CLEMSON, S.C. – When it comes to early NFL draft entries, Dabo Swinney and Clemson’s staff have been more than fortunate over the last five years.
Since Swinney took over full-time in 2008, only four Clemson players have left early for the NFL: defensive end DaQuan Bowers and tailback Jamie Harper in 2010, tight end Dwayne Allen in 2011 and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in 2012.
That run of luck ended following Clemson’s 11-2 2013 season, which wrapped up with an Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State.
Monday, junior wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant declared themselves eligible for the draft, as did junior cornerback Bashaud Breeland. If junior defensive end Vic Beasley (currently mulling his future) joins them, Swinney would double his early NFL departures in one draft cycle.
Mid-January will be very different around Clemson’s football offices as Swinney and Co. plan to fill the holes the early departures leave behind while also putting the finishing touches on the Class of 2014.
How will Clemson account for the NFL draft losses? Let’s take a look.
It is nearly impossible to underestimate how much Clemson will miss Watkins.
He followed a disappointing sophomore season with one of the best seasons by a receiver in Clemson history, catching 101 passes for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns, setting program single-season marks for receptions and receiving yardage.
His 16-catch, 227-yard, two-touchdown Orange Bowl effort set Clemson single-game records for receptions and receiving yardage and tied an ACC single-game record for receptions.
In just three seasons, he set Clemson career records for receptions, receiving yardage, touchdown receptions and 100- and 150-yard receiving games.
You just don’t replace talent, production, speed and athleticism like Watkins has. He is expected to be a top-15 pick, at the earliest, in the NFL draft.
Bryant’s departure only compounds the problem.
Like Watkins, Bryant entered as a highly touted recruit, but inconsistency limited him in his first two seasons. The 6’5” talent enjoyed a breakthrough this season, catching 42 passes for 846 yards and seven touchdowns. He had two athletic touchdown grabs in the Orange Bowl alongside Watkins.
How does Clemson replace them? Volume. Steady rising senior Adam Humphries (41 receptions, 483 yards, two touchdowns in 2013) will be back, as will junior Charone Peake, who had emerged as a starter this fall before suffering a season-ending torn ACL.
Rising sophomore Mike Williams made some impressive grabs and raised eyebrows as a true freshman, catching 20 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns. And while inconsistent, rising sophomore Germone Hopper (23 receptions, 149 yards, two touchdowns) had his moments as well.
But the real guys to keep an eye on just arrived on campus this week as early enrollees.
Kitt is rated by 247Sports as the nation’s No. 10 wide receiver prospect, and Scott is rated No. 26 by the same site. Kitt is from Sandy Creek (Ga.) High School, Calvin Johnson’s alma mater, and is a polished product with good route-running and over-the-middle ability. He can turn bubble screens into touchdowns, possesses solid speed and leaping ability and can also block downfield.
At 5’10”, Scott is smaller than the 6’2” Kitt but has game-breaking speed and big-play ability as an outside or slot receiver. Along with Priester, who spent the fall at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy after failing to qualify academically last summer, Clemson’s newest receivers are poised for early impact.
Like Watkins, Breeland bounced back from a disappointing, injury-riddled sophomore year for his best collegiate season. He was a second-team All-ACC selection, making a team-high four interceptions and 13 pass breakups while adding 74 tackles (fifth on Clemson’s defense). He was a hard-nosed hitter and brought serious toughness to a secondary that allowed the 16th-fewest passing yards in the FBS.
Combined with senior Darius Robinson’s graduation, Clemson will be without its top two corners next season.
Rising seniors Martin Jenkins (26 tackles, three PBU, one interception) and Garry Peters (28 tackles, four PBU) will get first crack at the starting roles, but there could be a youth movement afoot.
Four-star 2013 signee Mackensie Alexander redshirted after suffering a preseason groin injury, but if he is healthy, Alexander should make a major push for playing time.
Redshirted freshmen Adrian Baker, Marcus Edmond and Ryan Carter should also contribute: Baker and Edmond nearly played this fall but were held back because of the depth at corner. That won’t be an issue in 2014.
Alexander will lead the way, but youth will be served in the secondary next fall.
How successful will that youth be on either side of the ball? Clemson’s string of three consecutive 10-win seasons could depend on how quickly the youth movement finds its legs and confidence.
Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace
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