2015 CFB Preview – Clemson

    Clemson TigersGo to Team Page TigersGo to Selection Page           Florida State is vulnerable. Clemson is determined to pounce

    June 30, 2015

     
       

    Florida State is vulnerable. Clemson is determined to pounce on the opening.

    By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello

    The gap between the ACC’s two premier programs has narrowed, in large part because of the attrition of the Noles. And unlike a year ago, the Tigers will enjoy the all-important edge behind center, as Deshaun Watson attempts to replace Jameis Winston as the conference’s top quarterback.

    Under Dabo Swinney, Clemson is in the midst of its first run of four straight 10-win seasons in a quarter-century. But the Tigers are not without their own holes this season, so ending Florida State’s string of three Atlantic Divisions in a row won’t happen without the help of a lot of first-time starters.

    Watson has fielded an unusual amount of attention and hype this offseason for a player who started just five games as a rookie. However, he’s that good. He’s the kind of young quarterback who brings titles to a campus. And he’s surrounded by a preponderance of speedy playmakers, such as RB Wayne Gallman and receivers Artavis Scott and Mike Williams.

    However, instrumental coordinator Chad Morris is no longer around to push the right buttons, and the line is the offense’s weakest unit. So, while Watson and Co. are loaded with promise, the overall process still needs to be fine-tuned between now and the start of ACC play on Sept. 17.

    The offensive to-do list pales in comparison to what the defense is facing. In the end, Clemson will be fine, because talent and crackerjack coaching are great equalizers. But the Tigers will have a hard time matching last year’s dynamite performance now that Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Stephone Anthony are in the NFL. In all, eight new starters have departed, including the entire defensive line. Clemson will not be drifting to the lower recesses of the ACC, yet how does a team fill positional and leadership gaps in such a short period of time?

    In all likelihood it doesn’t.

    Although a new wave of stars, such as DE Shaq Lawson, CB Mackensie Alexander and S Jayron Kearse, is on the horizon, the Tigers will be just a tad more vulnerable on D this season.

    Both of the ACC’s powerhouses have been undergoing wholesale changes this offseason. Yet, Clemson and Florida State are still the favorites to win the conference and vie for a spot in the second College Football Playoff.

    The Tigers under Swinney have joined the nation’s elite, perennially winning 10, finishing ranked and compiling star-studded recruiting classes. But Swinney has just a single league title in seven tries, insufficient for a coach with his drive and ambition. He’s eagerly eyeing that second crown now that Jameis is a Buccaneer and Deshaun is a sophomore.

    What you need to know about the offense: It’s the dawn of a new era for the Clemson offense. Sophomore QB Deshaun Watson is set to assume the role of the franchise, but he’ll do so without esteemed coordinator Chad Morris, who’s now the SMU head coach. The architect of the Tigers’ offensive resurgence has been supplanted by Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, who’ll have the good fortune of mentoring Watson for at least the next two seasons. The co-coordinators don’t plan to mess with success, maintaining the up-tempo, no-huddle attack that’s been so potent the past four years. Clemson, though, will need to improve at the line of scrimmage to fully unlock the abilities of Watson and a terrific supporting cast led by RB Wayne Gallman, TE Jordan Leggett and dynamite wide receivers Mike Williams, Artavis Scott and Charone Peake. LT Isaiah Battle is poised for a strong final year, but the rest of the line has plenty to prove in 2015. And for Clemson to get back to being a 40-point-a-game unit, it’ll have to become more assertive at the line of scrimmage.

    What you need to know about the defense: Coordinator Brent Venables has been a godsend for a defense that needed some divine intervention when he was hired in 2012. But he and his assistants will be tested this fall. The year after leading the nation in yards per play allowed, Clemson is replacing eight starters, four of whom were drafted in the spring. Fortunately, the Tigers recruit well and used a deep rotation in recent seasons. DE Shaq Lawson, CB Mackensie Alexander and S Jayron Kearse are prepared to become the new leading men, but staying the course hinges on those veterans being promoted this fall. Up front, tackles Carlos Watkins and D.J. Reader must reach their potential, while DE Kevin Dodd pounces when Lawson is doubled. The staff expects Ben Boulware to pick up where he left off in the Russell Athletic Bowl and become the new leader of the linebackers. And CB Cordrea Tankersley and safeties Jadar Johnson and T.J. Green have to victimize those offenses that try to avoid Alexander and Kearse. Clemson remains flush in next-level talent. If Venables can turn this reassembled group into another brick wall, he could be swimming in head coaching opportunities by December.

    What to watch for on offense: On guard. The Tigers will surround budding star QB Deshaun Watson with ample skill position talent in 2015, but his front wall is a question mark. LT Isaiah Battle and C Ryan Norton are returning starters, and underachieving senior Joe Gore is expected to be the right tackle. But who handles guard now that David Beasley and Reid Webster are gone? The favorites are Eric Mac Lain and Tyrone Crowder, neither of who has much relevant experience. Save for possibly Battle, this is a pedestrian, blue-collar line that could struggle with quality opponents.

    What to watch for on defense: Shaq’s running partner. There’s a consensus that junior DE Shaq Lawson is set to supplant Vic Beasley and become Clemson’s next elite pass rusher. Duly noted. But who’ll serve as the bookend that capitalizes on the attention that No. 90 is sure to receive? For now, that coveted position appears earmarked for 6-5, 275-pound junior Kevin Dodd, who has the length and the physicality that this staff covets. However, if the light doesn’t go on this fall, sophomore Ebenezer Ogundeko is itching to fill the void.

    This team will be far better if … Deshaun Watson remains healthy from wire-to-wire. Not only is Watson the undisputed franchise at quarterback, but also veteran backup Cole Stoudt is no longer around to provide stability out of the bullpen. Former walk-on Nick Schuessler is the probable No. 2 for 2015. The drop-off from Watson to his caddy is as precipitous as it is on any FBS campus. And since the prodigy twice missed time because of injuries in his debut, Clemson is understandably concerned about keeping him healthy. Without Watson, the offense was a shell of itself in 2014.

    The Schedule: The Tigers leave home just once – at Louisville on September 17th – until October 24th. That’s five of the first six games in Death Valley.
    – The payoff for the favorable first half of the season is a rough second half, going on the road four of the last six games with one of the home dates against Florida State.
    – The Coastal is up in the air, but going to Miami and dealing with Georgia Tech – the likely preseason favorite – isn’t a good break.
    – Clemson is one of Notre Dame’s ACC games. Combined with the regular-season ender at South Carolina, the opener non-conference dates against Wofford and Appalachian State are forgivable.
    – WATCH OUT FOR … The pure running teams. The Tigers have to face Georgia Tech and BC in back-to-back weeks before going to Miami. Considering the date with Notre Dame comes before dealing with the Yellow Jackets and Eagles, Clemson might be banged up in the middle of the season.

    Best Offensive Player: Sophomore QB Deshaun Watson. His body of work is still small, but the expectations for Watson are enormous. So bright is the future for the quarterback that his former coordinator, Chad Morris, second-guessed a decision to take the SMU gig because of what he was leaving behind. Watson has rapidly—and predictably—recovered from offseason knee surgery, setting the stage for a sophomore season that should bring national acclaim. In this offense, and with his touch and accuracy, the young phenom ought to post monster numbers this fall.

    Best Defensive Player: Sophomore CB Mackensie Alexander. There’s a lot of talent and ability on this Clemson defense. It speaks volumes about Alexander that he’s already risen to the top of a unit that includes names like Shaq Lawson and Jayron Kearse. In his debut on the field, he displayed the confidence and the smooth cover skills that helped attract so many offers when he was in high school. And since Alexander is so capable in man coverage, it’ll allow the safeties to cheat over to support the Tigers’ other corner, possibly untested Cordrea Tankersley.

    Key player to a successful season: Senior RT Joe Gore. Clemson absolutely, positively must protect the franchise, QB Deshaun Watson, because if he goes down the team is sunk. Watson blindside will be protected by Isaiah Battle, who’s entering a salary run year. But right tackle is a worry, because Gore has yet to play to his potential. While this is his job to lose, he better not leave an opening for Jake Fruhmorgen and Mitch Hyatt, a pair of precocious true freshmen well on their way to dodging a redshirt year.

    The season will be a success if … the Tigers win the ACC championship. Although Clemson is facing its own transitions, particularly on both lines, it has to seize the opportunity when Florida State is vulnerable. And in a year that the Seminoles are traveling to Death Valley, it’s even more of a reason for the Tigers to capture the crown and possibly contend for a playoff spot. Plus, Clemson opens the year with scrimmages versus Wofford and Appalachian State, providing the time to get the retooled defense back in shape.

    Key game: Nov. 7 vs. Florida State. Notre Dame. Georgia Tech. Miami. South Carolina. There are plenty of red-letter days on the 2015 schedule. But they all pale in importance to the annual tilt with the Seminoles, which will likely determine the Atlantic Division champion. The Tigers squandered a lead in last year’s meeting, despite the suspension of Seminole QB Jameis Winston. However, that was also before the seal was fully broken on rookie Clemson QB Deshaun Watson. This November’s meeting in Death Valley will be a referendum on who did a better job of retooling this offseason.

    2014 Fun Stats:
    – Points per game: Clemson 30.8 – Opponents 16.7
    – Yards per pass: Clemson 7.5 – Opponents 5.3
    – Sacks: Clemson 45 – Opponents 27

    Players You Should Know

    1. QB Deshaun Watson, Soph.
    There were false starts in last season’s injury-plagued debut. But Watson left no doubts in eight appearances that he’s the franchise at Clemson … and one of the nation’s hottest young quarterbacks. The Tigers were a completely different team with Watson in the huddle, despite his lack of experience. The 6-2, 205-pound prodigy completed 93-of-137 passes for 1,466 yards, 14 touchdowns and two picks, adding 200 yards and five more rushing scores. Beyond the obvious physical gifts, Watson is also poised beyond his years, flush in leadership skills and a perfect fit for this Clemson attack. He’s one of college football’s new mega-stars.

    2. CB Mackensie Alexander, Soph.
    After missing 2013 because of nagging injuries, Alexander was as good as advertised in his 2014 debut, earning honorable mention All-ACC. He’s Clemson’s next great lockdown corner, a fluid athlete with the confidence and poise needed to thrive on an island. And film, not statistics, is the only accurate way to evaluate the 5-10, 190-pound Mackensie. For instance, his 21 tackles, two stops for loss, six passes defended and no picks had more to do with respect from opposing quarterbacks than any shortcomings in ball skills.

    3. WR Artavis Scott, Soph.
    Scott isn’t Sammy Watkins. But the similarities are unmistakable. Scott made an overnight transition from East Lake (Fla.) High School, earning Second Team All-ACC with a team-high 76 receptions for 965 yards and eight touchdowns. Testament to his quick-twitch explosiveness, he was also dangerous on jet sweeps, weaving in and out of defenses with speed and suddenness. Scott is a 5-10, 190-pound bolt of lightning capable of stretching defenses like taffy in all directions. And he’s only just begun in his development as a Tiger.

    4. WR Mike Williams, Jr.
    Following a solid rookie debut in 2013, Williams turned the corner last fall to become one of the ACC’s premier big-play receivers. The production was there, despite changes at quarterback, including 57 catches for a team-high 1,030 yards and six touchdowns in a second-team all-league campaign. Williams has all of the ingredients of a future NFL star, from his 6-4, 210-pound frame to his ball skills and separation speed. As his chemistry with QB Deshaun Watson grows, he’ll develop into an unstoppable force on the outside.

    5. DE Shaq Lawson, Jr.
    No Tiger is poised to capitalize on depth chart openings more than Lawson this season. Clemson was gutted by graduations along the D-line, creating an opportunity for the gifted junior to begin fulfilling his potential. For two years, he’s been a second-teamer with first-team production, making 34 tackles, 11 stops for loss and 3.5 sacks in 2014. The 6-3, 275-pound Lawson is one of just two Tigers all-time with at least 10 tackles for minus yards in his first two seasons, and his strength and closing speed portend a monster year in 2015.

    6. OT Isaiah Battle, Sr.
    Battle is just oozing with next-level potential at left tackle, which the coaching staff is banking on him reaching this season. At 6-7 and 290 pounds, the Brooklyn native has the frame, the long arms and the nasty streak that NFL scouts covet. Now, the veteran just needs to put it all together for a line that’s pining for leadership. Battle had 18 knockdowns as an 11-game starter, laying the groundwork for what should be an All-ACC finale with the Tigers.

    7. S Jayron Kearse, Jr.
    The ceiling is very high for Kearse. Now the staff must make sure he gets there. At 6-4 and 210 pounds, with excellent range and athleticism, he has the raw materials of a superstar. But consistency will elude him, particularly in coverage. Fortunately, Kearse is only at the halfway point of his career. He started all but one game a year ago, finishing with 60 tackles, five stops for loss, three sacks, two picks and seven passes defended.

    8. RB Wayne Gallman, Soph.
    Out of the congestion that was the Tiger backfield last season stepped Gallman, who has a chance to be the program’s feature back the next two seasons. He started nine games as a redshirt freshman in 2014, rushing for a team-high 769 yards and four touchdowns on 161 carries, while catching 24 balls for 108 yards and a score. The 6-1, 205-pound Gallman does everything at full speed, now needing to tap the brakes a little by showing more patience so that his blocks can develop.

    9. DT D.J. Reader, Sr.
    Clemson is in the market for playmaking interior linemen to offset the graduations of Grady Jarrett, Josh Watson and DeShawn Williams. Reader is uniquely capable of busting out on his finale and attracting the attention of pro scouts. He’s a thick, 6-2, 325-pounder, with enough athleticism to have also done a cameo on the Tiger baseball team. Reader has played plenty during his career, more than 800 snaps, and would have started for a bunch other programs the past two seasons.

    10. LB Ben Boulware, Jr.
    As the first linebacker off the bench last year, Boulware made the natural progression of a young defender. Now that Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward are gone, No. 10 has a chip on his shoulder and an eye on the starting weakside gig. Boulware is tough, physical and passionate, bringing boundless energy and attitude to the field. The 6-0, 235-pounder should jet past last year’s 40 tackles, five stops for loss and pair of fumble recoveries.

    Head Coach: Dabo Swinney
    8th year: 61-26
    Schedule
    Sept. 5 Wofford
    Sept. 12 Appalachian State
    Sept. 17 at Louisville
    Sept. 26 OPEN DATE
    Oct. 3 Notre Dame
    Oct. 10 Georgia Tech
    Oct. 17 Boston College
    Oct. 24 at Miami
    Oct. 31 at NC State
    Nov. 7 Florida State
    Nov. 14 at Syracuse
    Nov. 21 Wake Forest
    Nov. 28 at South Carolina
    Ten Best Tiger Players
    1. QB Deshaun Watson, Soph.
    2. CB Mackensie Alexander, Soph.
    3. WR Artavis Scott, Soph.
    4. WR Mike Williams, Jr.
    5. DE Shaq Lawson, Jr.
    6. OT Isaiah Battle, Sr.
    7. S Jayron Kearse, Jr.
    8. RB Wayne Gallman, Soph.
    9. DT D.J. Reader, Sr.
    10. LB Ben Boulware, Jr.

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