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Team countdown: No. 16 Clemson

Clemson is coming off its first ACC title since 1991. Unfortunately, that feat has been forgotten.

Instead, what most remember is that the last time they saw Clemson, the Tigers were getting eviscerated in the Orange Bowl 70-33 by West Virginia. WVU set an NCAA record for most points in a bowl game.

Coach Dabo Swinney changed defensive coordinators after the Orange Bowl, firing Kevin Steele and bringing in Brent Venables, who had held the same job at Oklahoma. Venables has eight returning starters to work with, but needs to rebuild his line, which lost three starters.

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 Tigers are looking for three new starters along the line, including both tackle spots.

Despite the bad ending to the 2011 season, there are high hopes for 2012. The Tigers have a shot at their second consecutive league crown if the retooling of the lines goes well.

The particulars

Last season: 10-4 overall, 6-2 in ACC (1st in ACC Atlantic, won ACC championship game over Virginia Tech)
Coach: Dabo Swinney (29-19, 4th full season; also coached final seven games in 2008)
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 (8) – CB Bashaud Breeland, SS/CB Xavier Brewer, LB Quandon Christian, E Malliciah Goodman, FS Rashard Hall, SS Jonathan Meeks, LB Jonathan Willard, LB Corico Wright (previously known as Corico Hawkins). Special teams (1) – K Chandler Catanzaro.
Fast fact: Clemson reached double-digit wins last season for the first time since 1990, under Ken Hatfield. That season was the last in a streak of four consecutive 10-win seasons for the Tigers.

Offense

Swinney hired Morris away from Tulsa after the 2010 season – Morris' first season in college ball after a long career as a Texas high school coach – and his offense proved to be a big hit. Clemson led the ACC in pass offense and was second in the league in total offense and scoring offense.

It helps having a quarterback who is a great fit. Boyd was responsible for 38 touchdowns (33 passing, five rushing) last season, his first as the starter. He has a good arm and is equally adept at throwing from in the pocket and on the run. One thing to watch is that though Boyd is mobile, he took a lot of sacks last season; perhaps he will be more willing to tuck and run this season. Boyd also bogged down somewhat

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Tajh Boyd threw 33 TD passes and ran for five more scores last season. (Getty Images)

late in the season, throwing nine picks in the final six games.

His favorite target last season was Sammy Watkins, who had a phenomenal true freshman season. The explosive Watkins had 82 receptions for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns, more than living up to his five-star recruiting billing. He also was dangerous as a kick returner and on occasional end-arounds. Watkins demands double-coverage on almost every play, opening things up for DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins took advantage by hauling in 72 receptions for 978 yards and five TDs. Look for senior WR Jaron Brown to become a bigger weapon this fall with the early departure of TE Dwayne Allen, who had 50 receptions last season.

TB Andre Ellington should put up good numbers, too. He ran for 1,178 yards and 11 TDs last season, and he had five 100-yard games, including a 212-yard outing in an epic comeback over Maryland. He missed a game with an ankle injury, and the injury hampered him in a few other outings. Depth at tailback is an issue after Mike Bellamy was ruled ineligible academically over the summer.

The line is the biggest issue. Senior C Dalton Freeman will be a three-year starter, and he has the talent to vie for All-America honors. Junior T Brandon Thomas is the only other returning starter. The new starters are expected to be sophomore G Kalon Davis, junior G Tyler Shatley and sophomore T Gifford Timothy. Shatley is a converted defensive tackle (he made 18 tackles last season) who moved to guard this spring. Davis is huge (6 feet 5/335 pounds) and had a good spring. Depth is an obvious concern.

[Related: Oklahoma State will have to rely more on defense this year]

Defense

Venables had been at Oklahoma since 1999 but was being pushed aside a bit by the return of Mike Stoops as the Sooners' coordinator. The defense is all Venables this season. The Tigers' back seven should be fine, but the front four is a big concern.

The rush defense was bad last season; Clemson allowed 176.9 yards per game, which was 83rd

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New coordinator Brent Venables was hired off the Oklahoma staff. (Clemson University)

nationally. The coaches hope to decrease that number by getting more speed on the field at linebacker and by getting more toughness in the middle of the line.

There should be a four-man rotation (all sophomores) in the interior. Grady Jarrett and Tavaris Barnes are vying for the nose tackle job; they combined for 10 tackles last season. The tackle spot should go to either DeShawn Williams or Josh Watson; Williams made 13 tackles last season, while Watson redshirted. Four-star freshman Carlos Watkins could get into the mix at tackle.

One starting end will be senior Malliciah Goodman, who is coming off a solid season. He saw action on 767 snaps last season, the most for any Clemson defender in school history. He had two sacks and eight quarterback hurries, and is stout against the run. Sophomore Corey Crawford should be the other starting end. He played a lot as a reserve last season, making 29 stops. The Tigers need some help from freshmen at end; four-star signee Shaq Lawson should see time.

Big things are expected from sophomore LB Stephone Anthony, a five-star signee in 2011. He started three times last season, and should provide an aggressive and physical presence at middle linebacker. Corico Wright (last season, he was known as Corico Hawkins) has been moved from the middle and now will start at one of the outside spots. Also in the mix will be sophomore Tony Steward, another five-star signee in 2011; he is returning from a torn ACL, though. Junior Quandon Christian and senior Jonathan Willard are returning starters who also will see time, but neither was that effective last season.

Clemson returns both starting safeties, seniors Rashard Hall and Xavier Brewer. Hall can play both safety spots, and Brewer also can play corner. Hall is a big hitter who led the Tigers in tackles (89) last season. Senior Jonathan Meeks is in the hunt for a starting role, meaning the Tigers basically have three starting-caliber safeties.

At corner, there are high hopes for speedy sophomore Bashaud Breeland, who appears to be a star on the rise. The other corner will be junior Darius Robinson, who has played extensively the past two seasons. Junior Martin Jenkins is a solid No. 3 corner.

True freshman Travis Blanks enrolled early and went through spring ball. If the Tigers use a 4-2-5 set, look for Blanks on the field at nickelback instead of one of the outside 'backers.

Special teams

K Chandler Catanzaro returns after going 22-of-27 last season; he has a strong leg and was 9-of-12 between 40 and 49 yards, with a long of 47. The new punter will be either senior Spencer Benton, who also handles kickoffs, or true freshman Bradley Pinion, one of the nation's top five prep kickers last fall.

Watkins is a dangerous kick returner, though Clemson needs to find a new punt returner.

Clemson's kickoff coverage was good last season, but its punt coverage needs a huge upgrade.

Schedule

The opener is against Auburn in Atlanta, and it will be a litmus test of sorts for both teams. Three weeks later comes the most important ACC game of the season: Clemson at Florida State. The winner takes the inside track to the Atlantic Division title.

All the other tough ACC games are at home (Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and North Carolina State), and none of the other league road games is all that daunting (Duke, Maryland and Wake Forest).

The regular-season finale is, as usual, against South Carolina; the Tigers have lost three in a row in the fierce rivalry.

[Related: Central Florida gets one-year bowl, NCAA tournament ban]

Overview

There is talent galore on this team, but some of it is untested and needs to live up to expectations this fall.

As long as the offensive line is merely competent, the offense is going to be potent – as in averaging-in-the-mid-30s potent. The defense, though, bears watching. The line is a huge concern, and what kind of impact can Venables make in his first season?

The outcome of the game at Florida State likely shapes the season; if the Tigers can win in Tallahassee, they can wear the league crown again. At the least, this group should win nine games.

The recruiting side

Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 18th nationally
The buzz: The coaching staff has proved itself on the recruiting trail of late, and this continued with the Class of 2012, as Clemson reeled in a number of impressive recruits from several states. The Tigers have done exceptionally well in Florida with top-level talent recently and that continued with Blanks, from Tallahassee North Florida Christian. Blanks, who was reeled in from Florida State's backyard, has the potential to make an immediate impact. As usual, the Tigers also did well in the Carolinas. On offense, WR Germone Hopper of Charlotte (N.C.) Phillip O'Berry Academy was the biggest addition. Defensively, a number of top recruits joined Blanks: Lawson of Central (S.C.) Daniel, Watkins of Forest City (N.C.) Chase and DB Ronald Geohaghan of Fairfax (S.C.) Allendale Fairfax. Clemson also reeled in a few top recruits from other areas of the country. Chad Kelly of Buffalo St. Joseph's is the potential quarterback of the future for the Tigers and ATH Zac Brooks of Jonesboro (Ark.) High is a versatile player. – Mike Farrell, Rivals.com

Breakthrough player

LB Stephone Anthony. Anthony, a former five-star recruit, may be the most talented player on Clemson's defense. Venables moved Wright to an outside linebacker spot in the spring, leaving Anthony, a backup last fall, with a virtual unimpeded view of the starting post in the middle. Anthony is instinctive and powerful, and can fill running lanes with authority. He also can make plays against the pass. Statistically, he could make the biggest gains of anyone on defense. – Cris Ard, TigerIllustrated.com

For more on Clemson throughout the season, check out TigerIllustrated.com

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