Can Dabo Swinney Keep Clemson on the Right Track Without Departed Superstars?

Sean FryeFeatured ColumnistJanuary 31, 2014

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JANUARY 03:  (L-R) Sammy Watkins #2, head coach Dabo Swinney and Tajh Boyd #10 of the Clemson Tigers celebrate after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes during the Discover Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium on January 3, 2014 in Miami Gardens, Florida. Clemson defeated Ohio State 40-35.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Dabo Swinney has been on a tear the last three years at Clemson. He's won 33 games and made two Orange Bowls, including this past season's victory over Ohio State in the last year of the BCS. 

Much of Swinney's success with the Tigers has been largely in part due to the superstars he's had operating his system. Quarterback Tajh Boyd and his partner in crime, wide receiver Sammy Watkins, were among the best at their respective positions. 

But gone are the days of Boyd leading the charge in Death Valley. Now Swinney finds himself tasked with maintaining the same level of success while going through a bit of a rebuilding process. 

So the question that's on every Clemson fan's mind is whether or not Swinney can live up to his own high expectations in 2014. 

Of course, any rebuilding effort starts with recruiting. Swinney's classes have ranked in the top 15 in Rivals' class rankings since 2011. That 2011 class, which ranked eighth in the nation on Rivals, will be seniors in the 2014 season. 

The biggest task is replacing Boyd. And Swinney may very well put that on one of his incoming freshmen. 

Deshaun Watson, a freshman early enrollee at Clemson, is expected to compete for the starting job for the Tigers. Watson is the star of Clemson's 2014 class, rated as a 4-star prospect and the best dual-threat quarterback by 247Sports

In a story by Sports Illustrated's Zac Ellis, Watson draws comparisons to the likes of Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston—freshmen who went on to win the Heisman Trophy and make huge impacts for their squad. 

However, a huge difference between Watson and the two Heisman-winning freshmen is that Manziel and Winston both redshirted a season before taking the reins. Watson will likely forgo a redshirt season and immediately compete for the starting job. 

Where Watson is receiving the most praise, though, is from the man who he may be replacing. According to Kerry Capps of Orange and White, Boyd said of Watson:

The guy is like a little brother to me, a really humble kid, super intelligent, and I love the personality he has. It’s more than football. I’m excited about the kind of person Clemson has coming in.

We’ve got some guys that can really play right now, who’ve proved they can play right now. I think it’ll be an interesting competition for sure.

Watson surely won't be handed the job. He'll battle it out with rising senior Cole Stoudt, who backed up Boyd for three years, and Chad Kelly for the job. 

Stoudt will likely be Watson's toughest competition. While playing sparingly in mostly garbage time for Clemson this past season, Stoudt put up good numbers, completing nearly 80 percent of his 59 pass attempts for five touchdowns and 415 yards. 

Clemson QB Cole Stoudt
Clemson QB Cole StoudtRICHARD SHIRO/Associated Press/Associated Press

Whoever replaces Boyd at the quarterback position will need a star receiver to complement him, just like Boyd had in Watkins. 

Clemson fans had hoped for junior wideout Martavis Bryant to stay in Death Valley one more year and become a senior leader for the Tigers. However, Bryant, who had seven touchdowns and over 800 yards receiving in 2013, joined Watkins in heading to the NFL draft. 

In order to address the need at wide receiver, Clemson went and got three 4-star receivers as early enrollees in its 2014 class, per 247Sports—they are Artavis Scott, Demarre Kitt and Kyrin Priester. Trevion Thompson, another 4-star receiver, has also committed to the Tigers, but he won't arrive on campus until the fall. 

It's not just on offense that Swinney will have to replace some superstars though. The Tigers, who ranked 25th in total defense this season, lose Spencer Shuey, Quandon Christian, Darius Robinson and Bashaud Breeland. 

The biggest returner on defense will be defensive end Vic Beasley, who announced on Jan. 15 that he'll return for his senior season. In 2013, Beasley totaled 41 tackles including 13 sacks. 

Clemson's 2014 class also has some impressive defensive recruits, including two 4-star linebackers in Chris Register, another early enrollee, and Korie Rogers, according to 247Sports

Overall, it seems that Swinney and his coaching staff have put Clemson in a position to continue to succeed despite the losses of Boyd, Watkins and Co.

It'll now be up to a mix of newcomers and chiseled veterans—including seniors that come from a top 10 recruiting class nationally—to keep up the success that Swinney has established for the Tigers. 

But as long as Swinney's recruits work out, and they've had a history of doing so in his time with the program, the Tigers shouldn't skip a beat in 2014—they will be in contention for the ACC title and the inaugural College Football Playoff.