Clemson Football: The State of the Program After the 2013 Season

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistDecember 11, 2013

Clemson Football: The State of the Program After the 2013 Season

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    Dabo Swinney led Clemson to its third consecutive season with at least 10 wins.
    Dabo Swinney led Clemson to its third consecutive season with at least 10 wins.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    CLEMSON, S.C. – How you view Clemson’s 2013 regular season depends largely on your perspective.

    If you’re head coach Dabo Swinney, you consider it a success.

    Clemson won 10 games for the third consecutive season, the program’s longest such streak since 1987-90.

    The Tigers beat No. 5 Georgia in the season opener, becoming the first-ever non-SEC team to beat Top 10 SEC teams in back-to-back games. They spent virtually the entire season in the Top 10 and garnered the program’s second Bowl Championship Series bid in three seasons, earning an invitation to the Orange Bowl to face off with No. 7 Ohio State on Jan. 3.

    Fans see it slightly differently. While the Tigers finished 10-2 and No. 12 in the final regular-season BCS standings, Clemson lost two of its three marquee games.

    On Oct. 19, then-No. 5 Florida State entered Memorial Stadium and utterly throttled the No. 3 Tigers, 51-14, handing them an embarrassing home loss in what was billed as the ACC’s biggest-ever regular-season game.

    And on Nov. 30, Clemson committed six turnovers and dropped a 31-17 decision at South Carolina. It was the Tigers’ fifth consecutive loss to their bitter in-state rival, the longest such streak in the program’s history.

    It marked the second consecutive season that Clemson lost to both of its biggest rivals in Florida State and South Carolina, fueling some fan unrest.

    Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich appealed to fans to lobby the Orange Bowl for selection, successfully so. But there are concerns about just how many orange-clad supporters will follow the Tigers to South Florida.

    Clemson’s offense stayed high-powered in offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ third season: The Tigers ranked 12th nationally in total offense, scoring offense and passing. And a once-beleaguered defense showed significant improvement in defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ second season.

    Plenty of programs would be pleased with a 10-win season and an Orange Bowl berth. But with talented players like senior quarterback Tajh Boyd and junior wideout Sammy Watkins on board, it’s hard to avoid a feeling of disappointment.

    Boyd will head to the NFL following the Orange Bowl, and Watkins, a projected first-round pick, is expected to follow him. With an expected three-way quarterback competition between rising senior Cole Stoudt, rising sophomore Chad Kelly and incoming freshman Deshaun Watson coming in spring practice, 2014 could be a season of transition.

Returning Players

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    Defensive end Vic Beasley enjoyed a breakout junior season.
    Defensive end Vic Beasley enjoyed a breakout junior season.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Clemson is actually still a youth-laden team. Swinney signed just 12 players in his first recruiting class in 2009 after being promoted from interim to full-time head coach in December 2008. The Tigers had just 11 scholarship seniors this fall, led by Boyd, tailback Rod McDowell, offensive linemen Brandon Thomas and Tyler Shatley and linebackers Spencer Shuey and Quandon Christian.

    Plenty of talent remains, even with several key juniors expected to make draft decisions. Defensive end Vic Beasley was among the nation’s top 10 in sacks and tackles for loss; he is rated as a potential first-round selection. Middle linebacker Stephone Anthony was the team’s leading tackler with 115. And wideout Martavis Bryant also has a decision to make after piling up 800 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 20.5 yards per reception.

    While McDowell is graduating, shifty reserve Zac Brooks and steady backup D.J. Howard will be in the backfield alongside talented redshirt freshmen Wayne Gallman and Tyshon Dye.

    And assuming Bryant returns, he’ll be joined by rising senior Adam Humphries, talented rising sophomore Mike Williams and junior Charone Peake, who redshirted after suffering a torn ACL.

    Only blocking tight end Darrell Smith graduates from a deep tight end group led by rising junior Stanton Seckinger and talented but mercurial freshman Jordan Leggett. The Tigers will also return three starting offensive linemen, and either David Beasley or Kalon Davis (who split starts at left guard) will move over to replace Shatley.

    If Beasley returns, the entire starting defensive line is likely to return. Rising senior defensive tackle Grady Jarrett is an underrated run-stuffer, and ends Corey Crawford and Shaq Lawson are athletic pass-rushers. Rising seniors DeShawn Williams and Josh Watson lend major experience at defensive tackle.

    Clemson’s pass defense also showed significant improvement this season with the return to health of Bashaud Breeland, Martin Jenkins and Darius Robinson. Robinson is graduating, but Breeland and Jenkins are expected to return, along with contributor Garry Peters. In addition, talented freshman Mackensie Alexander, who redshirted this fall with a groin injury, will be a major factor. Rising senior safety Robert Smith was steady in his first season as a starter, and while rising junior Travis Blanks will be recovering from a torn ACL suffered in November, Jayron Kearse showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman.

Recruiting Primer

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    Early enrollee Deshaun Watson is one of the nation's top QB prospects.
    Early enrollee Deshaun Watson is one of the nation's top QB prospects.Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

    Due to the general youth on its roster, Clemson will not sign a full 25-man class in February. However, the Tigers are putting together another solid class: They currently have 18 verbal commitments, and ranks the class 19th nationally. However, Dabo Swinney and recruiting coordinator Jeff Scott still want to close strong by cherry-picking several key commitments to top off the class. Clemson lost out on 5-star wideout Josh Malone, who picked Tennessee over Clemson and Georgia last week.

    Here are several players the Tigers would love to finish the Class of 2014 with.

    DE Lorenzo Featherston

    A 6’7”, 220-pound pass-rushing defensive end, Featherston, a Greensboro, N.C., native, would be an excellent addition to an already strong group of athletic pass-rushers. He is considering Clemson, Florida and Florida State. Clemson could have an edge with linebacker commitment and early enrollee Chris Register, a Greensboro native who is friends with Featherston.

    LB Raekwon McMillan

    McMillan is considered one of the nation’s top five middle linebacker recruits, a 6’2”, 230-pound prospect who is an excellent “downhill” player. He hits with aggression. The Hinesville, Ga., native has attracted attention from across the nation, but his finalists are Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. He’d fit in perfectly in the middle of the Tigers defense for the next four years.

    WR Trevion Thompson

    Thompson, who stands 6’3”, 188 pounds, would be another excellent addition to what is already a deep wide receiver corps. Clemson missed on Malone, but with Watkins, Humphries, Bryant and Peake leaving over the next two years, Scott, the wide receivers coach, needs playmakers. Thompson is considering Clemson, N.C. State, Ohio State, Florida State, North Carolina and West Virginia.

    Can Deshaun Watson compete as a true freshman?

    Watson has been heralded as Clemson’s next great quarterback; he has been committed to the Tigers since February 2012 and stuck with his commitment since then. He is an athletic quarterback in the mold of Boyd, capable of running and throwing equally well. Boyd even said this fall that Watson reminds him of himself.

    He will enroll in January and go through spring practice with his new teammates. He is expected to battle with rising senior Cole Stoudt and rising sophomore Chad Kelly for the starting role that Boyd will leave behind following the Orange Bowl. Watson is a talented player, but it’ll be interesting to see how quickly he picks up the offense and if he can hold off the older, more experienced players for such an important role.

Stars of the Future

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    Mike Williams displayed excellent potential in his first season of college football.
    Mike Williams displayed excellent potential in his first season of college football.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    DE Shaq Lawson

    After spending a season at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy after just missing initial NCAA academic qualification, the hometown (D.W. Daniel High School) product was motivated for a big freshman season. He certainly turned some heads as a reserve defensive end, piling up 28 tackles, nine tackles for loss and three sacks. He is a pass-rushing star in the making with excellent rush ability and physicality.

    WR Mike Williams

    Williams drew comparisons to NFL first-round pick and current Houston Texans wideout DeAndre Hopkins with a solid freshman season, catching 20 passes for 316 yards and three scores. He has excellent speed and leaping ability and figures to take a major step forward as a sophomore, especially if playing time opens up with Sammy Watkins’ expected NFL departure.

    S Jayron Kearse

    Kearse, the nephew of former NFL All-Pro defensive end Jevon Kearse, had a solid freshman season. He stands 6’4”, 225 pounds and has exceptional athleticism and range for a safety. He had 34 tackles and racked up three interceptions, one behind corner Bashaud Breeland for the team lead. His role will only grow as a sophomore with another year in Brent Venables’ defensive system.

Coaching Staff

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    Chad Morris is one of the nation's hottest assistant coaches.
    Chad Morris is one of the nation's hottest assistant coaches.Tyler Smith/Getty Images

    When a program puts together three consecutive 10-win seasons, the questions aren’t about which coaches will get fired. They’re about which coaches will be poached by other programs.

    As it has since 2011, that list begins with offensive coordinator Chad Morris. Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle system has turned the Tigers’ offense into one of the nation’s most potent systems. In 2011, Clemson signed him to a five-year contract extension that made him the nation’s highest-paid assistant at $1.3 million annually. A year ago, he was runner-up for the Texas Tech position and was also connected with Auburn, N.C. State and South Florida.

    This month, Morris was briefly connected with the Wake Forest job before Bowling Green’s Dave Clawson was hired, and his name figures to come up again before the coaching carousel stops spinning. He said last year that he won’t take just any position, and that the job he takes will have to demonstrate a significant commitment to winning. Until that happens, every Clemson winter will feature Morris Watch.

    Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has made no secret of his desire to be a head coach; he interviewed in 2008 for the job that eventually went to Swinney. Clemson’s defense has improved significantly in his two years on the job, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he attracted the attention of a mid-major program looking for a head coach. If it’s the right fit for him, it wouldn’t be a stunner to see him leave, either.

2014 Outlook

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    Sophomore Chad Kelly could emerge as Clemson's new starting quarterback.
    Sophomore Chad Kelly could emerge as Clemson's new starting quarterback.Tyler Smith/Getty Images

    Some fans viewed 2013’s 10-2 record as an opportunity lost, given an easier schedule with a talented, star-studded offense. With Tajh Boyd and likely Sammy Watkins gone next fall, that slate gets a bit harder.

    Clemson will open at Georgia and trade ACC foes Maryland and Virginia for league newcomer Louisville and North Carolina (both at home). In addition, the Tigers must travel to BCS title game participant Florida State and Georgia Tech.

    Like Clemson, the Bulldogs will be breaking in a new starting quarterback, but the trips to Atlanta and Tallahassee will be no picnics for the Tigers’ new starter, whoever he might be. The Tigers will return plenty of talent on both sides of the ball but must identify playmakers at wideout and running back and do so behind a slightly reshuffled offensive line that will lose senior left tackle Chris Hairston.

    The Tigers should be picked second in the ACC Atlantic behind Florida State, but once again, the success of their season will come down to how they perform against the Bulldogs, Seminoles and South Carolina. A fourth consecutive 10-win season will be tough to produce.