Coming off a historic 2015 season, Clemson has one goal in mind when it begins spring workouts – a national championship. After falling just short against Alabama for the national title, the Tigers hope to get back to the College Football Playoff and claim the championship in 2016. Taking the next step will require some retooling on both sides of the ball, but Clemson is equipped as any team in the nation to make a run at the title. Quarterback Deshaun Watson is the top returning player in college football, and the supporting cast is strong. How quickly will the Tigers find the right answers on defense? Here’s a look at what’s ahead for Clemson this spring:
5 Storylines to Watch in Clemson’s Spring Practice
1. Restocking the Offensive Line
This unit was the biggest concern entering fall practice last season. The Tigers returned only one starter, was thin on depth in the trenches and was counting on talented true freshman Mitch Hyatt to protect Deshaun Watson’s blindside. Any concerns about this group were alleviated early in the season, as the line morphed into a strength and allowed only 18 sacks in 15 games. Hyatt quickly blossomed into a star on the left side and anchors a group breaking in two new starters this spring. Hyatt, center Jay Guillermo and guard Tyrone Crowder form a solid trio to build around, but guard Eric Mac Lain and right tackle Joe Gore leave big shoes to fill.
2. The Return of Mike Williams
Clemson’s receiving corps was loaded with talented options last season. Different year, same story in Death Valley. The Tigers return Artavis Scott (93 catches), tight end Jordan Leggett (40 catches) and rising star Deon Cain (17.1 ypc as a freshman last season), Hunter Renfrow and Ray-Ray McCloud. Charone Peake expired his eligibility after ranking second on the team with 50 catches last year, and Germone Hopper decided to transfer. However, the Tigers are more than capable of replacing Peake and Hopper’s production with the return of Mike Williams. The South Carolina native was considered one of the ACC’s top receivers last year but suffered a season-ending neck injury in the opener. Getting back in the mix this spring is the first step in Williams’ return and the addition of another big-time playmaker for Watson.
3. Next Wave of Stars at Defensive End
A Clemson defensive end has registered at least 12 sacks in each of the last three seasons. Who are the next standout pass rushers for the Tigers in 2016? Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd departed early for the NFL after combining for 24.5 sacks last season, and both players leave big shoes to fill. Austin Bryant worked as the backup at the end spots as a freshman last season and finished the 2015 campaign with two tackles for a loss. Coordinator Brent Venables is counting on Bryant, Richard Yeargin and Clelin Ferrell to help fill the voids off the edges, while four-star recruit Xavier Kelly joins the mix this summer. Talent isn’t an issue, but how quickly will the Tigers replace the production left behind by Dodd and Lawson?
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4. Rebuilding in the Secondary
The losses at defensive end are heavy, but the secondary also suffered its share of setbacks since the national championship. Clemson lost cornerback Mackensie Alexander, safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green and linebacker/safety Travis Blanks early to the NFL Draft. That’s a lot of talent and production to replace for a secondary that ranked No. 11 nationally in pass efficiency defense. Cordrea Tankersley returns as one answer at cornerback, with Adrian Baker and Mark Fields holding the early edge to start on the other side. One key question to watch in the fall: Where does true freshman Trayvon Mullen fit into the mix? Korrin Wiggins should help fill the void left behind by Blanks as the nickel back, but he missed all of 2015 due to injury.
5. The Linebackers
With Ben Boulware returning, the Tigers already have a good starting point for their 2016 linebacker unit. However, this group will miss B.J. Goodson’s production (108 tackles last year) and must replace hybrid player Travis Blanks. Sophomore Kendall Joseph worked as Goodson’s backup last season and should have an opportunity for a bigger role this spring. Additionally, two of Clemson’s early enrollees are potential impact players at linebacker – Tre Lamar and Rahshaun Smith.
Pre-Spring Clemson Outlook in the ACC
As mentioned above, the 2016 season is all about the national championship and College Football Playoff for Clemson. Coach Dabo Swinney has raised expectations in recent years, winning at least 10 games in five consecutive seasons. After falling just short of the national title last season, the Tigers begin 2016 as one of the favorites. The offense is loaded with talent at the skill positions, and quarterback Deshaun Watson is the early frontrunner to win the Heisman Trophy. Even though this team has question marks on the offensive line and at each level on defense, Watson is good enough to carry this team to another ACC title and appearance in the College Football Playoff. Of course, that path takes Clemson to Florida State on Oct. 29 in a game that should decide the ACC Atlantic – and potentially a spot in the CFB Playoff.