Wednesday, July 30, 2014

2014 season preview: Clemson Tigers


8/30: @ Georgia
9/6: South Carolina State
9/13: BYE
9/20: @ Florida State
9/27: North Carolina
10/4: NC State
10/11: Louisville
10/18: @ Boston College
10/25: Syracuse
11/1: BYE
11/6: @ Wake Forest (Thu.)
11/15: @ Georgia Tech
11/22: Georgia State
11/29: South Carolina

Skip: Duke, Miami, Pittsburgh, Virginia, Virginia Tech

2013 results:

Georgia: W, 38-35
South Carolina State: W, 52-13
NC State: W, 26-14
Wake Forest: W, 56-7
Syracuse: W, 49-14
Boston College: W, 24-14
Florida State: L, 51-14
Maryland: W, 40-27
Virginia: W, 59-10
Georgia Tech: W, 55-31
The Citadel: W, 52-6
South Carolina: L, 31-17
Ohio State: W, 40-35 (Orange Bowl)

Record: 11-2 (7-1); 2nd, Atlantic

Projected starters:

QB: Cole Stoudt (Sr.)
RB: D.J. Howard (5Sr.)
WR: Charone Peake (rJr.)
WR: Mike Williams (So.)
WR: Adam Humphries (Sr.)
TE: Stanton Seckinger (rJr.)
LT: Isaiah Battle (Jr.)
LG: David Beasley (5Sr.)
C: Ryan Norton (rJr.)
RG: Kalon Davis (5Sr.)
RT: Shaq Anthony (rJr.)

DE: Corey Crawford (Sr.)
DT: Grady Jarrett (Sr.)
DT: Josh Watson (5Sr.)
DE: Vic Beasley (5Sr.)
MLB: Stephone Anthony (Sr.)
WLB: Tony Steward (Sr.)
NB: Travis Blanks (Jr.)
CB: Garry Peters (5Sr.)
CB: Cordrea Tankersley (So.)
S: Jayron Kearse (So.)
S: Robert Smith (Sr.)

K: Ammon Lakip (rJr.)
P: Bradley Pinion (Jr.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Dabo Swinney (5th season)

Media prediction: 2nd, Atlantic


2013 1st team: WR Sammy Watkins, DE Vic Beasley
2013 2nd team: QB Tajh Boyd, OT Brandon Thomas, CB Bashaud Breeland
2013 3rd team: RB Roderick McDowell, OG Tyler Shatley, K Chandler Catanzaro, LB Stephone Anthony, LB Spencer Shuey
2013 HM: WR Martavis Bryant, DT Grady Jarrett
2014 preseason: DE Vic Beasley, DT Grady Jarrett, LB Stephone Anthony

(Italics indicate departed player.)

By so many standards, Clemson had an awfully successful season last year: a 10-win regular season followed by a dramatic Orange Bowl win over Ohio State.  The two losses had to have stuck in the craw, though.  The Tigers were demolished by Florida State and ended the regular season with a loss to archrival South Carolina.  Clemson had an absolutely explosive offense, but just enough weaknesses on defense to hold them back from the highest levels of the sport.  This year, they have a strong returning team but are still pegged to finish as the bridesmaid in the Atlantic Conference, and have to replace several key pieces of that nigh-unstoppable offense.

-- Offense

Electric dual-threat quarterback Tajh Boyd is off to the NFL after throwing over 100 touchdowns in three years of helming the Clemson offense, and he's not even the biggest name to leave the scene, as the Tigers must also replace the singularly talented Sammy Watkins at receiver.  As unstoppable as Watkins was, though, Clemson is hoping they can live up to the phrase "reload, not rebuild" at receiver, with some high-potential replacements on the way.

Charone Peake had 25 catches in 2012 and looked like he was on his way to being a quality complement to Watkins after the first two games of 2013, but a torn ACL ended his season in September, and the effects of that injury are still being felt as he recently underwent another surgery and will miss part of fall camp.  If he can return to full health, Peake makes a good starting point in discussing Clemson's WR corps.  Sophomore Mike Williams is a tall, lanky player who had a nice start to his career last year with 20 catches and 15.8 yards per reception, the latter number surpassing even Watkins.  Williams has a good chance to be Clemson's primary big-play threat this year.  That said, it shouldn't be surprising if a freshman grabs that role much as Watkins did three years ago; Clemson brought in a trio of high-four-star talents, and two of them, Artavis Scott and Demarre Kitt, were early enrollees.  They'll be complemented by a veteran presence in Adam Humphries, your stereotypical white-guy possession receiver who had 41 catches in each of the past two years.

In fact, it's probably Humphries who provides the best security blanket for new QB starter Cole Stoudt, who graduates up into the job after three years of backing up Boyd.  Stoudt is a senior getting his big chance in the spotlight this year, but he's not 100% secure as he'll be pushed by five-star true freshman Deshaun Watson.  Stoudt, however, enters the fall as the starter and the job is his to lose.  He completed nearly 80% of his passes last year in eight games of mop-up duty, impressive even given the opposition and the circumstances.

At running back, D.J. Howard is listed as the starter going into the fall, with Zac Brooks as the backup; both carried about 50 times each last year backing up 1,000-yard rusher Roderick McDowell, with Brooks being rather more effective.  Brooks seems likely to surpass the unexciting Howard at some point, and there's a lot of room for a freshman to make his mark; Clemson signed the short but powerfully built Adam Choice, and speedy scatback Jae'lon Oglesby.  Either could move the incumbent veterans aside, as could redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman.  Best guess here is that it's one of these three freshmen who ends up leading Clemson in rushing.

Clemson looks to have a very capable offensive line.  Junior Ryan Norton returns as the starting center to anchor the middle of the line.  Guards David Beasley and Kalon Davis shared the left guard position last season but should each have a spot to themselves this year.  On the outside, Clemson has to replace a couple long-time starters, but juniors Isaiah Battle and Shaq Anthony both have plenty of experience in the rotation - both have a handful of starts under their belts - and the position should be in good hands.  The one kink in the equation is the suspensions handed out in March by Dabo Swinney - Beasley and Anthony will both miss the season opener against Georgia, handing their replacements (Eric Mac Lain and Joe Gore, respectively) a chance to win the job full-time.  At worst, Clemson will have plenty of usable depth along the line.

A final X-factor for Clemson could be sophomore tight end Jordan Leggett, a mercurial player who openly admitted having lazy practice habits last season, was suspended for at least one game, and spent most of the year in Swinney's doghouse.  Leggett possesses great athleticism and could be a real stretch-the-field tight end, if he so chooses.  If not, Clemson will be happy to rely again on Stanton Seckinger, who had 21 catches last year, and senior Sam Cooper, whose 2013 season was limited by an injury suffered in the spring game.

Clemson has a good, solid foundation on the OL and a veteran quarterback who should prove capable of directing the offense, even if this is his first year starting.  The story here, though, could be the infusion of brand-new skill-position talent, just in time to replace some outgoing stars.  Clemson topped 50 points in five different games last year, so they'll be hard-pressed to repeat that incredibly lofty standard, but there's too much potential - even if mostly unproven - for the whole thing to fizzle this time out.  They'll still be plenty dangerous to contend with.

-- Defense

Clemson's front four is getting a lot of well-deserved pub.  No fewer than six seniors highlight the roster here.  Two of them - tackle Grady Jarrett and end Vic Beasley - made the preseason all-conference team.  Jarrett had 11 TFLs last season, an outstanding number for a tackle, and Beasley is simply a terror, racking up 13 sacks and 23 TFLs in 2013.  These two are major contenders for the best at their position in the ACC.

The other tackle spot is a three-way platoon among seniors Josh Watson and DeShawn Williams, and 325-pound junior D.J. Reader.  For the most part this group is steady but unspectacular; Reader's athleticism stands out somewhat as he's also a reserve first baseman on the Clemson baseball team.  All three players started some games in 2013, and Reader was the most productive of the three despite playing the fewest snaps and starting the fewest games (though, the difference in playing time wasn't big.)  Finally, Corey Crawford is the strong-side starter at DE, and is rotated with fellow senior Tavaris Barnes, though it's Crawford who sees the lion's share of time, and earned three sacks of his own last season.

There are some big changes in the linebacking corps this year.  The good news is that MLB Stephone Anthony has one more season as the captain of the defense; he piled up 131 tackles last year, 13.5 for loss, and gives Clemson a guaranteed every-down leadership presence in the middle.  On the weak side, senior Tony Steward is expected to take over.  Steward has seen his role increase every year but still has somewhat less experience than you'd like; still, he was relatively productive in relatively few snaps last year, so he should be at a minimum serviceable, and likely somewhat better than that.  However, a dearth of reliable options on the strong side has made for a situation where Clemson looks likely to rotate in a nickel back more often than not, rather than a Sam backer.  Sophomore linebackers T.J. Burrell and redshirt freshman Dorian O'Daniel will need to prove themselves on the field; for now, safety Travis Blanks seems likely to see the most time in this role as a fifth defensive back, especially (obviously) in passing situations.

Putting more defensive backs on the field could be a dicey proposition, as this was the weak point of the defense last year and looks likely to be again.  There's some depth at safety, as evidenced by the ability to move Blanks up closer to the line as a third safety-slash-Sam linebacker.  Robert Smith led the defense in snaps last year and brings a very steady veteran presence, and Jayron Kearse (nephew of Pro Bowl pass-rusher Jevon) started only three games last year but tied for the team lead in interceptions with four.

Cornerback, however, remains a possible weak point.  Senior Garry Peters has never really broken out, and regressed some last year (partly on account of injury) and as a further blow to his usefulness is among the group of players suspended for the opener.  The likely starters for that game are sophomore Cordrea Tankersley, who saw only 21 snaps last year, and redshirt freshman Mackensie Alexander.  They'll need to grow up fast, and it certainly would not hurt if Peters took a few forward strides as well.

Fortunately for Clemson, that front four looks like it'll be putting a lot of pressure on opposing QBs this year, which can cover up for a few mistakes in the backfield.  Beasley is the guy every OC will be scheming for; he's maybe the best sackmaster in the ACC this year.  Kearse can be a bit of a gambler, though, and the inexperience at cornerback could see Clemson burned by some big plays at times.  This defense may run hot and cold until it gels a bit, and will need its front four to carry it until it does.

-- Special teams

Ammon Lakip is the heir apparent to the extremely dependable but graduated Chandler Catanzaro as Clemson's placekicker.  Lakip has some game experience and hasn't yet missed an extra point in his limited chances.  Bradley Pinion has averaged 39.4 yards a punt in both 2012 and 2013; he doesn't have the strongest leg, but gets good hang time and doesn't allow much chance for a return.

-- Outlook

For once, defense is the talk of the town in Clemson thanks largely to Beasley, Jarrett, and Anthony.  The front four is one of the (if not the very) best in the conference, and they're backed up by one of the conference's best linebackers.  However, on paper this team doesn't look quite as strong a contender as it did last year.  Maybe it's the fact they're breaking in a new starter at quarterback; maybe it's the long list of replacements at the other skill positions (high-ceiling though they may be); maybe it's the uncertain cornerback situation, or the holes to be filled at outside linebacker.

This is not to say the Tigers are suddenly just another team in the Atlantic; they're still one of the top teams in the ACC and a class or two ahead of most teams in athleticism and skill.  But it's not surprising they were overwhelmingly voted second behind FSU, and it's not all just because FSU is the defending national champs with the reigning Heisman winner.  After their September showdown** with the Noles, they'll likely spend the rest of the season playing catch-up and making their case for an at-large selection to a BCS "New Year's Six" bowl.

**I think this makes the third or fourth year in a row I've harangued on this subject: having the ACC's two marquee teams playing IN SEPTEMBER is beyond stupid.  Clemson scored at least 49 points in four ACC contests last year and lost only the FSU game in the conference; could you imagine the hype had undefeated Clemson with their explosive offense met undefeated Florida State with Heisman shoo-in Famous Jameis in November for all the division marbles??  When they met in mid-October, Jameis Winston wasn't quite Jameis Winston yet; he would've been by November even without his 51-point performance against Clemson, and the game could've been billed as having a Heisman Trophy on the line as well as a division title.  Talk about stealing the limelight from the SEC and everyone else.  This year the damn thing will be decided while the leaves are still green.  This is a yearly colossal failure by the ACC scheduling idiots.

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