In a season where nothing too big was expected out of them, the Clemson Tigers surprised the ACC and the rest of college football by winning their first ACC Championship since 1991 and advancing to the Orange Bowl. And it was thanks to the success of new offensive coordinator Chad Morris and the performance of a revitalized offense that gave Clemson the spark it needed.
Coming into 2012, the Tigers now have the target on their backs, and that means that the players must perform better in areas that they were weaker in back in 2011. The success of the 2012 will hinge upon several keys players to not only perform, but to stay healthy and avoid injury, especially if the Tigers want to get back to the Orange Bowl.
No team can win a football game without a good quarterback, and coming into his second season, Boyd, unlike last year, clearly has separation from his fellow Tiger quarterbacks.
That being said, Boyd must be careful to avoid unnecessary hits, especially when he scrambles out of the pocket to avoid pressure. Boyd is the leader of the offense, and he was instrumental in its success in 2011. In a year when he has to play behind an offensive line with three new starters, Boyd must be careful about the kinds of hits he takes outside the pocket.
The jewel of Clemson's 2011 recruiting class, wide receiver Sammy Watkins provided the offense with plenty of deep threat speed, great hands and playmaking ability at any time whenever he was on the field. Watkins became one of three freshmen in college football history to be honored as an All-American.
That being said, Watkins is one of the primary anchors of Clemson's receiving corps, and commands the kind of attention that allows other Clemson players to thrive. When Watkins was injured last season, he was never the same for the rest of the season, and the receiving corps lost a little speed without him.
To keep Clemson's receiving corps strong, Watkins must stay healthy, as the Tigers are always a bigger threat to score with Watkins available than they are without him.
Rising sophomore Stephone Anthony has been praised for his work in spring camp, and with the potential he showed last year, looks to be one of the better players on a Clemson defense led by first year coordinator Brent Venables, formerly of Oklahoma.
This likely starter at Mike linebacker is the most instinctive out of a group that has struggled the past few seasons, especially against running quarterbacks. Anthony will be counted upon to anchor what will be a questionable front seven this season, with no proven pass-rusher along the defensive line, nor any game-changers or consistency at linebacker.
A proven commodity at running back, Andre Ellington has led Clemson's ground game for three years now, and him deciding to return for his senior season was the best thing for both the running game and Clemson's running back corps.
Other than Ellington, the Tigers have: a talented yet raw back in DJ Howard; a troubled talent in Mike Bellamy, whose future is still in the air; a non-factor in Rod McDowell, who has not shown any kind of steam coming into his junior year; and an unproven freshman in Zac Brooks.
Ellington's experience is crucial to the Clemson offense, especially while the Tigers continue to develop the younger backs and bring in more fresh legs that they were unable to grab in the last recruiting cycle. Ellington has yet to make it through a full season as the primary running back, and the Tigers running attack has struggled without him.
An entrenched starter at center for four years, Dalton Freeman is the only question that the coaching staff has solved this spring since he decided to return for his senior season.
Freeman brings the most experience out of any of the linemen vying for starting positions, and is responsible for helping Tajh Boyd and the other linemen with their protection schemes. There are also depth questions behind Freeman, so his veteran presence will be an invaluable asset to what will be a younger, inexperienced offensive line for the Tigers in 2012.
Despite Clemson's talented skill positions, Freeman must help to hold down the offensive line in both run blocking and pass protection.