The Clemson Tigers will open the 2014 season in approximately nine weeks. Gone are two of the greatest players in school history: Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins. For most schools, losing players like Boyd and Watkins would cripple their chances.
But don't feel sorry for Clemson, the cupboard is far from bare in Death Valley. Just like most good teams, Clemson has its strengths and weaknesses.
In 2014, the strength of Clemson's team could be on the defensive side of the ball. Several starters return from a unit that was very good at rushing the passer last season. Senior Stephone Anthony returns at middle linebacker but will have two new starters alongside of him.
From an offensive perspective, Clemson is one of the better-coached teams in all of college football. Chad Morris is entering his fourth season as offensive coordinator of the Tigers. Morris' side of the ball is consistently one of the top units in all of college football.
But can Morris win without Boyd under center?
Senior Cole Stoudt will be a good test for Morris' coaching acumen. Stoudt is more of a traditional dropback passer, where Boyd was more athletic and versatile. Boyd's athleticism allowed the running game to thrive while still enjoying a big-play passing attack.
Losing Watkins and Martavis Bryant will be tough. The two combined for 143 receptions, 2,298 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2013. However, the Tigers have a bevy of talented pass-catchers ready to step up.
Senior Adam Humphries is the most experienced. Humphries was third on the team with 41 receptions last season. He is ideal for the slot.
Sophomore Mike Williams will compete with Charone Peake and Germone Hopper to start at the other two receiver spots.
Williams possesses elite talent, but concentration is an issue. Peake missed the majority of last season with a torn ACL. He, too, could be an All-Conference player.
Hopper is a bit of a wild card. He's the smallest of the bunch but is fast and has unrivaled change-of-direction skills. He was sent home from spring practice to concentrate on his academics.
Expect Morris to place a heavy emphasis on the tight ends this fall. Junior Stanton Seckinger, who started 10 games last season, will be in the mix with sophomore Jordan Leggett and senior Sam Cooper. Cooper is atop the team's depth chart at the moment, but Leggett is clearly the most talented of the bunch.
|Clemson's Defensive Rankings in 2013|
|Rush Defense||8th||155.7 (per game)|
|Pass Efficiency Defense||3rd||114.20 (rating)|
|Total Defense||3rd||356.7 (per game)|
|3rd-Down Efficiency Defense||2nd||30.8%|
You expect Morris to have the offense ready, but it's possible Clemson could get a big lift from the defense in 2014.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has done a good job in his two years at Clemson. While his defense isn't necessarily a shutdown unit, it gets pressure on the quarterback and creates turnovers.
Defensive end Vic Beasley turned down the NFL to return to Death Valley for his senior season. Beasley, an All-American in 2013, was tied for second in the nation with 13 sacks. Even better news for Tigers fans: The entire three-deep along the defensive line returns.
As good as Beasley, Tavaris Barnes and Corey Crawford are at defensive end, the Tigers are just as good at defensive tackle. Seniors Grady Jarrett, Josh Watson and DeShawn Williams return along with junior D.J. Reader.
It's all about experience, not talent, for the Tigers in 2014.
On offense, Clemson must replace two very good starters on the offensive line: Tyler Shatley and Brandon Thomas. The Tigers have some experience returning on the O-line, but can Isaiah Battle and David Beasley be as solid as Thomas and Shatley were the last two years?
The Tigers, overall, are strong at the skill positions. However, they lack experience.
Roderick McDowell departed after rushing for over 1,000 yards. McDowell had a good year but wasn't reminding anyone of C.J. Spiller or Andre Ellington.
Zac Brooks, D.J. Howard and C.J. Davidson will compete with freshman Wayne Gallman to be the team's starting running back. Brooks and Howard are the most experienced, and they combined for just 459 yards in 2013.
Gallman, with his game-breaking speed, is the most talented of the bunch, and he's never played a game.
And while we noted how talented the receivers are, outside of Humphries, they've proven very little at this level. Peake, Hopper and Williams have a combined 80 career catches.
Speaking of Humphries, while he's reliable, he isn't the type of receiver opponents fear.
And while the front four is strong on defense, there are questions in the secondary. The Tigers lost both starting cornerbacks from last season.
Strangely, though, they could be better.
Freshman Mackensie Alexander—one of the nation's top recruits in 2014, according to 247Sports—combines with sophomore Cordrea Tankersley as Clemson's starting cornerbacks.
Alexander was ready to play as a true freshman last season, but an injury in fall camp led coaches to redshirt him. He could have made a similar impact with Clemson as Kendall Fuller did at Virginia Tech. He was the talk of spring practice.
Venables was extremely complimentary of Alexander when asked which defensive player impressed him most after one practice, per David Hood of TigerNet.com: "I would just say Mackensie is the one because we lost a couple of starters at a position that we're thin."
It's important, however, to temper expectations when it pertains to the young defensive backs. They will get beaten. Sometimes, they will get beaten a lot. Swinney and Venables have to hope the first-year starters have the short memories needed to become great defensive backs.
And keep an eye on junior kicker Ammon Lakip. Replacing the school's all-time leading scorer, Chandler Catanzaro, will not be easy.
On offense, the player to watch is Leggett. At 6'5", 240 pounds, the athletic sophomore is ready for a breakout campaign.
Leggett had an impressive spring game and seems to have a strong rapport with Stoudt. On a team that lost 19 touchdowns between two players, having a big target such as Leggett will be enticing for Morris and Stoudt, especially in the red zone.
Leggett looks like a future NFL first-round pick. Whether he starts or not at tight end, he will be heavily involved in the team's game plan on a weekly basis.
Defensively, keep an eye on redshirt freshman linebacker Dorian O'Daniel. O'Daniel redshirted last season in part due to Clemson's depth and experience at linebacker. O'Daniel will not start, at least initially, but he may the most talented linebacker on the team.
Senior Tony Steward and sophomore T.J. Burrell are the presumed starters at outside linebacker. Steward, a former big-time recruit, has fought injuries throughout his college career. Burrell, meanwhile, is solid but isn't as explosive as O'Daniel.
O'Daniel has good size (6'2", 210 lbs), runs like a defensive back, is solid in coverage and can rush the passer. Venables will find ways to employ O'Daniel this season. O'Daniel's versatility gives the coaches several options.
The 2014 Clemson Tigers may or may not repeat the team's overall success of the past three seasons. The Tigers have plenty of talent but some big holes to fill. If they can survive through the first month of the season, it could be another big year in Death Valley.
The biggest question facing Clemson: Are its strengths greater than its weaknesses? If so, expect another 10-win season for Swinney and company.
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