Departures Of Several Stars Will Test Clemson’s Repeat Bid In 2017

    Clemson will lose key players from its 2016 national championship team. However, the Tigers have a lot of talent and depth, though it won't be easy to return to the College Football Playoff.

    January 17, 2017

    Clemson will lose key players from its 2016 national championship team. And though the Tigers still have a lot of talent and depth, it won’t be easy to return to the College Football Playoff.

    Clemson will be enjoying its first college football national championship in 35 years for quite some time, and nothing that happens moving forward can ever take the crown away from the Tigers. However, a new season will approach, and the 2017 team will look to put its own stamp on the program.

    With the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft now past, let’s take a look at how the Tigers could replace some of the key veteran playmakers on both sides of the ball that were a huge part of their success in 2016.

    QB Deshaun Watson

    Watson was a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist, so it goes without saying that replacing him will be a monumental task. The Tigers won’t be able to get the same type of leadership out of the quarterback position, but they will expect to get suitable productivity in this offense.

    Rising junior Kelly Bryant, rising redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper as well as incoming true freshmen Hunter Johnson and Chase Brice will all have a chance to win the starting job. Bryant’s athleticism and experience certainly give him the edge, although he still has a lot of work to do as a passer. Defensive coverage recognition, decision-making and consistency will be monitored closely. It’s an offense that is predicated on timing, so whoever Dabo Swinney and his staff trust the most will get the call at the position.

    Cooper more closely resembles Watson, but he doesn’t quite have the outgoing QB’s athleticism. Johnson and Brice have the uphill battle of needing to learn the playbook inside and out, of course. So, more than anything, it’s the mental development that will bear watching. Expect Bryant to ultimately win the starting gig during fall camp, as Swinney and the offensive staff slowly bring along the younger signal-callers.

    RB Wayne Gallman

    Clemson running back C.J. Fuller (Credit: Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic via USA TODAY Sports)

    In the Tigers’ near-loss to NC State earlier this past season, Gallman was knocked out after taking a scary helmet-to-helmet hit from Dravious Wright at the end of a reception. Adam Choice replaced Gallman following the injury, but the Tigers were ill-prepared to make up for the loss, especially in a tense game. In 2017, the Tigers will likely have to go the route of having a running back committee, with Choice, C.J. Fuller and Tavien Feaster and all chipping in.

    Fuller is well-built and shows patience reading defenses, and he was impressive late in the year. Meanwhile, Feaster is the speedier back who rushed for 221 yards and two touchdowns on just 37 carries. Fuller and Feaster can be a thunder and lightning option in the Clemson backfield for co-offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliot, while Choice and Tyshon Dye will also be in the mix. While a clear No. 1 RB is ideal, the Tigers may also look for more carries from their QB, depending on who wins the job.

    WRs Mike Williams and Artavis Scott plus TE Jordan Leggett

    The star Tiger wide receivers announced via Twitter roughly 45 minutes apart that they were heading to the NFL early. Williams has a chance to be the first wideout taken in the draft because of his elite combination of size, speed and athleticism as well as the fact that he can win many a jump ball battles. He finished 2016 with 98 receptions for 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging 13.9 yards per catch. Against Alabama in the national title game, he had eight catches and a touchdown, with each grab seemingly more important than the previous one. Scott, meanwhile, leaves Clemson as the all-time leader in career receptions, and he had five receiving touchdowns on 76 catches this past fall. As for Leggett, he had 46 grabs for 736 yards and seven touchdowns, so that’s a ton of lost production.

    Swinney and Co. will look to Deon Cain, who had 38 receptions for 724 yards and nine touchdowns, to be the new No. 1, given that the big-play threat averaged over 19 yards per catch in ’16. Of course, the often-overlooked Hunter Renfrow isn’t going anywhere, and Tiger fans have to be ecstatic after his 10-catch, 92-yard, two-touchdown effort in the title game against Alabama. And Ray-Ray McCloud can line up anywhere on the field, so he’s always an X-Factor on offense as well as special teams. It’ll be interesting to see how Trevion Thompson develops, as he has the size to be a physical downfield threat. All in all, the passing game should be potent as long as the Tigers get steady play at QB. Weapons will surround whoever is running the offensive show.

    DT Carlos Watkins

    One big aspect of Clemson’s rise to the top of the college football world has been the continued strong recruiting and development across the defensive line. Despite losing Watkins, do not expect much drop-off—if any—from this corps. Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, and Clelin Ferrell all return, and players such as Austin Bryant and Albert Huggins will help contribute. The talent and depth is unlike anything the Tigers have experienced on that side of the ball. If Ferrell can put together a full season and play as he did in the College Football Playoff, where he caused problems for Outland Trophy winner Cam Robinson, then this will remain a very scary defensive line to deal with in 2017.

    LB Ben Boulware

    There is no way to replace Boulware’s passion and leadership, that’s for sure. So the Tigers will have to do it collectively. Jalen Williams was one of Clemson’s most versatile linebackers in ’16, while Dorian O’Daniel and Korrin Wiggins are back as well. Coordinator Brent Venables is used to replacing star defenders in waves, as he has had to do it in two consecutive offseasons. The results? Back-to-back College Football Playoff appearances, including a national championship. There will be little to no drop-off on the defensive side of the ball, but Boulware’s vocal prowess will need to be replaced. That will be awfully difficult.

    CB Cordrea Tankersley and S Jadar Johnson

    The Tigers had a strong defensive backfield in 2016, as Tankersley and Johnson offered much-needed veteran leadership. The scary thing for opposing ACC offenses is this secondary will only get better because of the talent and depth that Swinney and his staff have cultivated during their rise to prominence in the ACC. Mark Fields, who returned an interception for a touchdown against Boston College this past season, is back at one corner spot, while Trayvon Mullen has a chance to win the job on the other side. Mullen offers really good ball skills and size for the position.

    Meanwhile, safety Tanner Muse is a versatile defender who had a 64-yard interception return for a score against Syracuse in ’16. He has good size and range, as he can both play the run and defend the pass successfully. Van Smith, who had an 86-yard pick against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, and Ryan Carter lead a loaded crew of DBs, including K’Von Wallace and Korrin Wiggins, that will make this one of the stingiest ACC secondaries in ’17. The competition for playing time will be fierce for this corps in Death Valley, and that’s always a good thing for the champs.

    Certainly, Clemson will face stiff competition in a much-improved ACC next season, particularly from Florida State. But Swinney has this program rising so that there will be little drop-off each season. Because of that, the Tigers will remain a top CFP contender in ’17 if they receive stellar play from Watson’s replacement.

    MORE: Teams Hit Hardest By Early NFL Draft Entries


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