Tigers' defense should continue to excel, but who will catch the ball this season?
CLEMSON -- Summer football practice begins at Clemson today, 32 days until kickoff against North Texas and 46 days until beginning a key three-game test: at Auburn, Sept. 18; vs. Miami, Oct. 2; at North Carolina, Oct. 9.
While the program received a lift with the return of quarterback Kyle Parker, there are still plenty of storylines to follow as the Tigers prepare to defend their Atlantic Division title.
Who wants the ball?
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said the greatest competition will be at receiver.
Clemson's top three pass catchers of a year ago -- Jacoby Ford, Michael Palmer and C.J. Spiller -- have exited. The leading returning receiver, Xavier Dye, caught just 14 passes last season.
Dye is joined by Marquan Jones and Terrance Ashe on the initial depth chart. But those veterans will be pushed by talented, younger options in Bryce McNeal, Jaron
Brown, Brandon Clear, Brandon Ford and true freshman DeAndre Hopkins.
Besides the questions at wide receiver, the team also loses eight 20-yard plus plays from Spiller in the passing game, including four touchdowns via the wheel route.
The good news is tight end Dwayne Allen seems poised for a breakout, but there is as much uncertainty at receiver as any position on the team.
Plan B (for Boyd)
While Kyle Parker's baseball negotiations were the source of considerable anxiety in Clemson Nation there was an unintended benefit: preparing Tajh Boyd.
After Parker's first-round selection in the MLB Draft, many thought Boyd would be in contention to start Sept. 4 versus North Texas.
Clemson offensive coordinator Billy Napier said Boyd's increased sense of urgency this summer should accelerate his development. Boyd took more ownership of the position, knowing he could very well be the starter. It will be interesting to see how much progress Boyd made this summer after an uneven spring performance. Even though Parker is back, Boyd is just one play away from being under center.
Stopping the run
Clemson ranked seventh in the country in pass defense last season, and with a deep defensive line and DeAndre McDaniel, Marcus Gilchrist and Rashard Hall returning to the secondary, the pass defense should again excel.
If the Tigers can improve against the run, the defense is in line to be dynamic.
Though the Tigers improved their yards per rush allowed last season, Clemson actually fell to 67th against the run and allowed at least 162 rushing yards in four of its five losses.
A vital part of the run defense is linebacker performance, a position group which should have considerable competition this summer.
True sophomore Corico Hawkins started over incumbent middle linebacker Brandon Maye in the bowl game. Jonathan Willard had one of the stronger spring performances at outside linebacker and is listed as a co-starter at weakside linebacker. Redshirt freshman Quandon Christian has shown flashes, Scotty Cooper returns and Spencer Shuey is also in the mix.
And perhaps Justin Parker can make the greatest impact of any true freshmen, possessing an excellent size-athleticism combination.
Is this the year Da'Quan Bowers puts it all together? The junior defensive end pledges to operate at 100 percent this season.
Bowers' ceiling is as an early first-round NFL pick. If he reaches that potential he gives Clemson one of the best defensive ends in the country.
While Bowers has only four sacks in 955 career snaps, there is reason for optimism: fellow South Carolina native Courtney Brown notched 24.5 of his career 33 sacks at Penn State as a junior and senior.
Rewards of continuity
Clemson increased the football staff's compensation by 56 percent this offseason, increasing payroll from $2.6 million to $4 million.
Athletic director Terry Don Phillips and Swinney said continuity is key for success and Swinney expects considerable benefits from the defensive corps having another year to absorb Kevin Steele's defense, and another year of stability for a young offensive staff. Look for players to be playing more instinctively in camp.