As the season opened I heard the Clemson faithful pulling out the platitudes. "If Clemson wins eight games this year I'll be satisfied" or "good thing the Tigers aren't ranked. They play better when the expectations are low." This perception was not wholly unjustified, as the Tigers went 6-7 last year and lost their quarterback to baseball and their their top defensive players to the NFL.
Head coach Dabo Swinney then decided to shake up his staff by trading out offensive coordinators, leaving Clemson with plenty of question marks. Clemson crawled nebulously out of the gate against Wofford and Troy but quickly began to take shape as certain players emerged as the Tigers of the future.
Clemson is no longer flying stealth mode, and we'll soon find out if the adage about being ranked holds true as they enter their seventh week in the Top 25. With that in mind, here are seven reasons for Clemson's success that nobody could have predicted at the beginning of the season.
Two years ago Chad Morris was coaching high school football in Texas. Two years from now Clemson would like for him to still be running the offense in Death Valley. The chatter has already started about how much Clemson has in the coffers to keep him around.
The offense that struggled to move the ball last year has exploded in Morris' no-huddle scheme which keeps defenses guessing, and his blunt no-nonsense style has made him an instant fan favorite. Look for schools to come calling as the annual coaching carousel begins here in a few weeks.
With Kyle Parker leaving to play minor league baseball, the quarterback spot was ostensibly Tajh Boyd's to lose. After a lackluster spring camp, Chad Morris told Boyd that his success at Clemson was riding on how he utilized his time in the summer.
Boyd, a highly-recruited Elite 11 quarterback, evidently took that to heart because he has done what few first-year starters successfully do. Although he has carried the Tigers to historic heights, he still looks like a sophomore quarterback at times and has plenty of room to grow. The fact that he is so young is equal parts exciting for Clemson fans and terrifying for future opponents.
There is not a whole lot that hasn't been said about Sammy Watkins. If the kid went pro tomorrow he would be a first-round pick. Fortunately for Clemson fans...he's a freshman. However, Watkins was not as highly recruited as Charone Peake, who is also a freshman at Clemson, and Dabo claims he doesn't have the most talent on the team. He was simply more game-ready.
Cj Spiller was supposed to be the last demigod Clemson would see in a long time, but Sammy is already busying himself with rewriting Spiller's records. It seemed at times last year that Clemson receivers were trying to drop the ball, but the addition of Watkins has opened up a world of options for Tajh Boyd. Dwayne Allen has stopped seeing double-teams and wideouts such as Jaron Brown have materialized out of nowhere. In years to come this Clemson wide receiving core could become legendary.
Now go with me on this one here. Andre Ellington is hurt nearly every other week. Mike Bellamy is vitriolic to say the least, as well as sporadic on the football field. The running back that has impressed me the most is D.J. Howard. He committed to Auburn, but learning that they wanted to play him on defense he switched his commitment to Clemson.
In a couple of years, fans will be glad he did. Sure, he had a fumble against Georgia Tech but it seems like every time he touches the ball he gets positive yardage. He works hard and plays with class so expect him to emerge as a fantastic compliment to the future running game.
Clemson hauled in a top 10 recruiting class last year and is already seeing incredible results. Martavis Bryant is becoming a lethal deep threat, Stephone Anthony is a violent tackler and nobody can catch Mike Bellamy if he gets into open field. Adam Humphries catches everything that comes his way and never gets tackled by the first defender. Cory Crawford looks awful good wearing Da'Quan Bowers' old number as he displays why he was so highly recruited. When Dabo Swinney said that if teams were going to "get" Clemson, they had better do it this year, he had these guys in mind. Watch for them to emerge as NFL draft picks in a few years.
Andre Branch entered Clemson with exactly one scholarship offer to his name. Now NFL scouts are giving him a look and with good reason. Branch had his coming-out party in his home state of Virginia, as he shredded Virginia Tech's offensive line multiple times and has amassed on the season 55 tackles and 8.5 sacks.
As the referees peel players off the pile you can bet that Branch is somewhere in there. On a defense that lost loads of talent last year, Branch has taken the reigns and is once again proving the recruiting process wrong.
Chandler Catanzaro was frustratingly erratic last year despite Dabo Swinney's constant assertion that he was automatic in practice. Somehow this year the Catman has figured out how to translate that practice to games, as he is 14-of-18 on FGs this year.
Catanzaro figured out the best time to get it right as Clemson has the nation's No. 1 kicker, according to ESPN, coming in next year to put some pressure on him. With some close games on the horizon Clemson will likely need Catanzaro's leg, a leg that came into the season under scrutiny.