College football season is nearly upon us, with three more days until the first prime-time college football game on ESPN. But Clemson fans shall be watching closely and attentively on Saturday at 3:30 when their Clemson Tigers descend into the Valley of Death to face off against North Texas.
Clemson went into the fall camp with several questions in key areas, and these questions won't be fully answered until the season opener. Coming off of Dabo Swinney's first year, the Tigers have seen progress in all areas. However, going into 2010, there are several key factors that will make or break the Clemson Tigers:
1. Linebacker Play
This has been a rather up-and-down unit for the Tigers the last couple of years. The inconsistency at linebacker resulted in running game struggles throughout the season, particularly by quarterback and running back draws, with plenty of misdirection thrown into the equation.
As a result, this offseason, Corico Hawkins has taken on a larger role, assuming the starting middle "Mike" linebacker role while Maye has been shifted to weakside "Will" position, competing with emerging Johnathan Williard for the starting spot. Hawkins performed admirably enough in place of Maye during the Music City Bowl and throughout the offseason to warrant him a starting position.
The "Mike" linebacker is the leader of Kevin Steele's defense, and the defense operates best through him. How well the defense plays shall depend upon the play of its linebackers.
2. Running Game
A running game is the key to victories and a more balanced offense. Clemson saw a HUGE boost in its running game with CJ Spiller and the emergence of redshirt freshman Andre Ellington, with sophomore Jamie Harper in the mix. Now with the loss of Spiller, Ellington and Harper pick up the slack as the primary backs in Napier's offense.
While this may be seen as a position of strength, a key factor may be the uncertainty of Harper in big-game moments. A highly-touted recruit, Harper has had fumble issues throughout his first two years at Clemson, and while he has shown flashes here and there, everyone will look to Ellington as the main feature back. Chad Diehl will be a powerful lead blocker, and nifty catcher out of the backfield.
With Ellington and Harper as the main two running backs, Rod McDowell steps in as the third running back. Coaches like his speed and ability to catch out of the backfield, adding a possible target on third down for the quarterbacks, given the uncertainty at the wide receiver position. With a better, more experienced offensive line, the running game must be poised and prepared for life without Spiller.
3. Wide Receiver Emergence
Entering 2010, there has been no clear emergence of a No. 1 receiver, other than Dwayne Allen, who is a talented tight end. With the loss of Jacoby Ford, this leaves a talented yet young group of receivers for Clemson to wonder about. As the first game nears, the only receiver who has clearly separated themselves in their group is Marquan Jones in the "A" position, which happens to be in the slot.
The competition is the highest among this group, so much so that Napier may look to have a big rotation in the opener just to see any signs of separation. Next to the linebackers, this was a weakness for Clemson last year, despite the production of Palmer and Ford. With their departures, and the addition of talented Deandre Hopkins, there has now been a big shake-up with Hopkins pushing for significant playing time.
Several key names emerging include co-starters Jaron Brown and Terrence Ashe, co-starters Xavier Dye and Brandon Clear, Brandon Ford, Hopkins, and Bryce McNeal. This is how crowded the receiving corps has become.
All eyes shall be upon which receiver makes the biggest impression as a possible target for Parker as the go-to guy. The No. 1 and 2 receiver must stand up. Without them, the Clemson passing game becomes limited to passes out of the backfield to the running backs and to the tight ends, especially Allen. With the emergence of receivers, the Clemson offense will gain reliable targets and become more balanced, opening up more opportunities in the run game.
What shall we take away from Saturday's game against North Texas? Only time will tell.