With the 2015 ACC Kickoff concluding with the naming of Clemson as the preseason favorite to win the ACC this year, it seems only right to conclude the ACC Preview series by taking a look at what makes the Tigers so special.
Out of the 158 media members who voted, 84 chose Clemson as the favorite to win the ACC. The Tigers received 43 more votes than Florida State, and they were also honored when quarterback Deshaun Watson was named the ACC Preseason Player of the Year.
“I like our team. I like the opportunity that we have,” said head coach Dabo Swinney
Despite only playing 330 snaps in eight games last season, Watson threw for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns, while rushing for 200 yards and five touchdowns on 63 carries. Watson has been cleared by his doctors to return to all physical activity, and he will fully return to lead Clemson’s offense next season. Joining him on the offense will be a host of talented athletes who emerged as young starters last season as well as some highly touted recruits.
Artavis Scott and Mike Williams made names for themselves last season at wide receiver, and Clemson returns veteran Charone Peake and junior Germone Hopper. Although Peake has been battling an injury, he has still managed to gain 456 yards and five touchdowns off of 49 receptions in 36 games. Injuries hampered Peake’s success early in his career, but he is expected to be the starter for the Tigers in the slot this season.
Last season, Scott was named a First-Team freshman All-American after recording a team-high of 76 receptions in his college debut. The true freshman played in every game, and started in six to rack up 965 yards and team-high eight touchdowns.
Williams, a junior, had 57 receptions in his 11 starts last season for a team-high 1,030 yards and six touchdowns.
The 2015 season will also welcome freshmen receivers Ray Ray McCloud and Deon Cain.
Clemson also has talented depth at running back, led by sophomore Wayne Gallman. Last season, Gallman had a team-high of 769 yards and four touchdowns on 161 carries. He played in every game, started in nine of them, and was honored as the ACC Rookie of the Week after both the Syracuse and Wake Forest wins.
The Tigers also gain a healthy Zac Brooks in the backfield. The redshirt junior had to sit out last season due to a foot injury. Towards the end of the 2014 season, Clemson also welcomed Tyshon Dye back after several injuries. He will be competing for playing time alongside Brooks and C.J. Davidson.
Clemson’s offense should be a solid unit full of talented depth, but some questions do surround the offensive line. Kalon Davis, David Beasley and Reid Webster exhausted their eligibility, while starting left tackle Isaiah Battle was picked up by the St. Louis Rams in the supplemental draft this summer. That left a true freshman to take the starting role at left tackle. However, that freshman is five-star recruit Mitch Hyatt.
The Tigers do return seniors Ryan Norton, Eric Mac Lain and Joe Gore. Redshirt junior center Jay Guillermo has also returned after taking some time off after the Bowl game. Guard Tyrone Crowder will also step up to take on a starting role for the Tigers after playing 203 snaps over six games last season with one career start.
Although the depth the offensive line lacks experience, Swinney claims that they’re just as talented.
“Zach (Giella) and Noah (Green), are incredibly talented. I mean, all four of those guys (Giella, Green, Fruhmorgen and Hyatt), just absolute zero doubt on their ability and their potential to be outstanding offensive linemen at this level,” said Swinney. “I’m going to be real anxious to see those four guys, because this spring was awesome for them.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Clemson lost most of the unit that was ranked as the nation’s best in 2014, including 11 players who were either drafted or picked up in free agency deals.
For some teams, this would lead to the complete demise of a unit, but not for Clemson. The Tigers return more experience than some realize, however they do not return a lot of experienced depth. Excellent recruiting will continue Clemson’s defensive success once players get more experience, but the 2015 starting defensive lineup includes a lot of star power.
“Well, our first group, you’re not going to notice a big difference from the way we finished the year. The difference in our defense is the depth, and not the talented depth but just the experience,” said Swinney.
On the defensive line, senior D.J. Reader and juniors Carlos Watkins and Kevin Dodd return to lead the unit. Junior defensive end Shaq Lawson will take over for Clemson’s all-time leading sacker, Vic Beasley. The 2015 season will also introduce five-star defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and four-star defensive ends Albert Huggins, Clelin Ferrell and Sterling Johnson.
“There’s not a huge difference between Shaq Lawson and Vic Beasley. Shaq is going to bring some certain things to the table that Vic didn’t,” said Swinney.
At linebacker, Clemson lost the team’s leading tackler, Stephone Anthony, and Tony Steward to the NFL. However, junior Ben Boulware will return after an impressive 2014 season in which he had a 47-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Russell Athletic Bowl win over Oklahoma. Joining him will be senior B.J. Goodson, junior Korrin Wiggins and redshirt sophomore Dorian O’Daniel.
Clemson’s secondary will be in good hands with star cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safety Jayron Kearse. Juniors T.J. Green and Cordrea Tankersley have stepped up to fill the opposing roles, and the 2015 recruitment class contained some stud defensive backs as well.
“Our secondary is going to be as good as it’s been since we’ve been here,” said Swinney.
Clemson will enter the 2015 season as the favorite in the ACC, but they will have to succeed in new matchups against Notre Dame and Miami. Clemson will also host both ACC teams that they lost to last season.
“I think we have a good team. We had sixteen guys off of last year’s team that are in the NFL right now, and the winningest senior class in the history of our school and the biggest senior class just left Clemson,” Swinney said. “We have a lot of guys to replace and a lot of work to do. But, I love the guys that we have. I think we have a chance to be an outstanding team.”