By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Clemson Tigers 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 10-4, 6-2 ACC
Spring practice: March 7-April 14
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 8
Passing: Tajh Boyd, 298 of 499, 3,828 yards, 33 TD, 12 INT
Rushing: Andre Ellington, 223 att., 1,178 yards, 11 TD
Receiving: Sammy Watkins, 82 rec., 1,219 yards, 12 TD
Tackles: Rashard Hall, 89
Sacks: Malliciah Goodman and Stephone Anthony, 2
Interceptions: Jonathan Meeks, 3
Redshirts to watch: OG Spencer Region, DE Roderick Byers, OT Joe Gore, TE Eric Mac Lain, LB B.J. Goodson
2012 ACC Schedule Analysis
Sept. 1 Auburn (Georgia Dome, Atlana, Ga.)
Sept. 8 Ball State
Sept. 15 Furman
Sept. 22 at Florida State
Sept. 29 at Boston College
Oct. 6 Georgia Tech
Oct. 13 Bye Week
Oct. 20 Virginia Tech
Oct. 25 at Wake Forest
Nov. 3 at Duke
Nov. 10 Maryland
Nov. 17 NC State
Nov. 24 South Carolina
Offensive Strength: There might not be a better collection of offensive skill players anywhere in the nation than at Clemson. The pass-catching lawfirm of Watkins, Hopkins, Bryant, Brown, Humphries and Peake is as deep a collection of wide receivers as there in America. When quarterback Tajh Boyd steps to the line, he has to be giddy with anticipation when he sees the weapons lined up next to him.
Offensive Weakness: Rebuilding the offensive line will clearly be the top priority for offensive coordinator Chad Morris. All-conference tackles Phillip Price and Landon Walker, as well as guard Antoine McClain, have all departed campus and have left a major void in Tajh Boyd's main line of defense.
Defensive Strength: Since both the linebackers and secondary offer plenty of depth, talent and potential, it is hard to decide on one specific area of strength. The safeties are outstanding and the linebacking corps is deep and has loads of upside.
Defensive Weakness: After losing the top three, and four of the top six, the defensive line has to be considered the area of concern on this side of the ball. There are also question marks atop the defensive hierarchy, but more on that in a moment.
Spring Storylines Facing the Tigers:
1. The No. 1 issue facing Dabo Swinney and Boyd as the two unquestioned leaders of this Tigers program is mental toughness. The Tigers are the defending ACC champs, but certainly didn't play like it down the stretch last season. Clemson lost four of its last six games by a combined margin of 98 points. Losing by 25 points per game does not a champion make. Obviously, the most important game was the 38-10 drubbing of Virginia Tech in the ACC title game, however, the victory likely only added to the preturbed nature of the Clemson fan base. The team has the ability to repeat as ACC champs and potentially push for an even bigger prize, but this program has to prove that it can handle the stresses of championship caliber football. Consistency and composure has to come from the top - aka Boyd and Swinney.
2. New defensive coordinator Brent Venables lands in Death Valley after essentially being run out of town at Oklahoma. The Crimson and Cream fanbase had Venables under heavy scrutiny after multiple years of underacheivement - something with which the Tigers' fanbase is all too familiar. Old defensive guru Kevin Steele saw his unit surrender 169 points on those four losses, which included the 70-point Orange Bowl embarassment at the hands of West Virginia. The depth, talent and potential is dripping off this Clemson defense, but Venables has to prove that he still has what it takes to be an elite level BCS coordinator.
3. Finding some quality pieces to replace major holes left along the defensive line will go a long way in helping Venables rediscover his defensive spark. Andre Branch, Brandon Thompson and Rennie Moore combined for 220 total tackles and 16.5 sacks a year ago and all three have moved on. Malliciah Goodman will stablize one end position while Corey Crawford, Tavris Barnes, Tyler Shatley and DeShawn Williams organize their rotation this spring. Finding and developing quality pieces in the defensive line two-deep will be argubaly the most important aspect of Clemson's spring practice.
4. The other line of scrimmage isn't in much better shape. The good news is that All-ACC center Dalton Freeman returns to campus for another year as the fulcrum of the Tigers' offensive line. The bad news is that he is basically the only experienced blocker on the roster. Brandon Thomas has some game action under his belt and will be counted on to take on a more prominent role this spring as offensive wizard Chad Morris attempts to rebuild his front line. There is a lot of Sunday talent on this offense, so protecting his cavalcade of skill weapons has to take top billing for Morris and his staff this spring.
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