If a team were to lose a record-setting quarterback, a leading rusher and two top receivers, it would be difficult to see them as being competitive, let alone contenders to win their division, but it’s a big possibility for head coach Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers … if they find early productivity at quarterback and defensive back.
Replacing Clemson’s career passing leader Tajh Boyd will be a tall order, but the Tigers have two options with two different styles that could be successful moving forward.
Senior Cole Stoudt passed for 415 yards in mop-up duty last season and is more of a drop-back passer. True freshman and No. 1 rated dual-threat quarterback DeShaun Watson passed for 4,431 yards and 57 touchdowns, while rushing for 1,057 yards and another 14 touchdowns his senior season at Gainesville High in Georgia. Stoudt has the early advantage, but Watson should expect early playing time as well.
Clemson will look to the duo of junior Zac Brooks and senior D.J. Howard to replace the production lost by the graduation of 1,000 rusher Roderick McDowell. Both are bruisers who will help the Tigers’ offense until the quarterback position settles. Freshman Wayne Gallman is the home run threat out of the backfield and is also under consideration for carries.
The trio of senior Adam Humphries, junior Charone Peake and sophomore Mike Williams will be called on to carry a larger load as they try to replace the 143 receptions and 2,292 yards that all-everything Sammy Watkins and big-play threat Martavis Bryant contributed last season. True freshman Artavis Scott enrolled in January and could compete for early playing time.
While the offense will look to replace its best player, the defense breathed a sigh of relief when defensive end Vic Beasley announced he would be returning for his senior season. He led the team in sacks with 13 and provides a dominating pass rush that will take the pressure off having to replace three starters in the defensive backfield.
Joining Beasley up front will be senior defensive end Corey Crawford and senior defensive tackles Grady Jarrett and DeShawn Williams. Jarrett and Crawford posted double digit tackles for loss, and will provide additional help up front to ensure that defensive coordinator Brent Venables has one of the most productive defenses in the nation.
There is uncertainty at the cornerback and safety positions, as the team will have three new starters and five underclassmen in the two-deep. The lone returning starter is safety senior Robert Smith, who finished fourth on the team in tackles with 79. Joining him at the other safety position will be sophomore Jayron Kearse, the team’s leader in interception with four.
At corner will be senior Martin Jenkins and redshirt freshman Mackensie Alexander, who will be called on to be a playmaker at the position after suffering an injury that derailed his first season at Clemson. The linebacker position has stability as senior Stephone Anthony and junior Travis Blanks return. Anthony led the team in tackles with 131 and is already on many NFL Draft boards.
The Tigers kick off the 2014 with a rematch at Georgia — both teams will be starting new quarterbacks, so whichever team has the more productive defense could have the edge in this matchup. Home games against South Carolina State, Georgia State, and the annual battle with in-state rival South Carolina wrap up the non-conference schedule. The game against the Gamecocks could have playoff ramifications if South Carolina plays up to their potential.
The new Tigers starters will have to grow up quickly as they face defending National Champion Florida State in the third game of the season. Clemson fans will be hoping for a better result than the 51-14 embarrassment last season, but having to travel to Tallahassee won’t be easy.
North Carolina, NC State, Louisville, Syracuse will be traveling to “Death Valley”, and the home field advantage plus an aggressive defense should lead Clemson to an undefeated home ACC record. In addition to FSU, Clemson will face Boston College, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech on the road; outside of the game with the Seminoles, the road schedule is soft — and that’s putting it nicely.
With all the changes offensively, Swinney will rely on the defense to keep the team competitive against the three upper-tier opponents on their schedule. If they can pull off an upset, this could be a surprisingly successful season for the Tigers.