College Football Preview 2015-2016: 11. Clemson Tigers
2014-2015 Record: 10-3 (6-2 ACC)
Coach: Dabo Swinney, eighth year (61-26 overall)
Key Losses: DE/LB Vic Beasley, LB Stephone Anthony
Heisman Hopeful: QB Deshaun Watson
Breakout Player: DB Mackensie Alexander
The 2014-2015 season was Clemson's test of how far they had come under Dabo Swinney. Long time QB Tajh Boyd, playmaking receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, along with key members of this defense were all gone from a team constantly knocked for their inconsistency. But, Clemson responded, and after a relatively slow start, won nine of their last ten games including finally achieving a rivalry victory over South Carolina. While several pieces are gone once more entering this year, the Tigers found a number of players last year that are ready for big years and found a superstar at quarterback. With Florida State rebuilding of sorts, the team is now for the Tigers to take over the ACC Atlantic and show themselves as complete and true championship contenders.
Backfield: Life after Tajh Boyd began with senior Cole Stoudt for Clemson. And, Stout wasn't terrible; despite not having a huge arm Stoudt showed a great understanding of the offense and played pretty well. But, true freshman Deshaun Watson soon took over at the position to add some spark to the offense, and that he did. Watson threw for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns (with just two interceptions), while also running for 200 yards and five scores more. Those numbers were put up four games into the season, and with injuries constantly knocking on the door. Watson struggled with broken fingers and even had a partial tearing of his ACL in December. Even with those injuries, Watson's expectations are tremendous entering his sophomore season, and for good reason. The young quarterback shows a maturity and confidence well beyond his years, and has fantastic arm strength. He is a wonderful athlete and he is always making outstanding, highlight reel plays. He sat out spring ball because of that ACL, so you have to wonder about him being rusty. But, the Tigers open against FCS squad Wofford and Sun Belt foe Appalachian State, so he will have plenty of chances to adjust. Joining Watson in the Tiger backfield will be sophomore Wayne Gallman, who takes over full time as the feature back. Gallman is also entering his sophomore season, like Watson, and also had a wonderful first season with the Tigers. Gallman ran for 769 yards along with four touchdowns, and while he isn't exactly the most explosive athlete on the field he has superb vision and good burst. The Tigers will also be excited to get Zac Brooks back from injury, after he missed the entire 2014 season with a foot injury. Brooks is a little bit more speedy than Gallman and is more likely to open up big plays. Even more weapons return alongside Brooks and Gallman including Tyshon Dye, returning for his sophomore year along with senior C.J. Davidson. Dye was a pretty big recruit for the Tigers last season and showed plenty of potential despite not see a ton of action a year ago. Davidson is another back that can be used in short yardage situations and he will also look to be a leader. Davidson was born and raised in Clemson, South Carolina, and is a Clemson lifer. He will hope to improve his 248 yards and three scores this season.
Offensive Line: Three starters are now departing from the Clemson offensive line, though talent and experience still returns, to a unit that will be vital to the Tigers' success. Up the middle, center Ryan Norton returns for his senior season, which will be his third at starter at the position. Having an experienced anchor on the offensive line is a major plus to Clemson, and he has worked hard to form important chemistry with Watson. While Norton handles incoming pass rushers in the interior of the line, senior Isaiah Battle provides plenty of stability at left tackle. Battle is gigantic, standing at 6'7", 290 pounds and can handle even the largest defenders that the ACC has to offer. Having a beast like him on the left side, who is a skilled pass blocker, will also be a major help to Watson. The right tackle position should be handled by a fellow senior, Joe Gore. Gore has been through the wars and knows what needs to be done to help the offense. The two guard positions will be breaking in new starters, with David Beasley and Reid Webster leaving. At left guard, senior Eric Mac Lain is the favorite to start. Despite being 6'4" and over 300 pounds, Mac Lain is a tremendous athlete, evidenced by the fact that the veteran can throw down dunks. At right guard, sophomore Tyrone Crowder is the slated starter. Crowder is young and doesn't have the experience that others on the unit have, but he has all the potential to grow into a dominant offensive linemen. He is huge, weighing in at over 330 pounds, and has very good footwork. Both guards will have to adjust to their new starting roles quickly, considering the fact that Gallman and a number of other Clemson backs tend to do their work between the tackles. Depth could be a question for the unit, as beyond the projected starters, many backups are redshirt freshman or true freshman. Though, players like Mitch Hyatt are at least proven commodities at the high school level. Hyatt is seen as some as the gem of this year's Clemson class, and he brings a lot of versatility and upside to the equation. He will likely be slated as the backup to Battle at left tackle, and should learn and grow from the veteran. Fellow true freshman Jake Fruhmorgen should also compete for snaps, most likely at right tackle. Fruhmorgen is rated by ESPN as a four-star prospect and should also learn quickly. Yet another true freshman, Noah Green, should also likely see action in his first year on campus. Green has the versatility to play either tackle spot, or may be asked to move inside to back up one of the guard spots. How quickly those freshman can adjust and contribute could go a long way in determining Clemson's success offensively.
Defensive Line: No unit on this entire Clemson team was decimated quite as much as this defensive line was this past winter/spring. The Tigers lose three key contributors to a fantastic defensive line a year ago, that was constantly pressuring quarterbacks. Among them are first-round NFL Draft selection Vic Beasley, a sack machine off the edge, playmaking end Corey Crawford and solid nose guard Grady Jarrett. The trio combined for 38.5 tackles for loss along with 15.5 sacks and their departures will put serious pressure on others to step up big time. One of those expected (and needed) to step up is junior Shaq Lawson. A high profile recruit when he stepped on to campus year ago, Lawson has been in a rotational role early in his career, but has still found ways to showcase his tremendous nose for the football and strength. He had 10 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks last season, numbers that should explode with way, way more snaps in 2015. Lawson could certainly be the next great pass rusher at Clemson, for a program that has had former All-Americans like Gaines Adams, Da'Quan Bowers and then Beasley the past few years. The big question for this Clemson defense and fourth year coordinator Brent Venables is at the other defensive end position. Outside of Lawson, there is no proven commodities at the position, and sophomore Ebenezer Ogundeko is seen by many as the favorite to start opposite of Lawson. Junior Kevin Dodd also has a very good chance to see serious snaps at that defensive end slot. The Tigers will also be searching for answers on the interior of the defensive line, especially without run stuffing Grady Jarrett making stops. Senior D.J. Reader has high expectations for himself entering what should be his final year in a Tigers uniform. Reader showed flashes of something last season despite limited action, with 17 tackles and 1.5 sacks. He is a monster at an important position, and teams certainly could have some troubles running when he is causing a havoc. Junior Carlos Watkins is the likely starter at the other defensive tackle position, another player that was pretty buried on the depth chart but did show the potential to make plays; he had two tackles for loss last season. Expect sophomore Scott Pagano to also fight for snaps; a smart, physical defensive linemen who can help out in run support when needed. Also sure to see action at one of the defensive tackle spots is going to be newcomer Christian Wilkins. Dabo Swinney and staff went north to land Wilkins, a strong tackle who has the frame and mentality to see major action from the beginning. Expect fellow newcomers Sterling Johnson along with Austin Bryant to see some action in there first year in Clemson. Johnson makes plays at defensive tackle, while Bryant has the raw tools to grow into a great pass rusher with patience.
Linebackers: The Tigers were not immune to losses in their linebacker corps either, as both Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward graduated. The loss of Anthony, especially, hurts the Clemson defense. Anthony led the team in tackles a year ago, recording 75 total while also racking up 10.5 tackles for loss. Anthony was just a great athlete, he had a great feel for the game and the leadership that he provided to the defense as a whole may just mean more than the tackles he managed this past season. The favorite to take over for Anthony at middle linebacker is going to be senior B.J. Goodson, who could certainly take over the leadership void that Anthony left. Goodson saw a ton of action last year at outside linebacker but he certainly has the intelligence and versatility to play on the inside with zero problems. Goodson had 25 tackles (3.5 for loss) in 2014, so he has a long way to go to replace Anthony's production, but he certainly has the talent to do so. Expect big things from junior Ben Boulware, a system guy. Boulware showed that he wasn't just a reliable tackler but also showed he could make some huge plays for the Tigers, as he returned a touchdown to the house last season. Boulware is a great wrap up tackler who should only grow into a better playmaker as he enters into even more action with the departures of Anthony and Steward. Joining Goodson and Boulware in the linebacker corps will be sophomore Dorian O'Daniel, a possible breakout candidate. O'Daniel has the explosiveness and lighting fast first step to be a pretty scary pass rusher off the edge. He will hope to grow into a more complete linebacker, one that can help in coverage as well as in the run defense. Junior Korrin Wiggins is sure to see action at either outside linebacker position, and possibly seriously compete for a starting job. Wiggins had 34 tackles last season and also showed that he can be a major help in coverage with excellent hands, he had two interceptions last year. Redshirt freshman Kendall Joseph is another player that should play a pretty large role, even as a possible backup. Joseph has continued to work on closing speed and he could grow into a tackling machine at Clemson in a few years. The Tigers' lone major recruit coming into the linebacker corps is going to be solid prospect Chad Smith. Smith, a Virginia product, decided to stay on the East Coast and brings serious upside at outside linebacker.
Secondary: While the secondary also did lose a couple quality pieces, cornerback Garry Peters and safety Robert Smith, it could turn out to be a pretty major strength for Clemson and Venables. Perhaps the most likely to be a star in the unit is going to be sophomore cornerback Mackensie Alexander. A redshirt sophomore, Alexander was a consensus five-star recruit in the Class of 2013 and has a year of starting experience under his belt. Alexander isn't the biggest, but he is incredibly quick and plays the game with a chip on his shoulder. Alexander had 21 tackles and six pass deflections last season, numbers that should improve by quite a bit this season, as Alexander takes over Peters' role as the team's top cornerback. The question is at the other cornerback position, which could be the greatest weakness in the unit. Junior Cordrea Tankersley is the only experienced option, while true freshman Mark Fields has a legitimate chance to see action. Fields is a well-built cornerback hailing from North Carolina. Sophomore Ryan Carter is a speedster and can make big plays; he is sure to also see time even as a reserve. Junior Jayron Kearse was an important returnee to the secondary. Standing at 6'4", 210 pounds, Kearse has terrific size for the safety position and can lay down some truly monstrous hits. Kearse was constantly making plays a year ago, with 60 tackles three sacks and two picks. He has terrific range and will continue to make plays from sideline to sideline in his second full season as starter. Joining him at safety should be junior Jadar Johnson, a gifted athlete who will need some adjustment period. Junior T.J. Green is a pretty experienced defensive back who should see action in some time of role in the Clemson secondary. Three-star talents such as Tanner Muse, a safety, along with Kaleb Chambers, who will play cornerback, probably won't see a ton of action but depth is a problem in the defensive backfield, meaning they could see some snaps. The Tigers are definitely hoping for a return of normalcy for Travis Blanks, who starred for the time early in his career but has struggled recently due to injuries. The hard hitting safety looked ready to go in the spring.
Special Teams: The Tigers didn't miss longtime kicker Chandler Catanzaro last year, as senior Ammon Lakip did an admirable job, knocking down 21 of 28 field goals. He should continue to improve his consistency this season. The punter spot is a question, as Bradley Pinion made a pretty rare move for a punter, leaving a year early to the pros.
Clemson has proven that they are a very legitimate force on the national stage, evidenced by four-star double-digit win seasons and a 42-11 record in that span. Though, the Tigers have failed to really prove themselves as a national championship contender and haven't been able to overtake FSU in the ACC Atlantic the past three seasons. If they are ready to emerge as a serious championship contender and retake the ACC, this would be the season. Assuming he comes back healthy, Deshaun Watson has all the chance to be something very, very special and playmakers surround him throughout the offense. The defense has some holes to fill but a number of weapons should step up for Brent Venables. Road tests against Notre Dame and against rival FSU might put some pressure on the Tigers but Dabo Swinney may have his most complete team yet in Clemson, and opponents would be wise to watch out.