Clemson has won at least 10 games in a row in four consecutive seasons and enters the spring as one of the favorites to win the ACC in 2015. Quarterback Deshaun Watson is a rising star and is expected to return at full strength from ACL surgery by the fall. In addition to Watson, the offense is loaded with talent at the skill positions, including Artavis Scott and Mike Williams at receiver, along with Wayne Gallman at running back. Play-caller Chad Morris left to go to SMU, but coach Dabo Swinney promoted from within (Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott) to ensure continuity.
The defensive side of the ball is undergoing renovations with the loss of several key players. Only two starters return from a group that was arguably the best defense in the nation in 2014. While the losses are heavy, there’s young talent in place to prevent a major drop in production.
1. With Chad Morris leaving to be the head coach at SMU, the focus shifts to co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott to keep Clemson’s offense among the best in the ACC. Should this be an easy transition for the Tigers? Or will Clemson’s offense take a step back without Morris calling the plays?
Clemson scored 40 points in the Russell Athletic Bowl win over Oklahoma, and with Tony Elliott calling the plays the offense moved the ball pretty well. Both Elliott and Scott have spent the last few years calling the plays in the scrimmages and the spring games and learning the art of calling plays under Morris, and head coach Dabo Swinney made the transition easier by saying that the offense is a "Clemson offense" and not changing the scheme or plays. As long as quarterback Deshaun Watson is healthy, the offense shouldn't miss a step without Morris.
2. The offensive line loses three starters from a unit that allowed 27 sacks last season. How big of a concern is this for Clemson with quarterback Deshaun Watson recovering from a knee injury? Also, can true freshman Mitch Hyatt factor prominently into the offensive line rotation this year?
I think this is the biggest concern on the offensive side of the ball. The good news is that two of the new starters - left guard Eric Mac Lain and right tackle Joe Gore - have each started games over the last few seasons and have played significant snaps. Add in center Ryan Norton and left tackle Isaiah Battle and the Tigers have plenty of experience at four of the spots. That leaves right guard Tyrone Crowder to prove he belongs. If the Tigers get back center Jay Guillermo - who is out this spring - Norton can move to the right guard spot and Clemson would then have five starters who have started games in the past. Mitch Hyatt has all the tools and came to camp at 282 pounds, and he will see action this season. His best position is left tackle, but with Battle (who has NFL talent) in front of him those snaps will be limited. If he sees action, it could be at the right tackle spot. Gore didn't impress against Georgia and South Carolina State last season, and another rough start might mean Hyatt gets thrown into action early.
3. In terms of skill talent, Clemson should have one of the best groups in the ACC next year. Is this Wayne Gallman’s job to lose at running back? Or will the Tigers use a committee approach? And at receiver, how much more involved will Artavis Scott be in 2015?
The job is Gallman's to lose. For now. Tyshon Dye missed the first part of the season in 2014 recovering from an Achilles tear and didn't make an appearance until late October. Swinney has said that Dye - who is a bigger back - fits more into Clemson's style of attack and that Dye just needed a spring practice to get fully invested in the offense and completely healthy. He is getting that chance this spring, and will push Gallman for that starting spot. However, Elliott told us last week that because Clemson wants to run 80-plus plays per game there will be plenty of playing time for everybody. Artavis Scott came on strong at the end of last season, and you have to figure he will be even more involved in the offense this season. He is playing in Sammy Watkins' old spot, and Elliott can get him the ball on the run, in the Wildcat, orbit motion and down the field.
4. The defensive line was hit hard by departures, including standouts in end Vic Beasley and tackle Grady Jarrett. But this unit returns a rising star in Shaq Lawson at end and some promising talent from the recruiting class. How big of a drop-off will there be in 2015 for this group?
There isn't too much of a drop-off in terms of talent - the Tigers have recruited well the past few years - but will sorely lack in experience. There will be new starters across the board in the front seven, and despite the talent I am sure there will be growing pains. But don't expect too much of a drop-off. While earning the title of the nation's number one ranked defense probably isn't feasible, it isn't out of the realm of possibility that this group can still be Top 20 nationally.
5. Outside of Lawson and cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who are a few players that might step up on defense this year to help replace some of the departed standouts from 2014?
Defensive tackles Carlos Watkins and D.J. Reader have both started games, as have linebackers Ben Boulware and B.J. Goodson. Boulware started for Stephone Anthony in the bowl game and returned an interception for a touchdown, and he is a tackling machine whenever he's on the field. He's also a fan favorite with his reckless style of play. Safety Jayron Kearse came to camp at 6-4, 217 pounds and appears ready to take that next step into elite playmaker after a solid season last year. There are also some freshmen in Christian Wilkins and Albert Huggins - both highly-recruited defensive linemen - who could see major playing time.
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Clemson’s Pre-Spring Outlook in the ACC Atlantic:
Despite the personnel losses and movement on the coaching staff, Clemson is still one of the favorites to win the ACC and should push for 10 wins in 2015. The Tigers and Florida State are considered the No. 1 and No. 2 teams (in some order) in the Atlantic next season. The transition from Chad Morris to Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott will be a key storyline to watch in the fall. However, there’s no question the offense is loaded with talent with quarterback Deshaun Watson and talented skill players. The offensive line is the biggest concern for Scott and Elliott this spring. The defense must be revamped, but coordinator Brent Venables should be able to quickly reload to prevent a major drop in production. With Florida State visiting Death Valley in 2015, the road to the Atlantic Division title is favorable for the Tigers.