By Ed McGranahan.
Once you hold the pieces to the light, the pervasive optimism on offense among Clemson coaches is understandable. The potential shortcomings – specifically the offensive line – are not insurmountable because the caliber and quantity at the skill positions are unmistakable.
Chad Morris says he wants the most productive offense in the game this season, and that isn’t the hubris of a coordinator approaching only his third season on a college staff. Morris tweaked his scheme to take advantage of the skills sets of players like Sammy Watkins and Andre Ellington while giving the offensive line a reasonable chance to gain a modicum of experience.
“Our goal is to be the No. 1 offense in the country, and we firmly believe that’s what we can achieve,” Morris said today at the unofficial kickoff of the 2012 season.
Three first-team all-conference players return including quarterback Tajh Boyd, who began an assault on the Clemson record books in his first season as a starter, and the talent among the receivers has barely been tapped.
Tight end Dwayne Allen’s choice to enter the NFL a year early was a blow both for his skill and leadership. And there’s not much compensation for the speed lost when Joe Craig and Mike Bellamy were dismissed, but running back should be deeper and Boyd’s year in Morris’ system should really begin to pay dividends.
“He’s no longer a rookie,” Morris said. “We expect him to make the guys around him better.
“That’s what’s going to separate him from being a really good quarterback and being a great quarterback.”
Boyd struggled during the latter third of the season, throwing nine of his 12 interceptions in the final six games.
“This time last year he hadn’t done a whole lot,” said head coach Dabo Swinney before a round of golf at Cross Creek Plantation. “He’s thrown for a bunch of yards, he’s thrown for a lot of touchdowns but he’s also made a lot of mistakes.
“I think he’ll definitely be more comfortable going into camp, much more confident in the system. He knows the mistakes he made last year and the things he’s gotta do better this year for us to have another great season.”
The clock can’t move fast enough for the offensive line or at any position thin on experience.
“The big thing for us is a lot of freshmen and sophomores that are going to have to step up,” Swinney said.
“We have 11 seniors and 13 juniors and I really feel confident about those 24 guys. But obviously we’ll need a lot more to step up and play big, so that will be the fun thing as we go throughout the season, is seeing that competition, seeing that development.”
Nobody on the team played more snaps last season than center Dalton Freeman, first-team All-ACC. And after Brandon Thomas, who started at both guard and tackle, the only player significant experience is Tyler Shatley, a converted defensive tackle. Clemson line coach Robbie Caldwell likes the athleticism and pugnaciousness of the younger players. Morris added a new formation to his scheme that should help the line in the run game, getting the backs into the holes quicker. But they’re on the clock.
“There’s no greater teacher than experience,” Swinney said. “Once you’ve been through some battles, it’s much more meaningful.”
Of course, lack of experience never seemed to hamper Watkins. The question, naturally, is what can he do as an encore? An arrest in May for marijuana possession spoiled an idyllic first year for a young man probably capable of playing in the NFL as a first-year freshman.
Swinney and Morris can barely disguise their glee at the thought of defenses scheming for Watkins and leaving Hopkins, Brown, Peak, Humphries and Bryant to their devices. In addition, tight end Brandon Ford has added some muscle without eroding his ball skills. They believe freshman Germone Hopper could carve out some time in the receiver rotation, and they’re hoping redshirt freshman Stanton Seckinger could eventually blossom from a lean receiver with great hands into a force at tight end.
“I think we’ve got six guys that can play for anybody in the country,” Swinney said, “six guys capable of being starters.”
Watkins should be money when he plays. Morris examined how Oklahoma State used Justin Blackmon for some ideas. Swinney was not ready to say when or how much time Watkins may miss this fall.
“This is a young guy who’s got some rebuilding to do because he damaged a little bit of trust,” he said. “He’s responded very well and he’s doing the things we’ve asked him to do.
“If he continues to handle himself like he has then we’ll go ahead and render his punishment and move forward.”
If he remains fit all season, Ellington could be the premier running back in the ACC, but it’s a position with gray areas. Swinney and Morris said they’ll probably need four backs to handle the grind in practice and on game day, which means freshman Zac Brooks, who enrolled in January, would likely not redshirt.
“It’s hard to get through a season with three running backs,” Swinney said. “We got four good ones.”
The one thing that needs fixing, Swinney said, is the turnover.
“When we didn’t take care of the football it affected everything,” he said. Of the 24 total turnovers last season, 15 came in four games – Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, N.C. State and West Virginia. “That’s the No. 1 quality control issues that we’ve got to improve upon this year.
“That right there is probably two or three more wins for us if we just take care of the ball. “
Swinney insisted there are not lingering effects from the Orange Bowl.
“We’re not dwelling on the good or the bad,” he said. “We’re focusing on this team. This team needs to be special.
“Now everybody’s dialed in on Auburn,” he said. “Last thing we need to be doing is worrying about last year.”