The last time folks saw Clemson, the Tigers were getting eviscerated in the Orange Bowl.
Lost in the aftermath of their performance in that contest – a 70-33 beatdown at the hands of West Virginia, with WVU scoring the most-ever points in a bowl – was that Clemson had won the ACC for the first time since 1991.
Coach Dabo Swinney changed defensive coordinators after the Orange Bowl debacle, firing Kevin Steele and bringing in Brent Venables, who had held the same job at Oklahoma.
|Coach: Dabo Swinney (4th season)
Last season: 10-4 overall, 6-2 in ACC
Spring practice dates: March 7-April 14
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season):
Offense (7): QB Tajh Boyd, WR Jaron Brown, TB Andre Ellington, C Dalton Freeman, WR DeAndre Hopkins, G Brandon Thomas, WR Sammy Watkins
Defense (7): SS/CB Xavier Brewer, LB Quandon Christian, E Malliciah Goodman, FS Rashard Hall, LB Corico Hawkins, SS Jonathan Meeks, LB Jonathan Willard
Special teams (1): K Chandler Catanzaro
Venables has seven returning starters to work with, but needs to rebuild his line, which lost three starters, and possibly re-tool the linebacker corps.
The Tigers also return seven starters on offense, and coordinator Chad Morris has great skill-position talent, headed by WR Sammy Watkins and QB Tajh Boyd. But the offensive line, which struggled at times last season, has to be rebuilt; the Tigers are looking for three new starters up front, including both tackle spots.
Despite the bad ending to the 2011 season, there are high hopes for the 2012 season. If the retooling of the lines goes well this spring, Clemson should enter the season in the top 15.
[ACC spring preview: Clemson among many with work ahead]
The biggest problem: Linemen. Clemson loses three starters off an offensive line that underachieved in 2011; the Tigers also lose three starters off the defensive front. Offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell may have to start two freshmen at tackle. The top candidates are Isaiah Battle (left) and Joe Gore (right). Tyler Shatley, who spent the past three seasons on the defensive line, will battle Kalon Davis for the starting job at right guard. Shatley is more athletic and the strongest player on the roster. Defensively, Corey Crawford is a promising sophomore at weakside end who will start opposite Malliciah Goodman. Both must stay healthy. The d-tackle rotation has to be overhauled, with sophomores DeShawn Williams, Tavaris Barnes and Grady Jarrett the top three options entering spring drills.
On the spot: MLB Corico Hawkins. Hawkins has been the starter for two years, but backup Stephone Anthony is more talented and a superior athlete. Anthony started three games as a true freshman in 2011, leading all Clemson 'backers in tackles for loss and sacks. Hawkins' snap total may not come close to his 2010 and '11 output.
On the verge: TB Mike Bellamy. His off-field missteps received more publicity than his on-field production, which wasn't bad (6.0 yards per carry). Bellamy, a sophomore who is a former five-star recruit, is trying to inch his way out of Swinney's doghouse. He must continue to steer clear of trouble off the field while applying himself more in practice. If he makes even modest improvements, he could put up substantially better numbers even in a support role to Andre Ellington.
General overview: Swinney has done a good job of lifting the program's talent level over the past three season. This team has exceptional personnel, perhaps second only to Florida State in the ACC. But retooling the offensive and defensive lines could be a lengthy process. The defense has nowhere to go but up after allowing the most yards by a Tigers' defense since 2001. Swinney has to find a punter. And high-profile offensive coordinator Chad Morris is aiming to have 80 percent of his offense installed by the end of the offseason after the Tigers reached the 65 percent range in 2011.
For in-depth coverage of Clemson athletics, go to TigerIllustrated.com
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- Dabo Swinney