CLEMSON — Just like that, Clemson is all about the offense once again.
A scoring juggernaut in the Tajh Boyd days, suddenly the Tigers were back to their defensive roots from 25 years ago, winning games without an offensive touchdown (Louisville) or reaching 20 points (Boston College, Wake Forest.) That was the product of a defensive group flush with talent and experience.
With eight seniors gone — including a few future NFL picks — the defense will be in transition, as coordinator Brent Venables looks to justify his handsome raise and recent contract extension.
“I know a lot of people are gonna doubt us,” said sophomore defensive end Shaq Lawson, “but we’ll continue to get better. We’ve got some great back-7 guys, so we really don’t want any drop-off. Our goal is to be the No. 1 defense in the country again next year by this time.”
Meanwhile, the offense that struggled so mightily when Cole Stoudt was the quarterback — at least in the regular season — showed exactly what it’s capable of doing in the bowl game when Stoudt played confidently in his final game.
All eyes are on Deshaun Watson, specifically the left knee of Watson. If there are no complications from ACL reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation, Watson is a bona fide ACC Player of the Year candidate and, potentially, a player in the Heisman race — if not this year, then next.
Watson has just about every key skill player returning next year, and the offensive line loses a few good players but could easily be even more effective next year provided its injury luck is more fortuitous than this past year.
From Wayne Gallman to Tyshon Dye, from Mike Williams to Artavis Scott, Watson will have plenty of playmakers who are a threat to score almost any time they find some open space.
“Just give us the ball, and we’ll make something good happen,” Watson said. “That’s something we all talk about, and we’re building our confidence. Hopefully it’ll continue in the future.”
Next year, coming off its third consecutive bowl victory over a preseason top-five team, Clemson will host Notre Dame, Florida State and Georgia Tech while traveling to Louisville, Miami and South Carolina.
“I think we’re built to make a run and compete for the ACC — and for the College Football Playoff — for many years to come,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’re not going away. We have a great program, we’ve recruited well and other guys get a chance to step up and grow into good players. We certainly expect to be a contender for many years to come.”
CLEMSON 2015 projected starters: (returning starters in ALL CAPS, player year is for 2015)
Pos. Player, Year
QB DESHAUN WATSON, so.
Comment: Provided his ACL rehab goes smoothly, the possible future Heisman contender should be back for the start of fall camp.
RB WAYNE GALLMAN, so.
Comment: Three 100-yard games his redshirt freshman year; buoyed with Tyshon Dye, this is a promising position.
WR ARTAVIS SCOTT, so.
Comment: He’s not Sammy Watkins ... yet. He’s shown to be just as deadly, though, everywhere from jet sweeps to deep balls.
WR Charone Peake, sr.
Comment: Felt like the coaching staff rushed him back from offseason knee troubles. Some R&R ought to make him right.
WR MIKE WILLIAMS, jr.
Comment: Among the league leaders in long catches, and he’ll be motivated: an outstanding 2015, and he’s an early 2016 NFL draft pick.
TE JORDAN LEGGETT, jr.
Comment: Tight end has been a problem the past two years. Is it time for Leggett to stabilize the spot with some production?
LT ISAIAH BATTLE, sr.
Comment: He’s planning to return, which was critical for the Tigers’ depth. Clemson can’t afford to lose any more edge blockers.
LG RYAN NORTON, sr.
Comment: Thinking outside the box here: Norton’s a good lineman, but his shaky snaps push him one spot over along the line.
C Jay Guillermo, jr.
Comment: Beefy frame and a good communicator is a nice combination; a bad toe kept him off the field too often in 2014.
RG Tyrone Crowder, so.
Comment: Logged some playing time last year, which will be crucial with Kalon Davis, David Beasley and Reid Webster out the door.
RT Mitch Hyatt, fr.
Comment: It’s rare a first-year freshman starts Day 1 at offensive line, but the Tigers have no other choice but the 5-star prospect.
K AMMON LAKIP, sr.
Comment: It’s been an adventure sometimes with Lakip, but he’ll be more mentally prepared for his second and final year as the starter.
Pos. Player, Year
DE Kevin Dodd, jr.
Comment: So many holes to fill along what was a senior-laden defensive line led by Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford in 2014.
DT D.J. Reader, sr.
Comment: He spent some time in the doghouse this year. Maybe Grady Jarrett’s influence will rub off on Reader going forward.
DT Carlos Watkins, jr.
Comment: Watkins is mostly healed from a 2013 car accident that badly bruised both his legs. Don’t forget about Scott Pagano here.
DE Shaq Lawson, jr.
Comment: By far the most productive returning defensive lineman, Lawson had 13 tackles for loss; but it’ll be more challenging when he’s The Man.
MLB B.J. GOODSON, sr.
Comment: He didn’t have as much opportunity as Clemson favored nickel packages. No matter what, Stephone Anthony leaves a huge void.
WLB Ben Boulware, jr.
Comment: He’ll definitely play; what’s tricky to guess is where. He’s trained mostly at outside linebacker but showed against Oklahoma that he could become the permanent man in the middle.
NB KORRIN WIGGINS, jr.
Comment: A quiet contributor as a fifth defensive back will only get better. Keep an eye on Dorian O’Daniel in three-linebacker sets.
CB MACKENSIE ALEXANDER, so.
Comment: He finally broke his media silence after the bowl game, and this kid is very sure of himself. He walks the walk, too.
FS JAYRON KEARSE, jr.
Comment: Still has the occasional brain cramp, but 6-4 of lean, mean, ball-hawking machine will be a crucial cog in next year’s defense.
SS Travis Blanks, jr.
Comment: No more Robert Smith, but coaches have praised Blanks’ maturity after sitting out the past year rehabbing from a torn ACL.
CB Cordrea Tankersley, jr.
Comment: Garry Peters was a godsend last year, but now it’s Tankersley’s time to completely seize the bookend role opposite Alexander.
P Andy Teasdall, jr.
Comment: Since Bradley Pinion is off to the NFL early, Clemson’s going to have to make do with the former walk-on who has two career punts.