National media face a dilemma when attempting to evaluate the returning personnel for the 2014 Clemson football team. Are the Tigers rebuilding or are they a veteran team?
Clemson must replace a 3,000-yard passer, 1,400-yard receiver and 1,000-yard rusher as Dabo Swinney prepares for his sixth full season as leader of the program. Gone are All-America quarterback Tajh Boyd and his 57 school records, All-America wide receiver Sammy Watkins, the No. 4 pick of the 2014 NFL draft, and All-ACC running back Roderick McDowell and his 1,025 rushing yards.
Additionally, Swinney must find a replacement for wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who averaged 19.7 yards per reception on 42 catches, best in the nation among players with at least 40 catches, and two-time First-Team All-ACC offensive tackle Brandon Thomas. Thomas was a third-round draft pick by the San Francisco 49ers and Bryant was a fourth-round selection by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Defensively, the Tigers must find two new linebackers to plug holes with the efficiency of second-leading tackler Spencer Shuey (119 tackles, four recovered fumbles) and Quandon Christian, a three-year starter.
Cornerback Darius Robinson had a solid senior year with 37 tackles and three interceptions, while Bashaud Breeland turned professional after notching four interceptions as a junior. He was a fourth-round pick by the Washington Redskins.
On the other hand, Clemson returns 19 senior scholarship players, the most in the Swinney era. The 2014 roster includes 12 players who have played at least 35 games and 17 who have played at least 30.
That senior class has helped bring Clemson to a new level of consistent winning. The 2014 group already has 32 wins in the bank (32-8) and needs just eight wins to tie the school record for a senior class. It would be just the second 40-win class in school history and the first since 1990.
The group has recorded eight wins over top-25 teams, including five top-10 victories. That includes top-10 wins in bowl games each of the last two years, the only school in the nation that can make that claim.
"College football goes in cycles because of the limitations on years of eligibility," said Swinney. "While we lost some celebrated skill-position players who set over 100 records on offense and some productive, consistent team leaders on defense, we do have 38 returning junior and senior scholarship players who have experienced winning.
"A few years ago, people said we were awful along the front seven on defense, and now these same players are two years older and people are saying we might have one of the best defensive lines in the nation.
"I am excited to coach this team because it will be the most veteran team I have had. My biggest concerns are developing depth at the offensive tackle position, getting the young wide receivers up to speed and replacing the consistency of Chandler Catanzaro as placekicker. He made 39 of his last 41 field goals and many of them from long distance and in the clutch."
The talk of the Clemson football team this preseason surrounds the selection of Boyd's successor at quarterback. They are big shoes to fill, as Boyd started all 40 games between 2011 and 2013, winning 32 of them.
He finished his career with ACC records for total offense and touchdown responsibility. He is the only quarterback in ACC history to throw for at least 3,800 yards in three different seasons. He was outstanding in the clutch as well, leading the Tigers to a 6-0 record in games decided by a touchdown or less over the last two seasons.
However, Swinney has confidence in Cole Stoudt, Boyd's backup the last three years.
"Tajh Boyd has moved on to the next level, but we are not going to lower the standard at this position. The standard is still winning, and I expect us to have a very productive offense in 2014.
"I don't see any reason why we can't be explosive and fun to watch on offense this year. We have different players carrying the ball, but we have recruited well and I expect us to be productive."
Stoudt has played well as Boyd's backup the last three years. A veteran of 22 games, he completed 47-59 passes for 415 yards and five touchdowns against no interceptions in 2013. His completion percentage (79.7) was the best in the nation among quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts.
"Cole has played a lot of snaps over the last three years in this offense and we have won games with him," said Swinney. "His experience running this offense is very important and he has been very accurate when called on."
First-year freshman Deshaun Watson will be Stoudt's backup heading into the season. The Gainesville, Ga. native came to Clemson in January and went through spring practice. He is the all-time leader in passing touchdowns in the Georgia high school ranks, a record he owned before his senior season started. He was listed as the top dual-threat quarterback in the nation by many services.
While the loss of Watkins and Bryant to the NFL draft a year early is significant (combined 2,292 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns in 2013), the Tigers have players returning who caught 48 percent of the passes and gained 41 percent of the yards.
In 2013, Humphries had 41 receptions, third-most on the team, for 483 yards and two scores. He has 97 career catches for 893 yards, more than any other active Tiger. Hopper had 21 catches from the slot-receiver position for 142 yards and also had two touchdowns.
Williams and Peake are both capable of making big plays on the outside. Williams started three games last season and had 20 receptions for 316 yards, a solid 15.8-yard average, with three scores.
Peake played the first two games of 2013 before suffering a torn ACL in practice the week after the SC State game. He played a big role in Clemson's win over No. 5 Georgia with five catches for 58 yards.
"We have talented players returning at wide receiver," added Swinney.
Three first-year freshmen came to Clemson in January and will vie for significant playing time. Demarre Kitt, Kyrin Priester and Artavis Scott are all wide receivers rated among the top-150 prospects in the nation by various services coming out of high school. They all showed flashes of brilliance during the spring.
Tight end has been an important position in the Tiger offense since Chad Morris became offensive coordinator in 2011. He had the John Mackey Award winner in 2011 (Dwayne Allen) and a First-Team All-ACC tight end in 2012 (Brandon Ford). The 2013 season saw tight ends utilized by committee. Still, Tiger tight ends caught 45 passes for 497 yards and seven scores.
Stanton Seckinger is the returning starter at tight end and had 21 receptions for 244 yards and four scores in 2013. He started the year catching what proved to be the winning touchdown pass against No. 5 Georgia and ended the year catching the winning touchdown pass against No. 6 Ohio State in the Orange Bowl.
Jordan Leggett is a sophomore with big-play potential. He showed that with a 43-yard catch against Ohio State in the Orange Bowl and had 12 catches for 176 yards and two scores in 2013. Sam Cooper is a third veteran back at the position. He overcame a torn ACL in the 2013 Spring Game to make a significant contribution.
D.J. Howard has been injured off and on over his career, but the senior has a team-high 581 career rushing yards and 35 games under his belt. Howard is listed as the starter heading into the fall. He had a strong offseason, including 59 yards on nine carries and a touchdown in the Spring Game.
Zac Brooks is the leading returning rusher from 2013 after gaining 246 yards. The junior from Jonesboro, Ark. also had six catches for 83 yards, including a key touchdown reception in the win over Georgia.
C.J. Davidson is one of the most interesting stories on the team. The original walk-on came to Clemson on a track & field scholarship, but showed breakaway speed in limited duty in 2013 when he totaled 155 yards on 34 carries and four touchdowns.
Red-shirt freshmen Tyshon Dye and Wayne Gallman are in the mix at running back. Dye suffered a torn Achilles injury in February, an injury that will be a setback in his preparation for 2014. Gallman had a terrific offseason, climaxed with 89 total yards in the Spring Game.
While Swinney knows the media will focus on the race to become Clemson's next starting quarterback, he is most concerned about the starting offensive tackle slots.
"We lost Brandon Thomas, our starting left tackle. We also lost Patrick DeStefano and Gifford Timothy due to injury. We can't afford another injury there. It will be important for Isaiah Battle, Shaq Anthony and Joe Gore to step up. Eric Mac Lain and Kalon Davis could swing to play both guard and tackle."
Battle started four games in 2013 after Timothy suffered a season-ending injury. The junior is a gifted athlete at 6'6" and 290 pounds. He has held his own against some of the top defensive linemen in the nation at Georgia, Louisiana State, Ohio State and South Carolina.
Anthony has five career starts, including three last season. He played 503 snaps on Clemson's record-setting 2013 offense.
Davis and David Beasley both started seven games at guard in 2013 and are considered returning co-starters. Davis, also capable of playing tackle, logged 500 snaps last year and is a veteran of 36 career games. Beasley has 19 starts in his Tiger career.
Clemson is strong at the center position with returning starter Ryan Norton, who replaced All-American Dalton Freeman after the 2013 season. He responded as a sophomore from the first game when he was named ACC Offensive Lineman-of-the-Week against Georgia. He went on to tally a team-high 841 snaps and is on the preseason Rimington Trophy Watch List.
Jay Guillermo played 182 snaps as a reserve center and guard in 2013 and might be too good to leave in a second-team role behind Norton, as he is capable of playing other positions.
While Clemson must replace personnel who accounted for a high percentage of the Tigers' 2013 offensive production, the defense returns players who accounted for a high percentage of big plays.
Clemson led the nation in tackles for loss (122) by a wide margin and players who accounted for 96.5 of them return in 2014. There are 12 returning ACC players who had at least 10 tackles for loss in 2013, and five are Tigers.
"We have made significant improvement on defense over the last couple of years, to the point where last year we were in the top 25 in the nation in as many defensive categories as offensive," said Swinney. "When I first came here, I said to reach an elite level we had to be outstanding on defense, and we were in many areas last year."
A look to the roster indicates that the strength of the team will be the defensive line. No less than 12 returning lettermen, six defensive ends and six defensive tackles, return to a defense that finished in the top 25 in the nation in scoring defense and total defense, and was 10th in turnovers forced. Nine returning defensive linemen have combined for 91 career starts.
Leading the group is consensus All-American Vic Beasley. The senior is one of just three returning consensus All-Americans in the nation. A candidate to turn professional, Beasley decided to return for his senior season after a 2013 performance that included 13 sacks, 23 tackles for loss and four caused fumbles. He was second in the nation in tackles for loss per game and tied for third in sacks per game along with tying for 10th in caused fumbles.
"Our biggest signee since the end of the 2013 season was Vic Beasley," admitted Swinney. "Having Vic return for his senior year is a big plus for our defense. He went from being a reserve as a sophomore to being a consensus All-American as a junior. He had an outstanding junior year, but there is another level for him."
Beasley's comrade at the other end position is Corey Crawford, a two-year starter who had more tackles than Beasley (52 to 44) and added 10.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in 2013. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett was the defensive co-MVP in 2012 and is in his third season as a starter. He was third on Clemson's 2013 defense with 83 tackles, including 11 tackles for loss. Josh Watson, D.J. Reader, DeShawn Williams and Carlos Watkins also return with starting experience.
"We might have the most experienced defensive line in the nation," explained Swinney.
The above listing of players does not even include Shaq Lawson, who had 10 tackles for loss and four sacks as a reserve in 2013, when he was a second-team freshman All-American.
There are two open starting slots at linebacker. Clemson's leading tackler last season was Stephone Anthony, who had 131 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, five pass breakups and an interception. That theft might have been the biggest by a Tiger in years, as it clinched the victory over Ohio State on the Buckeyes' last possession.
"We will miss Spencer Shuey and Quandon Christian at the linebacker spots, but we do return Stephone," stated Swinney. "He made great strides last year and took ownership of the middle linebacker position. Obviously, this is an area of the team where a couple of young men have a chance to step into a starting role, but I am confident in who we have returning from last year."
Candidates to step up into significant roles are returning lettermen Ben Boulware, T.J. Burrell, B.J. Goodson, Kellen Jones and Tony Steward. Steward has been Clemson's top special teams player each of the last two seasons and is ready to assume a starting position with his classmate, Anthony. He had 37 tackles in just 167 snaps last year and is listed as a starter on the preseason depth chart. Burrell is listed as the starting strongside linebacker entering the fall.
Jones played just two games in 2013 before suffering an injury, but the Oklahoma transfer was the team's top tackler against SC State with 11 stops. Boulware had 18 tackles in 73 snaps.
Clemson returns two starting safeties and nine total lettermen in a secondary that helped the Tigers finish 19th in the nation in pass efficiency defense in 2013. Clemson's 18 interceptions were tied for 13th-most in the nation, and the unit was a big reason the Tigers were fifth nationally in third-down defense.
"I am excited about the secondary because we do have some talented young players coming off a red-shirt year who should be major contributors to the group of returning players," said Swinney.
Robert Smith and Travis Blanks are returning starters at safety. Smith was fourth on the 2013 team with 79 tackles and added five pass breakups. Blanks could play a strongside linebacker or nickel position in 2014. He had 35 tackles in 11 games, missing the last two contests due to a knee injury suffered against The Citadel. Jayron Kearse had an excellent freshman campaign and is listed as a starting safety as well.
Two young players came out of spring practice as starting cornerbacks. Mackensie Alexander red-shirted the 2013 season due to injury but was rated among the top-10 players in the nation by ESPN.com out of high school. Classmate Cordrea Tankersley played sparingly as a first-year freshman but had a terrific spring and is listed as a starter opposite Alexander.
Garry Peters and Martin Jenkins have a great deal of experience at cornerback. Peters played 10 games in 2013 and had 28 tackles, while Jenkins had an interception return for a touchdown against SC State and totaled 26 tackles.
Korrin Wiggins also will be a factor on defense as a nickel back. Wiggins had many timely plays in 2013, including two interceptions and five pass breakups.
Clemson must replace a four-year starter at placekicker, as Catanzaro graduated after setting 10 school records. He leaves Clemson as its career scoring leader (404 points) and the leader in field goals of 40+ yards (23).
Ammon Lakip scored nine points in 2013 as Catanzaro's backup. He was 6-6 on extra points and 1-2 on field goals and is the top candidate to replace Catanzaro.
Bradley Pinion returns as the starting punter and kickoff man. He had a 39.4-yard average and a strong 37.8-yard net figure. He had a record-tying 24 punts inside the 20 with no touchbacks in 2013.
Adam Humphries is the top returner. As a punt returner, the wide receiver averaged 10.6 yards on 20 returns, 24th-best in the nation in 2013.