2016 Record: 14-1 (7-1, ACC Champs, National Champs)
2016 Review/Scheme: Going in to the 2016 season, everyone knew that Clemson’s title chances hinged on the health and production of QB DeShaun Watson and the 2016 stats bear that out. In what was a surprise to me, Clemson actually attempted more passes (629) than rushes (571) for the season and averaged 334 passing yards per game to 170 rushing yards per game. Watson stayed healthy and carried Clemson to the finish line.
Watson is gone, but the scheme will stay the same. The Tigers utilize what some call a smashmouth spread. They will almost always utilize “11” personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) and will run traditional shotgun formations to five wide utilizing this same personnel package. The Tigers go fast, run the ball up the middle, utilize screens and short passes, and will throw deep on occasion. There seem to be two overarching goals to the Clemson offense. One, they try to pick up a couple of yards on first down to make sure they end up with 3rd and manageable. Two, they try to get the ball out of the QBs hands as quickly as possible to playmakers in space. Even when the QB keeps the ball, it is usually a quick decision. The Tigers try not to give the defense time to breathe.
Quarterbacks: For the past three seasons, Clemson went as went DeShaun Watson went. When he was injured in 2014 they struggled; when he stayed fully healthy the past two years, they won the ACC and played in the national title game. There is no replacing Watson. He was a generational talent who owns 55 Clemson single-game, season, or career records. But this is college football and replace him they must.
The Tigers recently announced that junior Kelly Bryant would have the unenviable task of following Watson. Bryant appeared in 4 games last year and was able to fend off two younger challengers to win the job. Bryant entered Clemson as an athlete who was a raw passer. He has received positive reviews for his accuracy and decision-making in camp, but the knock on Bryant has been taking what he does in practice and doing it on the field. According to Clemson insiders, Bryant will look great in practices running drills, but then will struggle in scrimmages or game settings. The junior is an excellent runner and it appears many around the program feel the Tigers will run the QB a lot more this year to open up easy passes. If Bryant is just above average as a passer, this offense could still hum along.
Head coach Dabo Swinney made it known that Bryant was the starter, but if he struggled, that would open the door for redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper or 5* true freshman Hunter Johnson. Cooper probably has the purest arm talent of the trio and throws the best deep ball, but struggles with consistency. Johnson is the most complete package and enrolled early, but he is still a true freshman who deals with consistency issues and making the right reads.
Running Backs: Wayne Gallman was a productive college RB and he eclipsed 1,000 yards each of the past two years, but the Tigers return three guys who saw playing time last year and all of them come with recruiting accolades. While Gallman was a workhorse, don’t be surprised to see Clemson rotate at least two of these guys.
Junior C.J. Fuller has been the top backup for the past two years and will get first crack at the starting job. A tough runner with good hands, Fuller (211 yds, 4.5 avg, 7 recs, 2 TDs) will see playing time because he knows the offense and he is a good pass blocker. The guy with the highest upside is undoubtedly sophomore Tavien Feaster, considered by many to be the top RB recruit of his class. Feaster (221 yds, 6 avg, 2 TDs) played mainly in blowouts last year, but he flashed potential and certainly fans are expecting him to take the majority of carries. A home run threat every time he touches the ball, Feaster must improve as a blocker and between-the-tackles runner to see more playing time. Once the starting RB in 2014 before a knee injury derailed his career, junior Adam Choice (158 yds, 3.5 avg) is the type of runner who is always falling forward. He doesn’t have elite top-end speed, but he is a guy who can consistently churn out yards. On the outside looking in, true freshman Travis Etienne is a balanced back who was ranked as one of the top 10 RBs in the country. He’s likely headed for a redshirt, unless injuries occur or he plays in garbage time.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Swinney was a WR coach at Alabama and then for the Tigers before taking over as the interim and then full-time coach when Tommy Bowden was fired. Therefore, it is probably no surprise that Clemson has annually had a stockpile of great receivers. Despite losing Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, and TE Jordan Leggett, this unit is still deep and just oozes potential. This really does seem like a case of reloading rather than rebuilding.
Junior Deon Cain, a consensus 5* recruit out of high school, should be the next star Clemson wideout after flashing last year. Blessed with size, speed, and big-play ability, Cain (38 recs, 724 yds, 7 TDs) can do damage going deep or taking screens for big yards. He’ll be a top NFL pick next year. Classmate Ray Ray McCloud (49 recs, 472 yds, 2 TDs) has not quite been the big play machine everyone expected out of high school, but he has been productive and is still learning the nuances of the position since he was a RB and CB in high school. Many around the program expect this to be a breakout year, but there has also been talk that McCloud may actually play some defense too. Keep an eye on that. Junior Hunter Renfrow, the best walk-on in America at one point (he’s on scholarship now), was last seen catching the game-winning touchdown in the national title game. A former minor league baseball player, Renfrow (44 recs, 495 yds, 6 TDs) is a prototypical slot receiver with deceptive athleticism. He just finds holes in the defense and catches the ball.
As if that wasn’t good enough, the Tigers also have junior Trevion Thompson, sophomore Cornell Powell, sophomore Diondre Overton, redshirt frosh T.J. Chase, and true freshmen Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers. Every single one of those guys were blue chip recruits. Thompson (11 recs, 108 yds, TD) will be Cain’s backup and is a tough matchup with his size and toughness. Powell saw 100 snaps as a true freshman and is a strong, physical guy with good enough speed. He is McCloud’s backup. Overton is a matchup nightmare at 6-5, 200, and will at minimum provide a red zone threat. Chase might be the fastest guy of the bunch. Higgins, labeled the #1 WR recruit by many services, is 6-4, 190 with blazing speed and is expected to play at some point this year, even in this loaded group.
This is an understatement, but Clemson is going to miss departed TE Jordan Leggett, who finished second in receiving yards and touchdowns last season. Often a security blanket for Watson, Leggett made innumerable tough catches last year and was versatile enough to line up as a traditional TE, an H-back, or a WR, allowing Clemson to shift formations without substituting. The situation became worse when junior Garrett Williams, last year’s backup, tore up his knee and will miss the season. That leaves junior Milan Richard as the expected starter. A decent receiver, Richard still needs to improve as a blocker and has only logged 172 career snaps so the drop-off in experience and production could be huge. Junior Cannon Smith offers more size, but is basically just a blocker.
Offensive Line: The Tigers rushed for over 2500 yards and allowed just 21 sacks in over 600 pass attempts and yet this unit still seemed average overall. To be fair, offensive line play is a position we only notice when things go wrong, but this unit had a hard time getting a push and struggled to consistently run the ball against better defenses. Six opponents held the Tigers to under 140 yards rushing, with Pitt and Alabama holding Clemson to under 100 yards rushing. Long story short, this unit could stand to improve in run blocking.
Six players who have combined for 83 starts return for the Tigers, but the one hole appears to be at center, where All-ACC pick Jay Guillermo, who had 29 career starts, has moved on. In his place, Clemson moved junior Justin Falcinelli over from guard. Falcinelli performed well at times off the bench at guard, but he is still learning the nuances of manning the pivot. The rest of the starting unit are all returners at their positions. Junior Mitch Hyatt and sophomore Sean Pollard will man the tackles. Hyatt has been a starter at LT since he was a true freshman and has the talent to make the jump to the NFL after this year. Pollard took over as the starter midseason at RT and never looked back. At guard, senior Tyrone Crowder and junior Taylor Hearn return. Crowder is a prototypical mauling run blocker at RG, but can struggle as a pass protector. Hearn is a technician who lacks elite athleticism, but makes up for it with hard work.
Depth is not great here, although Clemson has a couple of promising pieces. Senior Maverick Morris will be the first option off the bench at pretty much all five spots. He has made 3 spot starts in his career and can give you an above average performance. Sophomore Tremayne Anchrum is a bit short (6-2) for a tackle, but he appears to be the top backup at both LT and RT. Sophomore LG John Simpson was a high 4* recruit who might see some time.
2016 Review/Scheme: All they do is reload. Clemson’s defense under Brent Venables is starting to look like the FSU units of the 90s. They lose guys to the NFL, young guys step in, and they just churn out another top 5 defense. Cards on the table—I was unimpressed when Clemson hired Venables. After all, Oklahoma made really no effort to hold on to him and his last few defenses at Oklahoma were average at best. Venables’ first two years, 2013 and 2014, saw glimpses of solid defense, but also some pretty poor showings and I thought my suspicions had been confirmed. But the past two years, Clemson has had elite level defenses and they are recruiting like crazy on this side of the ball. At this point, I now trust Venables to field a solid defense. This doesn’t mean the Tigers will shut everyone out as every college defense struggles for a game or three, but more often than not, I assume this group will be good to great.
Venables runs a 4-3 defense, that sometimes morphs into a 4-2-5, that is predicated on attacking the line of scrimmage to shut down the run game, thus forcing opponents into obvious passing situations. For the most part this has worked, as Clemson has led the country in tackles for loss for the past four years. When they are beaten, it is usually by a big play in the passing game, not by long, methodical drives.
Defensive Line: The Tigers ask their defensive line to do two simple things. The ends are required to set the edges in run support while the tackles shoot and plug gaps. The last few years, Clemson has had guys who could excel at these jobs, but annually seemed to have to replace most of their contributors. This year, almost all of the main guys from last year are back and this might be the best defensive line in the country.
The starting tackles are scary good with junior Christian Wilkins and sophomore Dexter Lawrence, both of whom will be first round draft picks. Wilkins (56 tackles, 13 for loss, 3.5 sacks, 10 pass breakups) has elite agility and athleticism for a guy who goes 6-4, 300. Wilkins was forced to play end last year due to injuries and accounted himself quite well as an edge setter. He should provide even more disruption from his natural tackle spot. Lawrence (78 tackles, 9.5 for loss, 7 sacks) was tabbed as the best defensive tackle prospect in years and actually exceeded his hype. Lawrence is 6-5, 340 with insane speed and athleticism for a guy that size. All hyperbole aside, he has NFL Pro Bowler already written on him. With Carlos Watkins and Scott Pagano having moved on, depth is the question here. Junior Albert Huggins (20 tackles, 3 sacks) saw over 200 snaps last year and should be a solid backup. Redshirt frosh Nyles Pinckney is limited due to a lack of length, but has a nice burst.
Clemson should have more depth at end, but less star power. Sophomore Clelin Ferrell (50 tackles, 12.5 for loss, 6 sacks) really improved as the year wore on, putting in strong performances against VA Tech and Ohio State. With long arms and great explosiveness, Ferrell should benefit from the tackles seeing double teams. Junior Austin Bryant (16 tackles, 3 for loss, 2 sacks) was limited to 9 games due to a foot injury. Before that, people around the program expected him to be the next Shaq Lawson due to his strength, power, and pass rushing ability. Depth here is bit more proven, what with junior Richard Yeargin (14 tackles, 4 for loss), junior Chris Register, jumbo sophomore Sterling Johnson, and highly regarded redshirt freshman Xavier Kelly in the mix.
Linebackers: Inspirational leader and leading tackler Ben Boulware has finally moved on, but Clemson returns every other LB who saw playing time and adds four redshirt or true freshmen to the mix. Finding a starting three should be easy given the options.
It appears the starting trio will be junior Kendall Joseph at WLB, senior Dorian O’Daniel at SLB, and sophomore Tre Lamar at MLB. Joseph (124 tackles, 13.5 for loss, 3.5 sacks) started at MLB last year, but is shifting over to Boulware’s weakside spot this season. Joseph finished second in tackles and tied for the team lead in tackles for loss so production will not be an issue. O’Daniel (60 tackles, 10 for loss, 2.5 sacks, INT) started 12 games last year and gives Clemson the versatility to keep a LB on the field against passing teams due to his quickness and coverage ability. Lamar (22 tackles, 2.5 for loss) appeared in all 15 games as the backup MLB and is getting first crack at the job this year. Big and athletic, he was a top ranked recruit. He’s being pushed by classmate Chad Smith (19 tackles), who is slightly bigger but less athletic.
Depth here is good. Junior J.D. Davis, junior Judah Davis, and sophomore James Skalski all saw time on special teams and in blowouts last year. Redshirt freshman Shaq Smith was a high 4* recruit who may immediately become the backup at WLB. True freshmen Justin Foster and Logan Rudolph were top rated recruits who will see time on special teams, at minimum.
Secondary: Overall, the secondary was quite good last year, allowing opponents to complete just 52% of their passes and picking off 20 throws. However, when there were breakdowns, it was often in the secondary giving up chunk plays. There is experience in this unit, but probably the most question marks on the defense as well.
This is best encapsulated at CB, where Clemson returns five players who have seen game action, but the coaches don’t necessarily seem overly thrilled with any one guy. The closest to a sure thing is redshirt senior Ryan Carter, who started 13 games last year. Carter (29 tackles, 5.5 for loss, INT, 7 PBU) is small at 5-9, 180 and can be outmuscled, but he is also a solid technician and a leader. He may slide inside to nickel corner at times. The leader to start opposite Carter is senior Marcus Edmond, who started 3 games last year and really saw the most expansive playing time of his career. Edmond (19 tackles, INT, 3 PBU) will not wow you and should be solid, if unspectacular. There is some talent behind those guys in junior Mark Fields, sophomore Trayvon Mullen, and redshirt freshman Isaiah Simmons. Fields (13 tackles, 2 for loss, INT, 4 PBU) saw his first meaningful playing time last year, even starting one game, but tends to be inconsistent and is not always technically sound. He has the speed and athleticism to be very good, although he also lacks ideal measurables at 5-10, 180. Mullen (15 tackles) has the measurements you want at 6-2, 185, but he came out of high school a bit raw and struggled a bit learning the college game. That being said, Mullen has the most natural ability of any corner on the roster and is pushing hard for the boundary job. Simmons can bounce between CB or S due to his size (6-3, 220) and he will also see time as a nickel corner. Sophomore K’Von Wallace is another option here after seeing some garbage time action last year, but reports are that he is being passed by.
Despite losing Jadar Johnson, Clemson appears to be experienced at safety. Junior Van Smith is a potential star at FS. While not the biggest (5-11, 195) or fastest guy, Smith (114 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 2 INTs, 2 PBU) is a heady player who is rarely out of position. He struggles in man coverage, but is outstanding in zone and Venables will surely try to avoid him getting isolated. Taking over at SS will be sophomore Tanner Muse, the top backup at the spot last season. Muse (24 tackles, INT) is a physical force who saw his playing time increase as the year wore on. In fact, Muse was on the field in the 4th quarter against Alabama so the coaches clearly trust him. Clemson is not super deep here, but the coaches like the aforementioned Simmons as a backup at FS and sophomore Denzel Johnson at SS. The coaches have also utilized Ryan Carter, K’Von Wallace, and true freshman AJ Terrell as backups at safety too.
Special Teams: Junior Greg Huegel (14 of 19 FGs, long of 47) suffered a bit of a sophomore slump, but he is still a reliable kicker with good range. Andy Teasdall departs after being an average punter and the coaches are hoping Will Spiers will be an upgrade. Not surprisingly given Clemson’s loaded roster at the skill positions, they have numerous options in the return game. McCloud could be an elite punt returner, but he has struggled putting the ball on the ground.
Schedule: We will probably know about Clemson quickly. After opening with Kent State, the Tigers face Auburn at home, Louisville on the road, Boston College at home, and VA Tech on the road. The end run is difficult too, with road trips to NC State and rival South Carolina and a home tilt with FSU coming in the final four games.
Overall: This is probably the third straight year I am going to write this in this section, but it all comes down to the QB. At this point, I trust Venables will field a top notch defense and Clemson returns too much talent to not have a top 5 defense, even if they do have concerns at CB and lack proven depth at a few spots. The Tigers have plenty of options at RB and WR to assume they can produce big plays from those spots, although the lack of a standout option at TE appears worrisome. The o-line has questions, but they were average at times last year and Clemson still went 14-1. If Bryant is merely adequate at QB, Clemson has the horses to push for an ACC title. If Bryant falters and has to be replaced by Cooper or Johnson, neither of whom quite seem ready for prime time, the Tigers might slip up a few times. The best-case scenario sees Clemson competing for another playoff spot. Even the worst-case is probably a solid 9-3 rebuilding year. I’m going to come down in the middle and assume Clemson does have some struggles after replacing a generational QB and ends up 10-2, right in the thick of the ACC hunt.