National media face a dilemma when attempting to evaluate the returning personnel for the 2014 Clemson football team. Are the Tigers rebuilding, or are they a veteran team?
Clemson must replace a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,400-yard receiver and a 1,000-yard rusher as Dabo Swinney prepares for his sixth full season as leader of the Tigers program. Gone are All-America quarterback Tajh Boyd and his 57 schools records, All-America wide receiver Sammy Watkins and his 20 records, and All-ACC running back Rod McDowell and his 1025 rushing yards and 5.4 average.
Clemson returns offensive players who accounted for just 19.8 percent of the total offense, 11 percent of the passing offense, 36.5 percent of the rushing offense, 41.2 percent of the reception yardage and 39.3 percent of the scoring.
Additionally, Swinney must find a replacement for receiver Martavis Bryant, who averaged 19.7 yards per reception on 42 catches, the best average in the nation among players with at least 40 catches, and two-time first-team All-ACC tackle Brandon Thomas. Tyler Shatley, a third-team all-conference guard, will also be missed.
Defensively, the Tigers must find two new linebackers to plug holes with the efficiency of second leading tackler Spencer Shuey (119 tackles and four fumbles recoveries), and Quandon Christian, a three-year starter who had 49 tackles last year, including eight behind the line of scrimmage.
Cornerback Darius Robinson had an outstanding senior year with 37 tackles and three interceptions, while Bashaud Breeland turned professional after a junior year in which he had 74 tackles and four interceptions. They were both big reasons Clemson ranked in the top 20 in the nation in pass defense and completion percentage defense.
On the other hand, Clemson returns 19 senior scholarship players, the most in the Swinney era. There are 12 players on the 2014 roster who have played at least 35 games and 17 who have played at least 30. Fifteen of the 19 seniors have been starters at some point during their careers.
That senior class has helped bring Clemson to a new level of consistent winning. The 2014 seniors already have 32 wins in the bank (32-8), and they need just eight wins to tie the school record for victories by a senior class. It would be just the second 40-win class in school history, the first since the seniors of 1990.
The group has recorded eight wins over top 25 teams, including five top 10 victories. That includes top 10 wins in bowl games in each of the last two years, the only school in the nation that can make that claim.
Overall, 56 lettermen return for 2014, 25 offensive players, 27 defensive players and four special teamers.
“College football goes in cycles obviously because of the limitations on years of eligibility,” said Swinney.
“While we lost some very celebrated skill position people, players who set over 100 records on offense, and some productive, consistent team leaders on defense, we do have 39 returning junior and senior scholarship players who have helped us win 32 games the last three years. They have experienced winning.
“A few years ago people said we were awful along the front seven on defense and now these same guys are two years older and people are saying we might have one of the best defensive lines in the nation.
“Going into this year we have lost our quarterback, top two receivers and top running back, so people are wondering how we will be on offense. That is just the way things go in this game. Every year there are opportunities for players to step up on both sides of the ball.
“I am excited to coach this team because it will be the most veteran team I have had. This will be the most juniors and seniors I have had on a roster. The last two years combined we have had just 21 total scholarship seniors. This year we have 19.
“My biggest concerns would be developing depth at the offensive tackle position, getting the young wide receivers up to speed, and replacing the consistency of Chandler Catanzaro as placekicker. He made 39 of his last 41 field goals since 2011 and many of them from long distance and in the clutch.”
Offense (4 returning starters, 25 returning lettermen)
The talk of the media when discussing the Clemson football team this preseason will surround the selection of Tajh Boyd’s successor at quarterback. They are big shoes to fill, as Boyd started all 40 Clemson games between 2011 and 2013, winning 32 of them. That included eight wins over top 25 teams, including wins over LSU, Florida State, Auburn (2), Georgia, Virginia Tech (2) and Ohio State.
He finished his career with ACC records for total offense, and touchdown responsibility. He is the only quarterback in ACC history to throw for at least 3800 yards in three different seasons. He was outstanding in the clutch as well, leading the Tigers to a 6-0 record in games decided by a touchdown or less over the last two years.
But, Swinney has confidence in all three candidates who will compete this spring to be his replacement.
‘I believe we have three quarterbacks who can play in the NFL some day,” said Swinney. “Tajh Boyd has moved on to the next level, but we are not going to lower the standard at this position. The standard is still winning and I expect us to have a very productive offense in 2014.
“I don’t see any reason why we can’t be explosive and fun to watch on offense this year. We will have different players carrying the ball, but we have recruited well and I expect us to be productive.”
Swinney has three candidates to start at quarterback when the Tigers open the season at Georgia on August 30. Whoever the quarterback is, it will be his first career start, but he does have two candidates who have seen action in games.
Cole Stoudt has the most experience as the senior is a veteran of 22 games. Last year he completed 47-59 passes for 415 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions. His completion percentage (.797) was the best in the nation among quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts and his passing efficiency figure of 166.7 was just slightly lower than Boyd’s 168.7, a figure that ranked eighth in the nation among quarterbacks who attempted 15 passes a game.
“Cole Stoudt has played a lot of snaps over the last three years in this offense and we have won games with Cole. His experience running this offense is very important and he has been very accurate when called on.”
Chad Kelly was the third-team quarterback last year, but did play 55 snaps for Clemson’s offense that scored at least 50 points in five games. He showed his ability to run the ball with 16 rushes for 117 yards and a score, a 7.3 average, best on the team among players who rushed for at least 100 yards. He also completed 10-17 passes.
“Chad Kelly has two years of experience in this system and has demonstrated his unique abilities. He had a lot of success running the football in games when he got the opportunity. But he also has a strong arm.”
True freshman Deshaun Watson is a third candidate who will be at Clemson for spring practice. The native of Gainesville, GA comes to Clemson with high school statistics that resemble Boyd’s Clemson data. He is the all-time leader in touchdown passes for the state of Georgia, a record he owned before his senior year started. He was listed as the top dual threat quarterback in the nation by many services.
“Deshaun Watson is the X factor,” said Swinney. “I am very glad to have him here for the Spring and we can get an idea of what he can do. He does have a good background with this offense as his high school ran virtually the same attack.
“I don’t know when our starter will be decided. It might be obvious at the end of spring practice. Or it might be the week of the Georgia game before we name a starter. Or we might have multiple quarterbacks involved, I am not adverse to that.”
While the loss of Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant to the NFL draft a year early is significant (combined 2292 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns in 2013), the Tigers do have players returning who caught 48 percent of the passes and gained 41 percent of the yards.
The list of returnees are led by Adam Humphries, Germone Hopper, Charone Peake and Mike Williams.
Humphries had 41 receptions last year, third on the team, for 483 yards and two scores. He has 97 career catches for 893 yards for his career, more than any other active Tiger entering his senior year. Hopper had 21 catches from the slot receiver position for 142 yards and also had two scores.
Williams and Peake are both capable of making big plays on the outside. Williams actually started three times last year and had 20 receptions for 316 yards, a solid 15.8 average and had three scores. He had at least one catch in 10 of the 13 games.
Peake played just the first two games of last year before suffering a torn ACL in a practice the week after the South Carolina State game. He played a big role in Clemson’s win over Georgia with five catches for 58 yards, second best on the team that night in Clemson’s win over the number-five team in the nation.
Three true freshmen are in camp this spring and will get significant looks during the 15 practices. Demarre Kitt, Kyrin Priester and Artavis Scott are all receivers ranked among the top 150 players in the nation by various services coming out of high school.
“We have talented players returning at wide receiver. Mike Williams showed during his freshman year that he has the potential to be a great player here. Adam Humphries has been a reliable, talented player for three years and Charone Peake was a starter last year until he got hurt. Hopper also gained significant experience last year and we look for him to be much improved.
“We have three new wide receivers who will be with us in Spring practice and we look at that as a big plus entering the fall. With the loss of Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, and Charone Peake still recovering from a torn ACL, those three freshmen will start spring practice as our second team at the three wide receiver positions. We are hopeful that by the time we open with Georgia those three will be like red-shirt freshmen when it comes to experience.”
Tight end has been an important position in the Clemson offense since Chad Morris became offensive coordinator in 2011. He had the John Mackey Award winner in 2011 (Dwayne Allen) and a first-team All-ACC tight end in 2012. (Brandon Ford). The 2013 saw a tight end by committee approach. Still there was outstanding production as Clemson tight ends caught 45 passes for 497 yards and seven scores.
Stanton Seckinger is the returning starter and he had 21 receptions for 244 yards and four scores last year. He started the year catching what proved to be the winning touchdown pass against fifth-ranked Georgia and ended the year catching the winning touchdown pass against sixth-ranked Ohio State.
Jordan Leggett is a sophomore with big play potential. He showed that with a 43-yard catch against Ohio State in the Orange Bowl and had 12 catches for 176 yards and two scores last year. Sam Cooper is a third veteran back at the position. He overcame a torn ACL in the 2013 Spring Game to make a significant contribution to the Tigers 2013 season.
One of the most underrated players in the ACC last year was Clemson running back Rod McDowell. The native of Sumter, SC waited his turn to be the starter after watching Andre Ellington play ahead of him for three seasons, two of which were 1000-yard seasons for the current starter for the Phoenix Cardinals. In 2013, McDowell got his chance and had his own 1000-yard season.
Now McDowell has moved on to professional football and it is time for someone else to step up. Zac Brooks is the leading returning rusher after gaining 246 yards on 48 carries last year. The junior from Arkansas also had six catches for 83 yards, including a key touchdown reception in the win over Georgia.
D.J. Howard has been injured off and on over his career, but the senior has a team best 581 career rushing yards and 35 games of experience on his resume. That includes an 86-yard performance against Auburn his freshman year when Clemson ended the SEC Tigers 17-game winning streak.
C.J. Davidson is one of the most interesting stories on the Clemson team. The original walk-on who came to Clemson on track scholarship, showed breakaway speed in his limited duty last year when he had 34 carries for 155 yards and four touchdowns. He had three receptions for 27 yards in the Orange Bowl win over Ohio State.
Red-shirt freshmen Wayne Gallman and Tyshon Dye will be in the mix at running back this year. Dye suffered a torn Achilles injury in February mat drills, an injury that will be a setback in his preparation for 2014.
“An opportunity exists for one of our running backs to step up and take the position, but I really expect that we will be deeper at running back than we have been. We have a lot of good people at this position who can get the job done.
“Tyshon Dye could have been the opening day starter, but has suffered a setback with a torn Achilles in February workouts. We are still optimistic we will get him back early in the fall.
“D.J. Howard has the most experience of the returning players. But, he has to stay healthy, the last two years that has been a problem.
“The same can be said for Zac Brooks. It seems like he was hurt all of last year after catching a big touchdown pass against Georgia. He has the tools, including as a receiver, to do the job in this offense.
“Wayne Gallman is a red-shirt freshman who has a lot of ability and he could take the job. C.J. Davidson played very well in the bowl game and throughout last year. He might have the best breakaway speed among the running backs.
While Swinney knows the media will focus on the race to become Clemson’s next starting quarterback, he is most concerned about the starting offensive tackle slots.
“We lost Brandon Thomas, our starting left tackle, who I believe is going to be a terrific player at the next level. We also have lost Patrick Destefano and Giff Timothy off cycle due to injury.
“We can’t afford another injury there. It will be important for Isaiah Battle, Shaq Anthony and Joe Gore to step up. We may have to move some players around as well. Eric Mac Lain and Kalon Davis could swing to play both guard and tackle. This will be an area of need in recruiting this year as well.”
Battle started four games last year after Giff Timothy suffered a season ending injury. The junior is a gifted athlete at 6-6 and 275 pounds. He has held his own in his first two years against some of the top defensive linemen in the nation by LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Ohio State.
Shaq Anthony also has experience as a starter at tackle in his first two years with five career starts, including three last year. He played 503 snaps on Clemson’s 2013 team that averaged 40 points and over 500 yards per game.
Kalon Davis and David Beasley both started seven games at guard last year and are considered returning co-starters this year. The pair of seniors has considerable experience. Davis, who is also capable of playing some tackle, played an even 500 plays last year and is a veteran of 36 career games with eight starts. Beasley, also a starter in 2012, played 433 plays last year and has 19 starts for his Clemson career.
Clemson is strong at the center position with returning starter Ryan Norton, who had to replace All-American Dalton Freeman last year. He responded as a sophomore from the very first game when he was named ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week against Georgia. He went on to play a team high 841 plays for the year and started all 13.
Jay Guillermo played 182 snaps as a reserve center and guard last year and he might be too good to leave in a second team role this year, as he is capable of playing other positions.
Reid Webster is the most versatile of the Clemson offensive linemen as the red-shirt senior and three-year letterman has experience at guard, tackle and center. He could prove to be a very valuable member of the Clemson team in 2014.
Defense (7 returning starters, 27 returning lettermen)
While Clemson must replace personnel who accounted for a high percentage of the Tigers 2013 offensive production, the defense returns players who accounted for a high percentage of the big plays.
Clemson led the nation in tackles for loss by a wide margin with 122 and players who accounted for 96.5 of them, 79 percent, return for 2014. Players who had 87 percent of the sacks, 69 percent of the passes broken up and 60 percent of the takeaways are back. Clemson had 27 players who had at least 10 tackles last year and 22 of them return.
“We have made significant improvement on defense over the last couple of years, to the point where last year we were ranked in the top 25 in the nation in as many defensive categories as offensive,”” said Swinney.
“When I first came here I said to reach an elite level we had to be outstanding on defense and we were in many areas last year. And, as a result, we finished with a top 10 final ranking for the first time since 1990.
“We led the nation in tackles for loss by a wide margin and ranked in the top 20 in interceptions and turnovers forced. Turnover margin is so important and you could see that in just about all of our games last year.”
A look to the overall personnel of the Clemson team indicates that the strength of the team will be the defensive line. No less than 12 returning lettermen, six defensive ends and six defensive tackles, return to a defense that ranked in the top 25 in the nation in scoring defense and total defense, and was 10th in turnovers forced.
Leading the large group of returning defenders is consensus All-American Vic Beasley. The senior is one of just three returning consensus All-Americans for 2014. A candidate to turn professional, Beasley decided to return for his senior season after a 2013 performance that included 13 sacks, 23 tackles for loss and four caused fumbles. He ranked third in the nation in sacks per game and tackles for loss per game and was 10th in caused fumbles. He led the nation in sacks on the road and was third in total sack yardage with 96.
“Our biggest signee since the end of the 2013 season was Vic Beasley. Having Vic return for his senior year is a big plus for our defense. He went from being a reserve as a sophomore to being a consensus All-American as a junior. He had an outstanding junior year, but there is another level for him.”
Beasley’s comrade at the other end of the defensive line is Corey Crawford, a two-year starter who actually had more tackles than Beasley (52 to 44) and added 10.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett was the defensive co-MVP in 2012 and is in his third year as a starter. He finished third on Clemson’s defense in tackles last year with 83, 11 of which were tackles for loss. Josh Watson, D.J. Reader, DeShawn Williams and Carlos Watkins are four more returning players with starting experience.
“We might have the most experienced defensive line in the nation with six seniors who have been a big reason we have won 32 games the last three years. All six of them have the potential to play at the next level. This is the most experienced defensive front I have seen since I came to Clemson (as an assistant in 2003).
“Grady Jarrett might be the most under rated defensive player in the ACC. One of the keys to our victory over Ohio State was limiting their ground attack that ranked in the top 10 in the nation entering the game. Grady had a lot to do with that. He is a terrific leader as well.
“Corey Crawford is another defensive end who could have turned professional after his junior year. He developed consistency last year and we expect more of the same.”
The above listing of players does not even include Shaq Lawson, who had 10 tackles for loss and four sacks in 337 plays as a reserve in 2013. He was named a second-team freshman All-American. Other returning lettermen include Martin Aiken, Tavaris Barnes, Rod Byers and Kevin Dodd.
There are two open starting slots at linebacker. Clemson’s leading tackler last year was Stephone Anthony, who had 131 stops according to the film study by Clemson coaches. He had 13.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, five PBUs and an interception. That theft might have been the biggest by a Clemson player all year as it clinched the victory over Ohio State on the Buckeyes last possession.
“We will miss Spencer Shuey and Quandon Christian at the linebacker spots, but we do return Stephone Anthony. He made great strides last year when he took ownership of the middle linebacker position and he was our leading tackler.
“Obviously this is an area of the team where a couple of young men will have a chance to step into a starting role, but I am confident in the young men we have returning from last year.”
Candidates to step up into significant roles are returning lettermen Tony Steward, Kellen Jones, B.J. Goodson, Ben Bouleware and T.J. Burrell. Steward has been Clemson’s top special teams player each of the last two years and is ready to assume a starting position with his classmate Anthony. He had 37 tackles in just 167 plays last year.
Jones played in just two games last year before suffering an injury, but the Oklahoma transfer was the team’s top tackler against South Carolina State with 11 stops. Bouleware had 18 tackles in just 73 defensive scrimmage plays, or a tackle every four snaps. He was also one of Clemson’s top players on special teams.
Clemson returns two starting safeties and nine total lettermen in a secondary that helped the Tigers rank 19th in the nation in pass efficiency defense last year. Clemson’s 18 interceptions ranked 13th best in the nation and the unit was a big reason Clemson was fifth nationally in third-down defense.
“I am excited about the secondary because we do have some talented young players coming off a red-shirt year who should be major contributors to the group of returning players. We have four players back with significant experience in Robert Smith, Travis Blanks, Garry Peters and Martin Jenkins.
“We were aggressive in the secondary last year, and ranked in the top 20 in forcing turnovers. Of course some of those were the result of pressure from our defensive front. It all goes hand in hand.
Robert Smith and Travis Blanks are returning starters at safety. Smith was fourth on the team in tackles last year with 79, including 60 first hits. He added five pass breakups. Blanks had 35 tackles in 11 games, as he missed the last two due to a knee injury suffered against The Citadel.
Peters and Jenkins have a lot of experience. Peters played 247 plays in 10 games a year ago and had 28 tackles, including four tackles for loss. Jenkins had a pick six against South Carolina State early in the season and had 26 tackles.
Jenkins and Korrin Wiggins held the nickel position last year. Wiggins had many timely plays, including a pair of interceptions and five pass deflections. Jayron Kearse started three games last year and showed big play capability, especially at Virginia where he had takeaways on consecutive possessions. He tied for the team lead in that category with four. Jadar Johnson and Cordrea Tankersley are two returning lettermen who will also be a factor in the secondary.
Wiggins and Blanks could see time at a hybrid outside linebacker/nickel position.
The secondary is also an area where a red-shirt freshman could break into the lineup. That group includes Mackensie Alexander, Adrian Baker, Ryan Carter, and Marcus Edmond.
Clemson must replace a four-year starter at kicker, as Chandler Catanzaro graduated after setting 10 school records. The graduate made 39 of his last 41 field goals over his last three years and he made many in the clutch. He leaves Clemson as its career leader in scoring and the leader in field goals of at least 40 yards with 23.
Adam Lakip scored nine points last year as Catanzaro’s backup. He was 6-6 on extra points and 1-2 on field goals. He will be the top candidate to replace Catanzaro.
Bradley Pinion returns as the starting punter and kickoff man. The former USA Today All-American had a 39.4 gross average, but a strong 37.8 figure in terms of net punting. He had a record tying 24 punts inside the 20 with no touchbacks. Pinion had 38 touchbacks on 78 kickoffs and was a big reason Clemson ranked in the top 25 in the nation in kickoff coverage.
Adam Humphries is the top return man. As a punt returner the Clemson wide receiver averaged 10.6 yards per return on 20 attempts, 24th best in the nation.