have to do during spring practice and in fall camp. I feel we will have a good starting 11 on defense. We played a lot of players on defense last year and over the years for that matter. We have to develop depth in the front seven. That was the big reason we were so good on defense last year, we had depth, especially in the defensive line.”
Offensively, Clemson returns six starters, but that does not include quarterback Deshaun Watson, who played in just eight of the 13 games last year as he suffered two major injuries. But he did start five games as a freshman, four that resulted in Clemson victories, including a 35-17 win over rival South Carolina in the final regular season game.
The Tigers offense must replace offensive line starters David Beasley, Reid Webster and Kalon Davis, plus quarterback Cole Stoudt and receiver Adam Humphries. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris, the only offensive coordinator in Clemson history to guide four different offenses that averaged at least 30 points and 400 yards per game, left the program in December to become the head coach at SMU.
Swinney moved Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott into co-coordinator positions and the Tigers didn’t miss a beat in the bowl game against Oklahoma when the Tigers scored 40 points and gained nearly 400 yards.
“Chad Morris did a great job and we are proud that he has become a head coach,” said Swinney. “But we are not going to change anything in our expectations for our offense. The way I look at it we are in the fifth year of this system. Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott were significantly involved in all aspects of the offense when Chad was here. That includes game planning and play calling.
“I like our depth of playmakers at running back and wide receiver. We had a lot of freshmen have outstanding years in 2014 and we expect them to improve as we go forward.
”Our biggest concerns on offense will be in the offensive line where we must replace three starters. But we have recruited well, signing four of the top offensive linemen in the country, perhaps the best offensive line class in the country. And, we have a couple of red-shirts from last year we are excited about.”
Clemson returns placekicker Aamon Lakip, who ranked third in the ACC in field goals per game after making 21-28 over the course of the season. He was Clemson’s leading scorer with 106 points, more than twice as many as any other Tiger. Clemson will need a new snapper and holder, respectively, as Mike Sobeski, a four-year starter handling that important job, and Corbin Jenkins, have graduated.
The Tigers must replace punter Bradley Pinion, who opted to turn professional after his junior year. Pinion was a valuable player as he averaged 42.6 yards a punt, including a 40.3 net punting average. Pinion also handled kickoffs and had 36 touchbacks on 74 kickoffs. The leading candidate to handle the punting duties is Andy Teasdall, a walk-on who averaged 43.5 yards a punt on a pair of punts in the bowl game.`Offense (23 returning lettermen, 6 returning starters)
Clemson returns players who accounted for 92 percent of the receiving yards, 81 percent of the rushing yards and 87 percent of the points in 2014. The returning offensive leaders include the now sophomore trio of Deshaun Watson, Artavis Scott and Wayne Gallman, plus receiver Mike Williams, who gained 1,000 yards on just 57 receptions a year ago.
Watson completed 83-137 passes for 1466 yards in his first season. He threw for 14 touchdowns against just two interceptions and averaged a national best 10.7 yards per pass attempt. He also rushed for five scores. His 188.6 passing efficiency was best in the nation among players who threw at least 125 passes, yes even better than Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariotta of Oregon.
Watson came off the bench to nearly lead the Tigers to victory at No. 1 ranked Florida State in the third game of the year. He completed 19-28 passes for 266 yards as Clemson took the Seminoles to overtime, the only team to do that during the regular season last year.
The following week Watson made his first career start memorable as he threw six touchdown passes in a win over North Carolina. The six TDs set a Clemson record and tied the ACC mark.
The native of Gainesville, Ga, suffered a broken hand and a torn ACL during the season that allowed him to throw just 12 passes in two games over a six-game period, but he finished the regular season by leading the Tigers to a 35-17 win over rival South Carolina. He completed 14-19 passes for 269 yards and two scores, and also ran for a pair of scores against the Gamecocks.
Watson will sit out the spring as he recovers from the torn ACL, but is expected to be back for workouts during the summer and for the start of practice in August.
Returning letterman Nick Schuessler, the third-team signal caller last year, will get plenty of action in the spring, as will 2015 signees Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel, who entered Clemson in January.
Bryant, from nearby Calhoun Falls, was a finalist for Mr. Football in the state of South Carolina after throwing for 3,579 yards and 41 touchdowns as a senior. Israel set countless records for high school football in the state of Florida that had been held by Tim Tebow. That includes throwing for 15,034 yards and 162 touchdowns over his 43-game career.
Clemson’s top two receivers are back from last year in Scott and Williams. They combined for 1,995 receiving yards in 2014, fourth most by a duo in Clemson history.
Scott led Clemson in receptions as a freshman with 76-965 and a team best eight scores. His reception total was just six less than what Sammy Watkins accumulated as a freshman in 2011. He was second in the nation in receptions among freshmen, and had 185 receiving yards against South Carolina, the most by a Clemson player in the rivalry game.
Williams had 57 catches for 1030 yards and six scores. He was seventh nationally in yards per reception (18.1) among players with at least 50 catches. He finished the season with nine catches for 112 yards against Oklahoma, his fourth 100-yard receiving game in 2014.
Germone Hopper and Charone Peake are two more experienced receivers who will be consistent targets for Watson. Hopper had 27 catches for 331 yards and three scores, including a 25-yard scoring pass from Cole Stoudt in the Russell Athletic Bowl against Oklahoma.
Peake has had an injury plagued career so far, and had 12 catches for 129 yards and two scores in seven games last year. But, he was healthy at the end of the year and played well in the bowl game. One of five players on the Clemson roster to play in three bowl games, Peake is looking forward to a healthy senior year.
The tight end position returns talented and experienced players Jordan Leggett and Stanton Seckinger. Leggett had 14 catches for 161 yards and a score, while Seckinger will be coming back from a knee injury suffered in the last regular season game against South Carolina. He will sit out the spring, but is expected back for August practice. Seckinger had nine catches for 122 yards in 2014 and has six career touchdown catches. Clemson is 6-0 when he catches a pass, including two wins over top 10 teams.
Milan Richard and Cannon Smith are two redshirt freshmen who should be in the mix at tight end. D.J. Greenlee will miss spring practice as he rehabs from a torn ACL.
Clemson’s running game is led by Gallman, who had 769 yards on 161 attempts as a true freshman. He added four touchdowns and a team best 19 rushes for 10 yards or more. Through seven games, Gallman had 48 attempts for 198 yards, but over the last six he gained 571 in just 113 carries. He had three 100-yard rushing games over the last five games of the regular season, including 27-191 against South Carolina, the second most rushing yards by a Clemson player against the Gamecocks.
There are many other experienced backs who will compete with Gallman for playing time. Senior C.J. Davidson was second on the team in rushing last year with 64 carries for 248 yards and three scores. He scored what proved to be the winning touchdown in the four-point win at Boston College.
Adam Choice played in six games last year before suffering a torn ACL while running out of the Wildcat Formation at Boston College. He was Clemson’s top rusher against Louisville’s No. 1 ranked defense (at the time) with 16-61 and finished the year with 218 yards on 50 carries.
Tyshon Dye is a fourth returning running back with experience. Clemson’s number-two back at the end of the year, Dye finished with 32 rushes for 151 yards in just four games. He missed the first nine games recovering from a February 2014 torn Achilles tendon injury and will benefit from a full spring practice and August preseason practice.
Zak Brooks was slated to be Clemson’s starter at the beginning of the season, but an injury in August shelved him for the year. The native of Arkansas who is a tough runner and capable receiver, will be healthy for spring practice.
Clemson hopes to improve on its 1,904 net rushing yards from 2014 and the key to that will be holes created by the offensive line. Center Ryan Norton and left tackle Isaiah Battle are the returning leaders for Clemson offensive line. Norton has 24 career starts and 38 games played under his belt for some record setting Clemson offenses.
Battle has outstanding athletic ability and is coming off a season in which he had 11 starts in 12 games and has 15 career starts. The 6-7 native of New York has been outstanding the last three years in bowl wins over LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma.
The other three starting offensive line positions look to be up for grabs. Eric MacLain has been a reliable backup for three years who is ready to assume a starting role at either guard or tackle. The native of Hope Mills, N.C, has played in 38 games (including three bowl wins) over his career and played 245 snaps last year. He played 62 snaps in the win over Oklahoma to end the season.
Sophomore Tyrone Crowder is a 330-pound guard who made great strides over the last half of the 2014 season. He got a start and played 169 snaps as a redshirt freshman guard. Senior Joe Gore has experience at guard and tackle and is a veteran of 19 games and three starts over his career. He earned those three starts last year when he played 217 plays.
Junior Jay Guillermo is a junior who has played center and guard over the last two years. He is out for spring practice due a personal medical issue. Swinney hopes he can return in the fall. He has played 16 games and has one start so far in his career. Maverick Morris is a 295-pound sophomore offensive tackle from Georgia who has a bright future.
Redshirt offensive linemen Taylor Hearn of Williamston, S.C. and Justin Falcinelli of Middletown, Md., also will be in the hunt for playing time.
Clemson recruited four of the top offensive linemen in the nation and all four entered Clemson in January so they will go through spring practice. Mitch Hyatt, the nephew of former Clemson All-ACC defensive lineman Dan Benish, was a consensus top 50 national player last year and a USA Today All-American.
Jake Fruhmorgen, a 285-pounder from Tampa, Fla, was a US Army All-American and consensus Top 100 national recruit. Noah Green of Boiling Springs, S.C. and Zach Giella of Lincolnton, Ga. are two more highly recruited offensive linemen who will go through spring practice as freshman this year.Defense (20 returning lettermen, 3 returning starters)
Clemson has just three returning starters from a defense that led the nation in 11 different categories and ranked in the top 25 in 20. Clemson lost its top four tacklers and seven of the top nine to graduation.
But there are some talented players returning, led by defensive end Shaq Lawson, tackle D.J. Reader, linebacker Ben Boulware, and defensive backs MacKensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse.
Lawson and Reader figure to be the leaders of Clemson’s defensive front. Lawson, a native of Clemson who hopes to carry on the tradition of Daniel High graduates who have gone through the Clemson program to the NFL (DeAndre Hopkins, Jarvis Jenkins). Lawson has had at least 10 tackles for loss in each of his first two seasons as a reserve behind All-American Vic Beasley, just the second player (Anthony Simmons 1995-96) in Clemson history to do that as a freshman and sophomore.
Last season, Lawson had 11 tackles for loss to rank second on the team behind Beasley’s 21.5 and he added 3.5 sacks. His 44 tackles overall ranked 10th on the team and he led all Clemson defensive linemen in fewest plays per tackle with one every 6.86 plays. He had four tackles for loss against Wake Forest, the only Tiger to have that many in a game last year.
Reader is a senior who has been in the mix as one of Clemson’s top defensive tackles for each of the last three years. He had 27 stops last year when he played 250 snaps. The native of Greensboro, N.C. and Grimsley High has played over 800 snaps in his career and has 110 tackles. He had a strong performance in Clemson’s win over South Carolina last year.
Carlos Watkins and Kevin Dodd are two seniors in 2015 who could move into starting roles on the defensive line. Watkins is a redshirt junior who had 13 tackles in 11 games as a reserve last year at tackle, while Dodd is an end who had eight tackles in 12 games. Both have waited their turn behind veteran players the last two years.
Scott Pagano is a talented redshirt sophomore from Hawaii who will challenge for significant playing time at tackle. The strong 285-pounder who did 38 reps of 225 pounds in February, has a big upside, as shown by his 10 tackles in just 54 snaps in his action as a reserve. Martin Aiken is a defensive end who played in 12 games last year and had 12 stops. Rod Byers came to Clemson as a defensive lineman, lettered as a tight end last year, and will move back to the defensive tackle in 2015.
The linebacker corps lost top tackler Stephone Anthony (90 stops), and Tony Steward, who was third on the team with 73 tackles. Both were 5-star recruits out of high school and figured to be leaders of Clemson’s defense. They did not become tandem starters until 2014 and were big reasons Clemson led the nation in total defense.
Ben Boulware is the logical candidate to hold down one of the starting spots. He had the opportunity to start in the Russell Athletic Bowl against Oklahoma when Anthony was suspended for a helmet-to-helmet hit in the regular season finale.
Boulware made the most of his opportunity with six tackles, a tackle for loss and an interception return for a score, the first pick-six in a bowl game by a Clemson player in 24 years. Boulware was second on the 2014 Clemson team in fewest plays per tackle with a stop every 6.65 plays, as he had 58 stops in just 326 plays.
Clemson actually has two players returning who had six starts apiece at an outside linebacker position. B.J. Goodson and Korrin Wiggins are considered co-returning starters at the same position for the 2015 season. Goodson played more when the opposition was more of a running team and Wiggins saw the majority of the snaps against passing teams.
Goodson, a senior from Lamar, S.C., the same hometown that sent Levon Kirkland to Clemson, had three fumble recoveries and had 34 stops. He was second in the ACC in fumble recoveries and had his best game at Georgia Tech when he had seven tackles in just 19 plays. Wiggins, a junior, had 40 stops for the season, including six in the win over Oklahoma. Both could be starters this year.
Dorian O’Daniel is a redshirt sophomore who came on strong last year. The outside linebacker had 31 tackles, including a team best 13 tackles on special teams. He had 18 tackles in just 87 defensive snaps, including a season high 10 tackles at Georgia Tech. He had 18 of his 31 tackles over the last four games of the year.
Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse return to anchor the secondary. Both were major reasons Clemson led the nation in pass efficiency defense.
Alexander was one of the top cover corners in the ACC last year in his first year on the field. He had 22 tackles and six passes broken up and was named a first-team Freshman All-American by the Football Writers Association.
Kearse had 67 tackles, including 54 first hits from the safety position. The native of Florida had two interceptions, seven passes broken up and five tackles for loss in a fine all-around season.
Jadar Johnson and T.J. Green are two more young safeties expected to see significant action this year. Johnson was a co-starter with Kearse at one point last year and played 242 snaps on defense, leading to 13 tackles and a pair of tackles for loss. Green, who was also eighth in the ACC in kickoff returns last year, played 159 plays and had 24 total tackles, including six on special teams.
Young cornerbacks who should see action are Cordrea Tankersley, who had 11 tackles in 137 defensive snaps, and Ryan Carter, who played in 12 contests.
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