While 2011 has officially ended and another year has gone by, it's time for fans to look toward the future. And at Clemson University, the future looks like it's going to be a very bright Orange one.
After a 2011 ACC championship year, many will look at what Clemson's losing. On defense, they're losing two NFL-caliber players in defensive linemen Andre Branch and Brandon Thompson. In the secondary, they're losing defensive back Coty Sensabuagh, arguably the best cover corner in the secondary.
On offense, the Tigers are losing three starters off of their offensive line, with the potential danger of a fourth should center Dalton Freeman declare for the draft. They also have the potential to lose starting running back Andre Ellington, and are in danger of being incredibly thin at the running back position, having a troubled Mike Bellamy and a non factor in Rod McDowell, and a talented yet largely unproven young back in DJ Howard.
But everything is not all dim heading into 2012. Clemson fans still have plenty to look forward to come 2012, and coming off of an ACC championship, there will be a different kind of feeling in Tigertown: a feeling of excitement for what head coach Dabo Swinney will have prepared for us this time around.
Freshman receiver Sammy Watkins returns to the starting lineup after exploding onto the scene as one of the most dynamic playmakers in the country. Watkins exceeded a lot of expectations in his first year as a Clemson Tiger, and he can only get better after a full off-season in Chad Morris' offense and a year on the weight program.
Watkins' speed and hands made a huge difference in the Clemson passing game, and helped give the team the explosion that it lacked in 2010. Clemson fans will be eager to see Watkins take the field once again.
When Clemson started the 2011 season, it had 42 freshmen on its two-deep roster. But after winning an ACC title with such youth on its roster, the Tigers will only get better after what these freshmen proved in 2011.
The Tigers will have more maturity in its ranks come 2012. Names like Martavis Bryant and DJ Howard showed that they have the potential to emerge as great players for the Tiger's offense with limited snaps as freshmen. Bashuad Breeland and Martin Jenkins also showed potential as younger players that could develop very well for a young Clemson secondary devoid of little experience outside of Coty Sensabaugh, Xavier Brewer and Rashard Hall.
Experience will be a beautiful thing for the Tigers to have heading into the 2012 season.
Despite the success that Clemson had on offense in 2011, they took a few steps back on defense with the loss of key players along the defensive line and the secondary. As a result, they played a number of freshmen and untested sophomores at defensive back, among them Bashaud Breeland and Martin Jenkins.
With such youth in Clemson's defense, there were plenty of ups and downs for defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. But, this young secondary made a lot of progress in the ACC Championship, and the defense as a whole has the potential to regain its Top 25 status with a good off-season under their belts. Even the young linebackers like Stephone Anthony proved they deserved to get on the field more as the season progressed, and could push current starer Corico Hawkins for a full time starting position.
Come 2012, Clemson fans should be optimistic to see instant progress in the front seven and the secondary.
Clemson fans should be especially optimistic considering the MVP of the ACC championship game is coming back. Boyd was the quintessential piece of Clemson's success on offense. After all, it doesn't do any good to have the kinds of offensive weapons that Clemson has without a good quarterback to get them the ball.
Boyd emerged as one of the leaders of the offense and guided Clemson out of the shadows of a 6-7 season into a 9-3 record in 2011 coupled with an ACC title and an Orange Bowl bid. With a full year under Chad Morris, Boyd can only get better, and with the kind of weapons that Swinney's coaching staff is recruiting, the sky's the limit for Boyd and this offense.
In 2011, Clemson's passing game took a hug step forward, especially with Sammy Watkins and Dwayne Allen paving the way. But, with Allen likely heading for an NFL career, one will say that the passing game will take some steps back.
But, while the offense will certainly miss Allen, there are still a number of weapons in the passing game that Chad Morris can work with.
At tight end, Brandon Ford will take the reins as the starter at tight end, with Sam Cooper and Eric MacLain providing stability.
At receiver, the Tigers clearly have Watkins. But they also have size with a 6'4" receiver in Martavis Bryant along with steady, dependable receivers in Jaron Brown and Deandre Hopkins. And they also have two other returning receivers who proved they deserve time on the field in Adam Humphries and Charone Peake.
In 2012, Clemson can look forward to a very fruitful and beneficial passing game, even without the presence of Dwayne Allen.