PINEHURST, N.C. — Hanging 40 points on Oklahoma was so much more satisfying than it sounds for Clemson players and coaches who slogged through a rough 2014 campaign.
The Russell Athletic Bowl, Clemson’s third straight bowl victory over a premier opponent, served as a delicious recipe of redemption and validation for Cole Stoudt, who looked overwhelmed for much of his senior year but was named bowl MVP after accounting for four touchdowns in his final game.
At the ACC Football Kickoff Monday, new starting left guard Eric Mac Lain floated a theory on Stoudt’s wild pendulum of results.
“With Cole and Deshaun (Watson) going back and forth, we tried to run plays that Deshaun could run, with Cole, and obviously, he can’t execute on the same level. He can’t run as efficiently as Deshaun can,” Mac Lain said. “I think maybe from a coaching staff, we didn’t do him justice. Obviously in the bowl game, when we put him in a simplified offense, and did things Cole was good at, we ran all over the place, we threw all over the place and did things we needed to do.”
For the season, Stoudt threw nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions, with 6.3 yards per passing attempt. By contrast, Watson had 14 passing touchdowns and just two interceptions, with 10.7 yards per attempt.
Even though Clemson has first-year co-offensive coordinators in Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, replacing Chad Morris, there is confidence the Tigers will greatly improve upon last year’s No. 61-rated total offense.
“These two coaches are going to make it their baby. It’s going to be the same offense. We’re still going to be fast, if not faster,” Mac Lain said. “Coach Scott and Coach Elliott have really simplified our offense, so we’re going to take a couple of plays and be really, really good at them. We’re excited from that aspect.”
Mac Lain was asked about Watson — a lot — and in particular was grilled about Watson’s injuries as a collegian.
Speaking a bit tongue-in-cheek, but accurately, Mac Lain defended the Tigers’ oft-criticized offensive line.
“The only times he got hurt was his own self-inflicting cuts and falling down,” Mac Lain said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with us.”
A broken collarbone in April, a broken finger in October and torn ACL in November were each the result of scrambling attempts in space, not a blind-side hit.
Watson is on track to return to full strength at the start of fall camp, and lofty expectations for the Tigers hinge on him remaining upright.
“I think he is everything that everyone says,” Mac Lain said. “When he throws over 10,000 yards in high school, obviously he’s used to the success he’s having. But if for some ungodly reason he’s not healthy to play,” Mac Lain added, “we still have four-star quarterbacks right behind him.”
While Grady Jarrett started every game in 2014 at nose tackle, three different players competed each week in practice to earn the right to start the first series.
Josh Watson, DeShawn Williams and D.J. Reader were the candidates, and no one was able to start three consecutive games. Reader only started once, but had no issue with the competition.
“It was fun. I knew when the tide came down to it, it went to the senior, and it should,” Reader said. “If we weren’t good enough to beat them out, then we sat behind them. We played, and they expected no dropoff from us because that’s not acceptable.”
Jarrett, Watson and Williams have each graduated. Reader and Carlos Watkins are listed as the summertime starters; both are in their fourth years, though Watkins took a medical redshirt in 2013 after injuring his legs in a car accident.
“Carlos is back to 100 percent,” Reader said. “We’re roommates. That’s my best friend. He’s like my brother. Blood couldn’t make us any thicker.”
Reader possesses by far the most experience among returning defensive tackles.
“I have no intentions of ever trying to give my job up. I want my job to stay my job,” Reader said. “(Others) are going to have to work. If they take my job, I’ll appreciate the fact they worked harder than me that week. But I’m not going to let anybody outwork me.”
Mac Lain was nominated to the 2015 AllState AFCA Good Works Team recognizing college football players who excel in community service. He’s heavily involved in visiting children at elementary schools and hospitals, and promoting the Toys for Tots and Welcome Home Troops programs.
“I believe if you leave a place not better than you found it, you just didn’t do your job,” Mac Lain said. “The pedestal athletes been set on by the community is just so high. To not use that pedestal would be wrong. So I embrace that, try to get out much as I can, see the different people, go to different communities and try to make an impact.”
Mac Lain visited Nicaragua for a week last May following his graduation.
“Really, I haven’t had a vacation since I was 10 years old,” Mac Lain said. “We tried to do a bunch of community service with the people, but they’re going through a dry season, so we were advised not to go off the resort as much as we wanted to. They’re a very proud people, so they didn’t want too much.”