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If Clemson QB Deshaun Watson plays the whole season, that might decide the ACC

The Tigers have a coach with a golden touch (so far) and might have the conference's best player. There's a reason Clemson fans are holding their breath right now, though.

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. The power of a good hire

A 6'1, 177-pound walk-on from Pelham, Ala., Dabo Swinney earned a scholarship at Alabama and caught seven passes for 81 yards in three years. In his junior and senior seasons, Alabama went 24-1, finished in the top five twice, won the first SEC title game, and whipped Miami for the 1992 national title, and he carved out an unexpected niche.

Not even two decades later, he found another unexpected role: Clemson head coach. Swinney had spent three seasons as a Bama grad assistant and five as a position coach, but when head coach Mike DuBose was fired after the 2000 season, he ended up spending two years with a friend's real estate company. Tommy Bowden, his receivers coach when he was a freshman, convinced him to rejoin football in 2003.

Clemson came to value his recruiting ability so much that, when Bowden resigned halfway through 2008, Swinney was named interim despite having never served as a coordinator. And when he went 4-3, whipped South Carolina, and put together the pieces of a great recruiting class, he got the job full-time.

There is infinite value in understanding your limitations. Swinney has been proving that for almost 25 years. With no experience, Swinney rode his strengths to a huge job, and he is thriving into his seventh season. Lord knows recruiting has played into that, but so has another strength: hiring assistants. He's nailed the most important tasks.

From 2008-10, Clemson's offense struggled more than it should have. With players like C.J. Spiller and James Davis in the backfield, Clemson ranked 79th, 41st, and 71st in Off. S&P+ and went 19-18. In need of a spruced-up offense to save his job, Swinney brought in Chad Morris, a renowned spread guru who had spent only one year in the college ranks. After 16 years as a high school coach in Texas, he'd spent a season with Todd Graham (another high school-to-college guy) at Tulsa and improved the Golden Hurricane's Off. S&P+ rating from 71st to 15th. Combined with strong recruiting, the results were instantaneous: 25th in Off. S&P+ in 2011, 14th in 2012, 12th in 2013.

Meanwhile, defense spiraled. The Tigers fell from sixth to 65th in Def. S&P+ in 2011, marring what was still a 10-win season. In need of a replacement for coordinator Kevin Steele, Swinney landed longtime Oklahoma coordinator Brent Venables. The improvement was slower but no less sure: 62nd in 2012, 41st in 2013 ... and second in 2014.

Clemson has won at least 10 games for four consecutive years and pulled off three consecutive top-15 poll finishes for the first time since 1988-90. Swinney's allowed the program to blossom into what Clemson fans think it should always be.

And now comes the next test: replacing Morris. The 46-year-old moved back to Texas to take the SMU job, and Swinney stayed in house to find his replacements. Receivers coach Jeff Scott (who took over as Clemson's ace recruiter when Swinney got promoted) and running backs coach Tony Elliott (whom Swinney brought in after 2010) are now co-coordinators. The Tigers need a little bit of offensive redemption -- turnover, injuries, and a suddenly awful running game led to some impressive slippage in 2014 -- but after back-to-back home run hires, Swinney gets the benefit of the doubt.

Assume Swinney's biggest decisions will work, until proved otherwise.

2014 Schedule & Results

Record: 10-3 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 14
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
30-Aug at Georgia 4 21-45 L 27% -14.3 1%
6-Sep S.C. State N/A 73-7 W 98% 45.9 100%
20-Sep at Florida State 15 17-23 L 59% 5.5 50%
27-Sep North Carolina 70 50-35 W 68% 11.2 92%
4-Oct N.C. State 55 41-0 W 100% 67.3 100%
11-Oct Louisville 23 23-17 W 39% -6.7 11%
18-Oct at Boston College 36 17-13 W 68% 11.0 71%
25-Oct Syracuse 80 16-6 W 81% 20.7 99%
6-Nov at Wake Forest 101 34-20 W 70% 12.4 98%
15-Nov at Georgia Tech 8 6-28 L 43% -4.0 18%
22-Nov Georgia State 122 28-0 W 93% 34.7 100%
29-Nov South Carolina 38 35-17 W 93% 34.2 100%
29-Dec vs. Oklahoma 19 40-6 W 97% 44.9 100%

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 27.7 73 12.2 2
Points Per Game 30.8 54 16.7 3

2. Is three games a trend?

Clemson's 2014 season was one of ill timing. Thanks in part to one of the most dominant lines in college football, the defense peaked just in time for the offense to crater. A team with Clemson's 2013 offense and 2014 defense would have ranked third in overall S&P+ last year, but instead the Tigers slipped from 16th to 17th.

But coming up with any sort of full-season conclusion for Clemson is pointless, as the team's makeup changed frequently. Freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson overtook veteran Cole Stoudt in the starting lineup, got hurt, came back, and got hurt again. With Watson, Clemson was a bit inconsistent but infinitely more explosive. Without him, it was directionless.

Games vs. FBS Opponents Record
Avg. Percentile
Performance
Avg. Yards/
Play
Avg. Score
Deshaun Watson as primary QB* 3-1 80% (~top 25) 6.5 Clemson 36, Opp 19
Cole Stoudt as primary QB 6-2 65% (~top 45) 4.9 Clemson 23, Opp 17
* Primary QB defined by who threw more passes. The two split snaps often.

An encouraging mini-trend formed at the end. Clemson played at the 93rd percentile or higher in five games last fall, including the last three games. Watson led the way against South Carolina, but the team was just as dominant without him against Georgia State and Oklahoma.

If three games is a trend, Clemson might be in good shape. The problem: defense led the way in those three games. The offense averaged 8.1 yards per play against South Carolina but only 4.8 against GSU and OU, whereas the defense allowed 3.7 yards per play in the three contests. But the defense has been wrecked by graduation and attrition, meaning the offense will have to carry far more weight.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.88 46 IsoPPP+ 100.2 67
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 39.9% 89 Succ. Rt. + 91.7 102
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 28.5 38 Def. FP+ 102.0 44
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.0 92 Redzone S&P+ 92.7 86
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 20.5 ACTUAL 18 -2.5
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 61 80 95 67
RUSHING 91 107 111 103
PASSING 39 50 65 48
Standard Downs 85 109 72
Passing Downs 58 76 56
Q1 Rk 68 1st Down Rk 81
Q2 Rk 68 2nd Down Rk 56
Q3 Rk 74 3rd Down Rk 83
Q4 Rk 113

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Cole Stoudt
191 302 1892 9 10 63.2% 17 5.3% 5.6
Deshaun Watson 6'2, 205 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9791 93 137 1466 14 2 67.9% 8 5.5% 9.7
Nick Schuessler 6'3, 195 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8299 7 8 47 0 0 87.5% 1 11.1% 2.6
Kelly Bryant 6'4, 205 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8777

3. "Stock up on bubble wrap"

You could do worse than having Stoudt and Watson on your two-deep. But to fill out a three-deep, you need to add a walk-on. Chad Kelly is gone, leaving CU with two and no more.

Watson suffered a broken collarbone this spring, and while he is expected to be fine in August, it was a scary reminder that the threat of injury is always lingering. And if Clemson suffers two of them in short succession, all bets are off. For all we know, former walk-ons Austin McCaskill and Nick Schuessler would fare fine. But Swinney and Morris probably don't want to find out.

-- The 2014 Clemson guide

Motion to allow Watson to wear a purple "no tackling allowed" practice jersey all year.

Watson's 2014 was teased potential. He broke his collarbone, broke his hand, and injured his knee. In limited time, he proved the recruiting rankings right, putting up explosive passing and efficient rushing. He won the starting job by helping to nearly defeat Florida State, led two of the season's best efforts (against UNC and NC State), and completed 14 of 19 for 269 yards against South Carolina on an injured knee.

Watson suffered so many injuries that he will have an "injury-prone" label even if he doesn't any more time.

And that would have been fine had Stoudt been a strong option, but he wasn't. His completion rate was decent, but there was no downfield threat; whereas Watson averaged 15.8 yards per completion, Stoudt averaged 9.9. And while his career finished with a great performance against Oklahoma (26-for-36, 319 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT), he was 19-for-40 for 163 yards, no scores, and four picks in losses to Georgia and Georgia Tech. Bad Cole was really bad.

In 2015, it's all about Watson. With him, Clemson likely has a top-30 or top-40 offense even if the running game doesn't improve. Without him, former walk-on Nick Schuessler is the likely starter. The supporting cast will need to raise its game -- even with Watson, the run game stunk -- but it will be an outright necessity if Watson misses time.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Wayne Gallman RB 6'1, 205 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8940 161 769 4 4.8 5.0 34.8% 0 0
C.J. Davidson RB 5'10, 200 Sr. NR NR 66 250 3 3.8 3.2 28.8% 2 2
Deshaun Watson QB 6'2, 205 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9791 55 255 5 4.6 2.3 49.1% 0 0
Cole Stoudt QB
52 213 1 4.1 2.8 40.4% 2 1
Adam Choice RB 5'9, 215 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.8975 50 218 1 4.4 4.5 34.0% 0 0
D.J. Howard RB
50 195 3 3.9 2.9 34.0% 0 0
Zac Brooks (2013) RB 6'0, 200 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9133 48 246 2 5.1 3.3 41.7% N/A N/A
Tyshon Dye RB 5'11, 215 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9275 32 151 2 4.7 3.0 40.6% 0 0
Kurt Fleming RB
9 49 0 5.4 6.5 44.4% 2 1
Alex Goode RB
6 22 0 3.7 1.0 33.3% 0 0
Artavis Scott WR 5'10, 190 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9661 6 18 0 3.0 1.4 66.7% 1 0
Nick Schuessler QB 6'3, 195 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8299 6 11 0 1.8 6.3 16.7% 1 0
Adam Humphries WR
5 5 1 1.0 2.0 20.0% 2 1

4. Deshaun can't do everything (so please fix the run game)

How Clemson's offense works

Former starting quarterback Tajh Boyd, an efficient runner, was gone, and while Watson was equally efficient, Stoudt was not. Plus, CU replaced steady Roderick McDowell with basically three freshmen (Wayne Gallman, Adam Choice, Tyshon Dye) and a walk-on track star (C.J. Davidson). Plus, the Tigers had to replace three starting linemen.

Regression would have been understandable. Clemson plummeted. In 2013, the Tigers ranked 32nd in Rushing S&P+ and 21st in Adj. Line Yards; in 2014, they ranked 107th and 101st. Stoudt was asked to throw far too many second- or third-and-long passes. Almost nobody's going to look particularly good on those downs.

Whether the QB is Watson or Schuessler, experience must lead to improvement. Gallman, Davidson, Choice, and Dye are back, as is junior Zac Brooks, who missed 2014 with a foot injury.

Of course, there's more turnover up front. Clemson does return four senior linemen who have combined for 43 career starts (unless there are legs to the current "Isaiah Battle kicked off the team" rumors, in which case that number falls to 28 [Update: Battle's gone to the NFL Supplemental Draft]), but three more starters are gone. That leaves the veterans and some blue-chip youngsters (freshmen Mitch Hyatt and Jake Fruhmorgen, sophomore Tyrone Crowder) to create a happy mix.

I think last year's regression was so steep that there will be a bit of a rebound, especially when Watson is healthy. But the line could prevent any significant improvement.

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Mike Williams WR 6'4, 210 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9077 93 57 1030 61.3% 21.5% 60.2% 11.1 335 11.1 125.4
Artavis Scott WR 5'10, 190 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9661 92 76 965 82.6% 21.3% 77.2% 10.5 85 10.1 117.4
Adam Humphries WR
44 30 204 68.2% 10.2% 61.4% 4.6 -155 4.7 24.8
Germone Hopper WR 5'11, 175 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9618 41 27 331 65.9% 9.5% 63.4% 8.1 6 8.8 40.2
Wayne Gallman RB 6'1, 205 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8940 30 24 108 80.0% 6.9% 43.3% 3.6 -171 3.4 13.1
Jordan Leggett TE 6'5, 250 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8712 28 14 161 50.0% 6.5% 64.3% 5.8 -17 5.9 19.6
Stanton Seckinger TE 6'5, 240 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8009 17 9 122 52.9% 3.9% 64.7% 7.2 9 6.9 14.8
Charone Peake WR 6'2, 205 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9783 15 12 129 80.0% 3.5% 73.3% 8.6 -11 8.9 15.7
Demarre Kitt WR
15 5 47 33.3% 3.5% 40.0% 3.1 -24 3.3 5.7
Jay Jay McCullough TE 6'3, 245 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8479 13 7 96 53.8% 3.0% 38.5% 7.4 8 8.6 11.7
C.J. Davidson RB 5'10, 200 Sr. NR NR 12 9 60 75.0% 2.8% 41.7% 5.0 -46 5.2 7.3
Adam Choice RB 5'9, 215 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.8975 10 9 90 90.0% 2.3% 60.0% 9.0 -13 9.0 10.9
Trevion Thompson WR 6'2, 195 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9426
Milan Richard TE 6'2, 245 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8898
Cannon Smith TE 6'4, 240 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8948
Deon Cain WR 6'1, 190 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9902
Ray Ray McCloud WR 5'9, 175 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9594
Garrett Williams TE 6'4, 225 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9198

5. Upside, upside, upside

If the run game can improve to mediocre, man oh man, does the passing game have potential. In four games with Watson as the primary, Mike Williams caught 17 passes for 408 yards (24 per catch) with four touchdowns; in those same games, Germone Hopper caught six passes for 219 yards and two scores.

Artavis Scott, meanwhile, went from efficiency target (83 percent catch rate!) to all-around terror late in his freshman year, catching 15 balls for 299 yards and three scores against South Carolina and Oklahoma.

Oh yeah, and not only do four-star redshirt freshmen Trevion Thompson and tight end Milan Richard both enter the rotation, so do five-star blue-chippers Deon Cain and Ray Ray McCloud.

Few, if any, teams have recruited better at receiver than Clemson. There was too much youth, and too little help from the run game, for Clemson to be efficient throwing the ball, but experience should work wonders.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 92.6 2.66 3.32 36.3% 50.8% 20.8% 136.2 2.1% 7.5%
Rank 101 103 60 95 126 87 26 10 67
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Career Starts Honors/Notes
David Beasley LG 30
Ryan Norton C 6'3, 285 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8535 24
Kalon Davis RT
21
Isaiah Battle LT



15
Reid Webster RG
13
Joe Gore RT 6'5, 290 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8721 3
Eric Mac Lain LG 6'4, 305 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9166 1
Jay Guillermo C 6'3, 310 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8784 1
Tyrone Crowder RG 6'2, 330 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9444 1
Maverick Morris RG 6'4, 295 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8544 0
Taylor Hearn LG 6'4, 325 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8510
Justin Falcinelli C 6'3, 305 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8656
Mitch Hyatt LT 6'6, 270 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9894
Jake Fruhmorgen RT 6'5, 285 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9435

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.78 30 IsoPPP+ 161.0 2
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 29.5% 1 Succ. Rt. + 144.0 1
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 30.4 62 Off. FP+ 99.0 78
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.7 16 Redzone S&P+ 157.5 1
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 23.4 ACTUAL 24.0 +0.6
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 1 1 1 2
RUSHING 5 2 3 2
PASSING 2 1 1 2
Standard Downs 1 1 1
Passing Downs 1 1 2
Q1 Rk 2 1st Down Rk 2
Q2 Rk 1 2nd Down Rk 6
Q3 Rk 4 3rd Down Rk 4
Q4 Rk 34

6. In memoriam

Before talking about Clemson's 2015 defense, let's take a moment to eulogize an incredible 2014 unit. We knew heading into the season that the line was one of the country's best, and it lived up to billing, but despite losing nickel back Travis Blanks, the secondary broke through significantly. The Tigers' efficiency was still top-notch (fifth in Success Rate+ in 2013, first in 2014), but big gains were impossible to find; Clemson went from 107th in IsoPPP+ to second.

The result was a nearly unimpeachable defense. Of the 26 advanced rankings listed above, Clemson ranked in the single digits in 24. One of Clemson's two lesser ratings (advanced field position) was due to an abysmal return game, and the other (Fourth Quarter S&P+) involved inconsequential garbage time possessions. Georgia, Georgia Tech, and UNC averaged 36 points per game and 6.2 yards per play; the other 10 teams averaged 3.3.

Good recruiting means Venables still has plenty of talent to work with, but we're not going to see the same this year. Clemson must replace six of last year's top seven linemen, its top two linebackers, and its most productive safety and cornerback. The back seven should be solid, but the line is starting over.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 143.5 2.02 1.94 32.3% 63.3% 28.7% 172.3 11.7% 10.6%
Rank 2 1 1 10 42 2 2 1 18
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Grady Jarrett DT
13 35.5 5.4% 10.0 1.5 0 0 2 0
Vic Beasley DE
13 31.0 4.7% 21.5 12.0 0 3 2 1
Shaq Lawson DE 6'3, 275 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9222 13 24.5 3.7% 11.5 3.5 0 0 0 0
Corey Crawford DE
11 21.0 3.2% 6.5 2.0 0 1 0 0
DeShawn Williams DT
13 19.0 2.9% 8.0 3.0 0 1 0 0
Josh Watson DT
13 17.5 2.7% 3.5 1.5 0 4 1 0
Tavaris Barnes DE
13 12.5 1.9% 5.0 3.0 0 1 1 0
D.J. Reader DT 6'2, 325 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8868 12 11.0 1.7% 2.5 1.5 0 0 0 0
Kevin Dodd DE 6'5, 275 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8444 12 6.5 1.0% 2.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Carlos Watkins DT 6'3, 295 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9644 11 5.5 0.8% 2.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Martin Aiken DE 6'2, 225 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9004 12 4.5 0.7% 1.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Scott Pagano DT 6'3, 295 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8984 4 3.5 0.5% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Ebenezer Ogundeko DE
7 2.5 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Roderick Byers DT 6'3, 290 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8525
Dane Rogers DE 6'3, 260 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8657
Chris Register DE 6'2, 245 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8929
Richard Yeargin DE 6'4, 225 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8984
Christian Wilkins DT 6'5, 305 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9888
Albert Huggins DT 6'3, 280 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9555
Clelin Ferrell DE 6'5, 220 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9445
Austin Bryant DE 6'4, 250 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9168

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Stephone Anthony MLB
13 60.0 9.1% 10.5 2.5 1 3 2 0
Tony Steward WLB
12 46.5 7.1% 10.0 3.5 0 0 0 0
Ben Boulware WLB 6'0, 235 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9216 13 33.0 5.0% 5.0 1.0 1 1 0 0
Korrin Wiggins SLB/FS 5'11, 195 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8579 13 28.0 4.3% 3.5 0.0 2 1 0 0
Dorian O'Daniel SLB 6'2, 215 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9522 12 23.5 3.6% 1.0 1.0 0 0 1 0
B.J. Goodson SLB 6'0, 240 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8259 12 20.5 3.1% 3.5 1.0 0 0 0 1
Kellen Jones MLB
13 19.0 2.9% 0.5 0.0 0 0 1 0
T.J. Burrell LB 5'11, 215 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8429
Korie Rogers WLB 6'2, 235 RSFr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9339
Kendall Joseph LB 5'11, 225 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8610
Chad Smith LB 6'3, 215 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9064








7. No shortage of blue chippers, part 2

Recruiting and continuity have been so strong that, while Clemson is tasked with replacing more line production than anybody else in the country, the Tigers still return three interesting juniors (ends Kevin Dodd and Martin Aiken, tackle Carlos Watkins) and a senior (big tackle D.J. Reader) with decent experience. These four seem to have playmaking potential -- they combined for just 27.5 tackles in 2014, but 8.5 were behind the line. Including DT-turned-OL-turned-DT Roderick Byers, Clemson's got plenty of veteran options. Regression is inevitable, but experience should assure a high floor.

Blue-chippers hint at a high ceiling, too. Four-star sophomore end Scott Pagano could play a role, but it's hard to keep your eyes off of the incoming freshmen. Between tackles Christian Wilkins and Albert Huggins and ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, one assumes at least one or two will be featured in this year's rotation.

The linebacking corps is stocked with a combination of known quantities (junior Ben Boulware, nickelback/OLB Korrin Wiggins, maybe B.J. Goodson) and crazy-upside youngsters (Dorian O'Daniel, Korie Rogers, Chad Smith). [Update: Rogers left the team in August.]

There's raw talent. How much is coaxed out will determine whether Clemson's D regresses a little or a lot.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Robert Smith SS
13 59.5 9.1% 2.5 0 2 1 0 0
Jayron Kearse FS 6'4, 210 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9127 13 52.5 8.0% 5 3 2 5 0 1
Garry Peters CB
12 40.0 6.1% 8 2 1 12 1 0
Travis Blanks (2013) NB 6'1, 205 Sr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9564 11 28.0 3.8% 0 0 0 0 2 0
Mackensie Alexander CB 5'10, 190 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9852 13 18.0 2.7% 2 0 0 6 0 0
T.J. Green SS 6'3, 205 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8300 11 16.0 2.4% 0 0 1 0 0 0
Cordrea Tankersley CB 6'1, 195 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8889 13 11.5 1.8% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jadar Johnson SS 6'0, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8519 13 11.0 1.7% 2 1 2 1 0 0
Martin Jenkins CB
4 5.0 0.8% 2 1 0 0 0 0
Ryan Carter CB 5'9, 180 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7633 12 2.5 0.4% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Adrian Baker CB 5'11, 180 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8781 4 1.5 0.2% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Van Smith DB 6'2, 170 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8938
Mark Fields DB 5'10, 185 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9537








8. A lot to like about the secondary

Thanks to the return of Shaq Lawson, Clemson's defensive end situation is probably more stable than its tackle situation. (Honestly, the loss of active tackle Grady Jarrett might hurt more than losing all-world end Vic Beasley.) The run defense will slide, but if the pass rush is solid, the secondary should return more than enough to continue doing damage.

Safety Jayron Kearse is one of the best back-line playmakers in a conference full of them, and blue-chipper Mackensie Alexander did well as a freshman. The return of senior Travis Blanks gives Venables creative options, and junior safety Jadar Johnson made plays in limited opportunities.

Venables spends a lot of time in the nickel set, and considering the strength and weakness of the personnel, he might spend even more this year. Big safeties like Blanks, Johnson, and T.J. Green give Venables flexibility, and the smaller Korrin Wiggins is on his way to mastering the art of the nickel back.

As many worries as there are up front, there are few in the back.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Bradley Pinion 76 42.6 2 33 28 80.3%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Bradley Pinion 74 62.0 36 1 48.6%
Ammon Lakip 5'11, 200 Sr. 5 46.8 1 0 20.0%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Ammon Lakip 5'11, 200 Sr. 43-44 15-18 83.3% 6-10 60.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Returns Avg. TD
T.J. Green KR 6'3, 205 Jr. 21 21.2 0
C.J. Davidson KR 5'10, 200 Sr. 3 13.0 0
Adam Humphries PR 31 5.7 1
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 103
Field Goal Efficiency 51
Punt Return Efficiency 117
Kick Return Efficiency 116
Punt Efficiency 26
Kickoff Efficiency 101
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 112

9. A bad special teams rebuilds

In order, Clemson's special teams strengths last year were punter Bradley Pinion and kicker Ammon Lakip. Lakip missed a few shorter field goals, but he made over half of his longer field goals, which accounted for deficiencies.

Pinion has graduated, and as this piece goes live, Lakip is facing cocaine and DUI charges. To say the least, his status is uncertain.

That leaves Clemson with a shaky coverage unit and non-existent return game. There's no excuse for a team this deep at receiver and defensive back to have coverage problems, and surely one of the incoming youngsters will be capable of providing a boost in the return game, but at this point, Clemson's special teams is a significant weakness.

2015 Schedule & Projection Factors

2015 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk
5-Sep Wofford NR
12-Sep Appalachian State 103
17-Sep at Louisville 32
3-Oct Notre Dame 16
10-Oct Georgia Tech 19
17-Oct Boston College 49
24-Oct at Miami 28
31-Oct at N.C. State 48
7-Nov Florida State 17
14-Nov at Syracuse 73
21-Nov Wake Forest 89
28-Nov at South Carolina 31
Five-Year F/+ Rk 25.4% (22)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 12 / 14
2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 6 / 2.9
2014 TO Luck/Game +1.2
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 11 (7, 4)
2014 Second-order wins (difference) 9.4 (0.6)

10. If, if, if, if, if

Scouting the enemy

At the end of each set of conference previews, I release a set of tier-based power rankings. I usually try to avoid putting too much emphasis on quarterback, but it's impossible when Clemson is involved. When I rank the ACC, I'm tempted to list two Clemsons, one that features the best QB in the league and one that doesn't.

With a healthy Watson, a lot of potential weaknesses get covered up. The running game has an extra efficiency option (and if the defense is going to regress in run defense, ball control and efficiency become doubly important), and the passing game has an absurdly high ceiling. Line play is a concern no matter what, but Watson appears good enough to drag Clemson toward a strong season.

But what if Watson gets hurt again? His injuries were disparate enough that we shouldn't assume he will always have issues, but until he proves he can survive for a whole season, we don't know. And without Watson, either a former walk-on or a true freshman (one less touted than Watson) takes over, and all of the offense's potential weaknesses play marquee roles.

With Watson, Clemson is a Tier 1 team in the ACC. Without Watson, Clemson might fall behind Florida State, Louisville, Virginia Tech, and Miami at least.

With Watson, the schedule sets up beautifully. Clemson faces three projected top-20 teams, but all three come to Death Valley, and while trips to Louisville, Miami, South Carolina, and perhaps NC State could be quite tricky, Clemson could be favored in every game. Without Watson, 6-6 is on the table.