Clemson football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Tigers, best players and season prediction.
What You Need to Know About the Clemson Offense
As long as the ringleader, QB Deshaun Watson, remains healthy, the 2016 Tiger offense has all of the necessary parts to go down as one of the most prolific attacks in ACC history. After averaging 38.5 points per game in 2015, Clemson will be every bit as potent this fall.
While it all begins with Watson, a dynamic all-around playmaker, he’s also supported by one of the premier skill position ensembles in America.
RB Wayne Gallman is still somewhat unheralded, even after rushing for 1,527 yards, and the receiving corps is scary-good now that Mike Williams is healthy, Deon Cain has been reinstated from a spring suspension and TE Jordan Leggett held off on entering the NFL Draft.
There’s also leading returning receiver Artavis Scott and underrated slot specialist Hunter Renfrow, a nightmare for opposing defensive backfields.
The Tigers will have two objectives for taking the offense to an even higher level this season—cutting down on turnovers and injecting Taylor Hearn and Jake Fruhmorgen into the starting O-line. The untested sophomore blockers have talent and help, thanks to the returns of three all-stars, LT Mitch Hyatt, C Jay Guillermo and RG Tyrone Crowder.
What to Watch For on the Clemson Offense
O-line newcomers. The Tigers are set at the skill positions. Like, historically set. If there’s a question mark on this attack, and it’s minor, it rests with the two new projected starters in the trenches, LG Taylor Hearn and RT Jake Fruhmorgen. Fortunately, both sophomores appear ready to assume their promotions without skipping a beat. Hearn is a 6-5, 330-pound mauler, while Fruhmorgen is a former blue-chipper cut from the same mold as LT Mitch Hyatt. Proven depth is worrisome, so remaining healthy is more important than ever for this unit.
What You Need to Know About the Clemson Defense
If coordinator Brent Venables proved nothing else in 2015, it was that he owns the blueprint for rebuilding a defense. And he’s dusting it off again this season. A year after adapting remarkably well to the loss of eight starters, the Tigers are once again getting a facelift.
While not quite as many starters have departed, Clemson will still be breaking in fresh faces at every level. Star ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd are in NFL camps, two solid linebackers need to be replaced and three talented defensive backs bolted with eligibility left. It’s the price of signing outstanding recruiting classes, year after year.
The new foundation will be built on WLB Ben Boulware, CB Cordrea Tankersley and the dynamite tackle rotation of Carlos Watkins, Christian Wilkins, Scott Pagano and uber-recruit Dexter Lawrence. It’ll be the newcomers to the lineup that’ll dictate whether or not the Tigers can regroup as seamlessly as they did last fall.
The next crop of pass rushers includes up-and-comers Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell and Richard Yeargin, who are long on potential and light on snaps. Joining Boulware on the second level will be Dorian O’Daniel and Kendall Joseph, who’s a healthy season away from making a big statement in the middle. The biggest worry, though, is on the back end, where Tankersley counterparts Marcus Edmond and Mark Fields are about to experience a baptism by fire at cornerback.
What to Watch For on the Clemson Defense
Flying under the Jadar. The Tigers are in the market for stoppers out of the defensive backfield in the aftermath of three early departures to the NFL. Senior Jadar Johnson is so far answering the call, filling the role held by Jayron Kearse over the past couple of seasons. Clearly sensing it’s his time to audition for pro scouts, Johnson arrived in spring bigger, stronger and faster. And motivated to be to the safeties what Cordrea Tankersley is to the cornerbacks this season.
Clemson Will Be Far Better If …
The special teams are tighter. The offense will be unstoppable. The D should be fine, even if important holes must be filled at each level. It’s on special teams where Dabo Swinney has committed to be better in 2016. The Tigers struggled in all phases last fall, from a sluggish return game to mediocre punting and kickoff distance. If Clemson can even tweak the various areas of the special unit, it’s going to supercharge a loaded offense and a defense brimming with potential.
Best Offensive Player
Junior QB Deshaun Watson. As a sophomore, Watson became the quarterback everyone thought he’d be … and then some. As a junior, he’ll attract the attention of every NFL GM in the market for a new QB in 2017. He’s the total package in a franchise player, from arm talent and athleticism to his overall makeup in the huddle and in the locker room. Watson, who is taking on an even greater leadership role in 2016, is surrounded by such an abundance of talent that he’ll be virtually impossible to slow down this fall.
Best Defensive Player
Senior CB Cordrea Tankersley. The Tigers boasted eight All-ACC defenders a year ago. Tankersley, LB Ben Boulware and DT Carlos Watkins are the only three who are back for their senior seasons. The former is especially important to the overall fortunes of the D because he’s the lone returning secondary starter. Tankersley is also a next-level pass defender, with the cover skills and the length to shut down the opposition’s best receiver. He’ll be especially crucial this fall, with Clemson unsure how Marcus Edmond and Mark Fields will hold up at the other corner spot.
Key Players to a Successful Season
The defensive ends. The Tigers have a long and distinguished history of cranking out star pass rushers, but they’ve lost a ton of talent to the NFL the past two seasons. The tackles are rock solid with Christian Wilkins and Carlos Watkins. However, the new ends, all underclassmen, are being asked to replace a pair of high draft picks, Buffalo Bill Shaq Lawson and Tennessee Titan Kevin Dodd. How well this D regroups, and supports the retooled secondary, depends on the development of Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell and Richard Yeargin. All three possess the requisite physical tools, but are very light on experience.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
The Tigers win the national championship. Yup, that’s where Dabo Swinney has taken this program, a credit to the work he and his staff have done over the past couple of seasons. Clemson was the runner-up to Alabama in 2015, and could be the nation’s top-ranked team in the preseason. Plus, the Tigers are home to arguably the best quarterback in college football, Deshaun Watson, so anything less than closing the deal in 2016 will be viewed as disappointing. Back-to-back ACC crowns will be fantastic, but the upcoming season is all about taking the next step by winning the season finale on Jan. 9 in Tampa.
Oct. 29 at Florida State. The opener at Auburn will be huge, but nothing compares to the annual tilt with the Seminoles that’ll likely determine the Atlantic Division winner and the eventual ACC champ. History states that the winner of this matchup has a clear path to Charlotte on the first Saturday in December, with the victor going on to capture the last five league titles. Plus, Florida State will be even tougher than it was in 2015, when the quarterback was new and both lines were still searching for a level of consistency.
2015 Fun Stats
– Points Per Game: Clemson 38.5 – Opponents 21.7
– Third Down Conversion %: Clemson 47% – Opponents 28%
– Sacks: Clemson 48 – Opponents 18
What Will Clemson Do This Year? …