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Clemson is Poised for Another National Title Run in 2016

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Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship loss to Alabama will linger. But very soon those around the Clemson football program will look forward to 2016. And when they do, there will be reason for great optimism.

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Related: A Very Early College Football Top 25 for 2016

The best quarterback in the country will be back. With him will be almost all of the skill position talent and the return of perhaps the team’s most dangerous weapon. On the other side of the ball, the coordinator has proven that he knows how to rebuild a defense with new parts.

Here is what Clemson eyes will be spying this offseason following a remarkable journey that came up just a bit short.

Offense

Key Returnees:

QB Deshaun Watson

RB Wayne Gallman

WR Artavis Scott

WR Ray-Ray McCloud

WR Germone Hopper

WR Hunter Renfrow

TE Jordan Leggett

OT Mitch Hyatt

C  Jay Guillermo

OG Tyrone Crowder

Key Departures:

WR Charone Peake

OT Joe Gore

OG Eric Mac Lain

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Defense

Key Returnees:

DE Kevin Dodd

DT Carlos Watkins

DT Christian Wilkins

LB Ben Boulware

S  T.J. Green

S Jayron Kearse (may leave early for the NFL)

CB Cordrea Tankersley

CB Mackensie Alexander (may leave early for the NFL)

Key Departures:

DE Shaq Lawson

DT D.J. Reader

LB  B.J. Goodson

LB/S Travis Blanks

Three Offseason Storylines to Watch

1. The Health of Mike Williams

The Clemson offense was extremely potent this year, right until the very end. It’s scary to think what it could have been had Williams not broken a bone in his neck when he crashed into the goal post in the first quarter of the season’s opening game. When healthy, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Williams is a big-play threat that is capable of adding another dimension to the Tigers’ already high-powered offense. Williams may not participate all that much in the spring practices, but he has been making steady progress and his every move from now until the season opener against Auburn will be closely monitored.

2. Young Defenders Stepping Forward

Clemson lost nine starters off of the 2014 defense... and the unit got better. The Tigers will again lose several key members of a stalwart defense, especially if underclassmen expected to return instead opt for the NFL. Can defensive coordinator Brent Venables work his magic once again? Perhaps, but it may be an even greater challenge the second time around. While this year’s defense was statistically better than the 2014 group, the depth is not the same due to the losses following last season. That means that aren’t as many seasoned replacements waiting in the wings. This offseason will be the time for young players like Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant and Adrian Baker to show that they can be part of the next wave of great Clemson defenders.

3. Managing Expectations

Despite losing some key contributors, Clemson will again be ranked among the nation’s elite. Despite the title game loss, the Tigers are now the hunted. This is new territory for Dabo Swinney’s crew, a team that thrived on being the young upstarts. Deshaun Watson will go into the season as a leading Heisman candidate after finishing third this season. It’s not easy. The team will hear all winter, spring, and summer about how good it will be next fall. Swinney has to convince his players not to buy into the hype.

— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.