When a Heisman finalist guides his team to an undefeated regular season, dispatches two postseason opponents and puts up 478 yards in the Championship against a defense loaded with NFL prospects, he usually doesn't come back the following year.
But Deshaun Watson was a true sophomore in 2015. He's back for an encore with Clemson, and most of his supporting cast on offense is with him. After finishing sixth in offensive S&P+ in 2015, what are the Tigers capable of with another year of growth from Watson and company?
When Watson took over the offense, it evolved from Chad Morris' smashmouth spread into something closer to what Oregon runs. The Clemson identity is now set around Watson's strengths. The Tigers can focus on adding features that could take them to the next level.
While their defense is losing multiple starters to the NFL, it's hard to believe Brent Venables won't have that side playing at a high level. Clemson's path through the ACC and back to the Playoff is going to depend on elite play from Watson's offense in what's almost certainly his last college season.
Clemson's showdown with Alabama revealed which facets of the Tigers offense were elite and which were not.
The Tigers could not run between the tackles against the Bama front, averaging only 3.8 yards per attempt. While Watson was able to scramble and found space on a couple of option runs, Nick Saban's defense bottled up the Tiger rush.
What was much harder to keep under wraps was the passing game, particularly Clemson's four- and five-receiver sets. Those put multiple effective targets in the middle of the field, with the Watson scramble as a nasty fail safe.
The Tigers completed their evolution from the smashmouth spread into a full-bore quick passing/spread-option squad for their encounter with the Tide. Here's a set that did tremendous damage to Alabama:
They'd motion the running back (R) out wide, which often resulted in Alabama covering him with a cornerback. That exacerbated the challenge of dealing with this set and helped clarify the coverage for Watson.
The challenge was Hunter Renfrow (Y) aligned across from a linebacker in a lot of space and TE Jordan Leggett (B) in a more confined space against the other linebacker. Those are both mismatches. Dealing with both at the same time led to some really serious headaches for the Tide, tying up one of their better coverage players on a RB out wide didn't help.
It was simple for Clemson to run a variety of quick concepts, sending these two on slants, stick routes, quick outs or occasionally up the seams. The Tide had very good linebackers (they pretty much always do), but 245-pound Reuben Foster just ain't gonna hold up in space against 175-pound Renfrow:
Alabama tried to deal with this by dropping free safety Geno Matias-Smith over Leggett so that the linebackers could bracket Renfrow, but he was too quick.
If Alabama had responded by playing dime personnel (six DBs, one LB), Clemson could have brought its RB and TE back into the box or just run them over with spread-option schemes like this QB counter-trey run.
Going dime to stop the pass might have been a worthwhile trade off, but it's not one most defensive coordinators are inclined to take. Clemson can expect most teams to handle this personnel grouping with nickel personnel, which will still mean matchup benefits for Clemson. Because there's really no limit to how efficient a team can get with the quick passing game, there's still untapped potential here for the Tigers.
How Watson and his personnel can improve
Besides improving his timing and accuracy while executing a variety of route combinations, there's also plenty of room for Watson to grow. He can improve at diagnosing coverages before and after the snap, so he can deliver the ball to the weak spots.
With eight of his top nine pass catchers back (plus Mike Williams, who's returning from a season-long injury and is widely expected to join Watson in the NFL Draft's first round), it should be all too easy for Watson to find those weaknesses.
The Tigers can also double down on their spread-option running strength if they improve along the OL. Here again they return most of last year's unit and look to add 6'5, 330-pound Taylor Hearn at left guard, which could add some punch at the point of attack. Returning left tackle Mitch Hyatt will only be a true sophomore, so there's some potential for serious improvement.
Clemson can really reach the next level by adding another dimension: The vertical passing game.
There's nothing wrong with shredding teams with quick passes over the middle to shifty wideouts, but opponents run out of answers if you add a vertical component. Getting back the 6'4, 210-pound deep threat Williams, who in 2014 was fifth in yards per reception among all receivers with 50-plus catches, could help greatly there, but so could scheme.
The Tigers almost burned the Tide deep several times. One concept that could be great in 2016 for leveraging double-slot formations and beating opponents over the top is the smash combo:
Artavis Scott (H) and Leggett (B) are running the deep out routes isolated on the nickel and the safety, while Renfrow (Y) runs an adjustable vertical route up the seam to hold the safety. There are three vertical routes for Watson to choose from, based on how the opponent plays it.
A team that returns its starting QB and can build an identity around his strengths has a lot of advantages. The Tigers now have a chance to build beyond even that. Williams' return might be the coup de grâce. The result should be pretty terrifying for the rest of the ACC.