ACC Football 2011: 10 Ways Clemson Can Win The Conference Championship
There are several words that could describe the Clemson Tigers' first losing season since 1998.
The story for the Clemson Tigers has long been the fact that they have the talent and potential to be a top tier ACC team. But, as always, they can never seem to put the right pieces in place to get over the hump. After their dismal 6-7 season, which saw several devastating losses to teams like Boston College and being thrashed by in-state rival South Carolina, head coach Dabo Swinney has said that while under his watch, Clemson will not have another losing season.
Going into his third season with only a 19-15 record, Swinney doesn't have the ten years that Tommy Bowden was given and was never able to produce. But, in the 2010 off-season, Swinney has begun to put his words into action, which started with the terminations of offensive coordinator Billy Napier and running backs/special teams coach Andre Powell.
What did Swinney do next? He hired Tulsa's offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who produced a top ten offense in his first and only year at the collegiate level. Tony Elliot was added to be the new running backs coach, and Robbie Caldwell was added as new offensive line coach after the retirement of Brad Scott to an administrative position. Only receivers/recruiting coordinator Jeff Scott and OT/TE coach Danny Pearman were retained on the offensive coaching staff.
But Swinney's work didn't stop at assembling a new offensive coaching staff. What he and the rest of the staff would do is assemble a top ten class loaded with weapons at wide receiver and linebacker, bringing in some of the best receivers and linebackers in the nation, which were critical positions of need for Clemson.
Now, as Clemson prepares for the spring and the fall, questions will be sure to arise as the 2011 season nears, and what will be needed to make the trip to Charlotte for the ACC Championship.
A New Offense
The biggest story coming into the 2010 season will surely be the new offense being brought in by new offensive coordinator Chad Morris.
After two seasons, Billy Napier was fired as offensive coordinator after a season in which Clemson lost its identity on offense, especially after running back Andre Ellington went down for the season. Clemson had no kind of offensive identity throughout the 2010 season, having one of the worst offenses in the ACC. As a result, Billy Napier was fired, and Chad Morris was brought in from Tulsa.
Morris was an intriguing hire for the Tigers for several reasons. First off was his small yet impressive resume. Morris was only the offensive coordinator at Tulsa for one year, but led them to a top ten offense in 2010. And he has only been coaching on the collegiate level for a year.
But, at the same time, Morris can bring what the Clemson offense has lacked for a long while: a stable, dynamic offense. Morris is said to run an offense similar to Auburn's, a balanced, spread offense that needs a dual threat quarterback to run it. And Clemson has just that in Tajh Boyd.
The only questions coming in, besides Morris's short time at the college level,will be how fast the players grasp the new offense. And with play makers like Charone Peake and Sammy Watkins coming in the fall, along with running back Mike Bellamy, fans will wonder how Morris will handle ball distribution between all of these guys.
But, Morris is an up and coming offensive coordinator, and Clemson will provide him as well as the players with the best opportunities to run the offense to its fullest. How well this offense catches on will be a true difference maker in Clemson making a run at the ACC Championship.
A top ten recruiting class will definitely mean some new faces will certainly replace some old ones.
The biggest story of the off-season was the fact that, despite a 6-7 losing season, the Clemson Tigers still put together a top ten class that stayed faithful throughout the bad losses, and despite the lack of wins the Tigers failed to put up.
The class was especially loaded with play makers on offense, namely wide receivers, while also picking up three stellar linebackers that are among the best in the nation at their respective positions.
Their contribution will have an immediate short and long term impact.
On offense, Clemson signed some of the nations' top receivers in Charone Peake, Sammy Watkins, and Martavis Bryant. Barring any injuries, all three of them will be vying for spots in fall camp. Running back Mike Bellamy will have a big role to play, as he will likely be the second back on the depth chart after Ellington.
On defense, the biggest freshman contributions will come at linebacker, the biggest position of inconsistency for this Clemson defense. For the most part, Corico Hawkins and Quandon Christian have their position jobs safe at middle linebacker and strong-side linebacker. But, with the departure of Brandon Maye, this left a void at weak-side linebacker.
Enter Stephone Anthony, Tony Steward, and Lateek Townsend. All three of these guys have the potential to make an immediate shake up for the current Clemson linebackers.
All three of these linebackers have shown the capability to play at outside linebacker, though Steward may project better as an inside linebacker. With three top linebackers, all of them will figure to receive playing time behind Hawkins and Christian, and there will be heavy competition with Tig Willard for the starting spot at weak-side linebacker, where he had some injury issues and was inconsistent at times.
Will Special Teams Finally Become Special?
Next to the offensive play, special teams was at its worst in 2010 for the Clemson Tigers.
For the last couple of seasons, Clemson has failed to find a consistent kicker with good accuracy. The result has led to too many missed field goals, as well as poor confidence as a result of these missed kicks. The result also contributed to the Tigers lack of success in winnable games like UNC, Boston College, or even Miami.
Now, going into the 2011 season, the job for kicker is wide open at this point, and Clemson only has two scholarship kickers on its roster in Spencer Benton and Chandler Cantanzaro.
Cantanzaro won the job last year as a freshman over Richard Jackson and Spencer Benton, and looked to show promise with his strong leg. But, as the season progressed, he showed inaccurate skills and struggled to make 50% of his kicks. Benton only handles kick offs on special teams, and has never been given a real shot, starting only once making a field goal, but has struggled to make extra points.
With such dismal special teams play, Andre Powell was fired, as he handled both running backs and special teams, and OT/TE coach Danny Pearman now handles special teams.
Clemson has only signed one kicker, Ammon Lakip, in their recruiting class, and he shows potential. But, as a freshman, he is inexperieneced and it is unclear as to how well he'll adjust to the kicking game at the college level.
Kickers may be taunted for what little they do, but they are vital to the success of special teams. If Clemson wants to have a shot at the ACC Championship, they must make special teams special again. And that means getting an accurate kicker.
Clemson needs more offensive consistency
When was the last time Clemson fans saw any kind of offensive consistency?
It's been a while, and the Tigers failed to bring any in 2010, and it was a large part of their 6-7 season. It's also why Billy Napier was fired as offensive coordinator.
As a result, Chad Morris, formerly of Tulsa, was hired as offensive coordinator. He coached Tulsa's offense to a top ten ranking in his first and only year on the collegiate level. Morris will look to make the Clemson offense more dynamic and aggressive, which is what it sorely lacked last season.
With Napier, Clemson had grown into a more conservative offense, and became predictable, and his offense had tendencies that were easy to lock onto. These tendencies were part of what led to an easily winnable game against Boston College.
Most offense can have success against a team like North Texas. The bigger problems lie against the big, marquee opponents, where Clemson always seems to falter.
For Clemson to have a shot at taking back the Atlantic Division, they must have offensive consistency. But, learning a new offense can take time, and it will be interesting to see how fast this offense is able to take shape, and whether it can take enough shape to get Clemson past their tough three game stretch against the likes of Auburn, Virginia Tech, and Florida State.
Defense Without Daquan
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Daquan Bowers had his best year at Clemson in 2010, boasting 15.5 sacks, and finally looked like the number one overall player that he was coming out of high school.
And now, he's off to greener pastures in the NFL. Clemson fans will be looking for him on Sundays with the men now. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and new defensive line coach Marion Hobby must fill the void left behind by Daquan.
With his departure, Mallicah Goodman must step up his pass rushing game to help fill some of Daquan's production. Andre Branch will continue to man the other end, and both of them together must provide the edge rush that is so critical to any defense's success. One of the first battles to be won must be won down in the trenches.
Behind Branch and Goodman area plethora of young defensive ends, who will be sure to get long looks in the spring.
At defensive tackle, the coaches must also fill the void left by Jarvis Jenkins. With Brandon Thompson returning on the other side, senior Rennie Moore looks to step into a role as the full time starter.As is the case with Daquan, behind Thompson and Moore is a group of young defensive tackles looking for their shot. Players like Josh Watson could give Rennie Moore some tough competition for the starting spot opposite Thompson.
Clemson's defensive line is what fuels this defense and makes it so aggressive. Clemson has done well for years in accumulating defensive linemen and have had great depth at the position for some time. Clemson's pass rush success must continue if its defense wants to continue to play at a high level and keep its ACC hopes alive.
Who Has Ellington's Back?
Andre Ellington showed all Clemson fans that, in terms of the running game, that when he's healthy, the Clemson running game is one to demand the respect of any team's front seven. But when he went down, teams could finally take advantage of an inept quarterback with accuracy issues and bad decision making abilities.
With an aggressive fullback in Chad Diehl and a ready and willing offensive line, Clemson looks to get back where its running success left off after Ellington's injury.
However, the backfield has thinned out a little. Jaime Harper surprisingly declared for the NFL Draft, and former running back commit Marlin Lane was dropped before National Signing Day due to off the field issues. As a result Clemson has only four running backs on scholarship coming into the spring.
The need for backup running backs is crucial, especially in a day where running backs split carries, rather than carrying a full load. Ellington needs a reliable backup to relieve him from time to time. The other backs coming into the spring are sophomore Rod McDowell, along with redshirt freshman Demont Buice and DJ Howard.
McDowell was the third running back last year, and while he had a good fall camp, he got injured and once Ellington went down and he saw a little more playing time, he never really got the chance to run the ball or catch the ball against any real competition. He saw the most playing time against Presbyterian, where he rushed for 86 yards and a touchdown.
Howard and Buice were redshirted out of the 2010 recruiting class, and are unknowns at this point. Buice is the bigger of the two at 6-0, 220 pounds. Howard is the smaller and possibly speedier of the two, listed at 5-11, weighing around 190 pounds.
Clemson has one of the top running backs in the nation in Mike Bellamy arriving in the summer, who will look to light up fall camp with his ability, and will be in competition with the other three backs for the top two back up spots.
Who's Catching the Football?
Clemson needs consistency at the wide receiver postion
Next to the disgraceful play of Kyle Parker, the offense was incredibly thin at wide receivers, and lacked a downfield threat to open up the underneath routes. It's hard to win without a downfield threat, and a roster full of possession receivers. Even as the pass catchers became more confident, their quarterback did not.
Thanks to the 2010 recruiting class, those problems looked to be solved.
Out of the five receivers signed, three of them are in line for immediate playing time, and should have an immediate impact the moment they take the field.
Devoid of playmakers last season, the wide receiver position was the Achilles heel of the passing game, as there were few viable options outside of Deandre Hopkins. Now, with three more top receivers, this looks to be a position of strength for the offense in 2011 and for the coming seasons.
The three receivers who have had so much hype following them are Charone Peake, Sammy Watkins, and Martavis Bryant.
Peake is a tall target at 6',3" that has great deep threat ability that the Tigers missed in 2010. Watkins is among the best receivers out of the state of Florida, and provides Clemson with a playmaker out of the slot position. Bryant is a tough, goo all round play, and is another tall target at 6-2 for the Tigers.
In a new offense with a new quarterback in Tajh Boyd, the offense was sorely in need of weapons in the passing game, and the Tigers got just that. For the offense to have the capability to become more dynamic and less conservative, Clemson needed to upgrade their passing game and have more options to keep opposing secondaries off guard.
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A one-hit wonder in 2009, Kyle Parker underwent a complete transformation last year, especially after the 27-24 overtime loss to Auburn, in which he got hurt after he was speared in the back. The result ended up with a season in which he had a 75.3 QB rating, along with 12 TD, 11 INT and a 57.5 completion percentage.
Now, he's gone off to play professional baseball. And now, the Tigers get a fresh start with redshirt sophomore Tajh Boyd.
Boyd is still a relative unknown in terms of how he will perform as the lone starter over a 12 game stretch, and how well he will perform when faced with the pressures of being a starter at the college level. Boyd has the potential to be a good quarterback, no one can deny that.
In his flashes of time on the field, Boyd has performed well, with the most of his playing time coming in the Meinke Car Care Bowl against South Flordia. Boyd went 13-23 for 112 yards and threw 2 touchdowns and an interception, and had a quarterback rating of 117.43.
Where Boyd must get better is his decision making, and try not to do too much with the football, which was the primary reason Parker's abilities as a quarterback declined in 2010. And with a new offense to learn this offseason, good decision making will be a crucial factor in his development.
Everyone can talk about offseason moves, or the revamping of the wide receiver position, but, all in all, how well of a season Clemson's offense has will be dictated by how well Boyd performs at quarterback. The offense will be young at wide receiver and quarterback, and it will be up to Boyd to step into a leadership role and take control of Morris's "smash mouth spread" offense.
Solidifying the Secondary
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On defense, the Tigers secondary remained a solid, consistent group under secondary coach Charlie Harbison, boasting a top 25 ranking.
Now, the Tigers have lost three dependable players in cornerbacks Byron Maxwell and Marcus Gilchrist, along with playmaking safety Deandre McDaniel. Harbison and the defensive coaching staff must find a way to replace their production with a group of young, yet talented defensive backs.
Going into the spring, the only sure fire starter will be redshirt junior Xavier Brewer, who burst onto the scene in style last season, finishing the year with 63 tackles, one forced fumble, and two interceptions.
There will be heavy competition for spots this spring opposite Brewer and along the roster. Sensabaugh is the likely candidate to start opposite Brewer, along with talented defensive backs like Bashaud Breeland, Darius Robinson, and Martin Jenkins.
At safety, Jonathan Meeks looks to fill the empty strong safety position left behind by McDaniel, while Rashard Hall looks to shine and become a bigger play maker at free safety.
The secondary is, next to the defensive line, the strongest unit on defense. They have been very consistent for the last couple of seasons, an especially so since the return of Charlie Harbison. Clemson has done well at accumulating depth in the secondary, and have done a fine jobin developing their corners and their safeties.
The secondary must continue their consistent play overall and, at the same time, improve so that they do not let one receiver beat them. This was the case with players like Alshon Jeffery, who dominated the secondary and allowed them to not make any plays. If Clemson wants to start beating South Carolina again, they must lock down on receivers and stay disciplined in their coverage assignments.
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Perhaps the biggest question will be if the coaches Swinney has brought in are capable of developing the players better, particularly on offense.
This probably played a huge factor in why coaches like Napier and Powell were released.
With Powell, it was interesting because of the current running back situation. When starter Andre Ellington was injured, Jaime Harper and Rod McDowell stepped in. Harper performed well at times, but was still very inconsistent in the way that he ran. McDowell still got no opportunities to run the football,and Powell never really elaborated on why, even after all of fall when he praised him on his potential. He was also iffy when it came to Swinney declaring Ellington as the main feature back and for him to receive more touches.
Powell didn't have his back up running backs well prepared, and special teams, specifically the kicking game, struggled again for the second consecutive year, and he was let go.
With Napier, he never really adjusted or changed his play calling, and became too one dimensional as the season wore on, and never really inserted anything new into his offense. A very conservative play caller, and a very unbalanced offense coupled with bad quarterback play led to his termination.
Now, Swinney has two new guys in Tony Elliot and Chad Morris. Elliot will coach the running backs.
Player development is the most important part of a coach's job. While a coach like Elliot has never coached running backs before, he is a veteran coach who has played the game before and knows how to develop his guys for the long haul. The veteran coaches that Swinney brings in are great at developing their players. Coaches like Dan Brooks, who is notorious for his time at Tennessee, where he coached a number of first round defensive linemen, is a kind of coach that knows how to develop his players.
Clemson brings in top talent on a consistent enough basis to have multiple chances to win the conference or least be among the top teams in the ACC. But, they always stumble and don't pay up to their potential. The Clemson Tiger football program sorely needs their new hires to develop the players well.
If the coaches plan to make an ACC Championship run this time around, they must do their jobs and coach the players up so that hey are fully prepared for the long season ahead of them.