When Dabo Swinney became Clemson's head coach in 2008 one of his stated goals was to bring consistent excellence to the Tigers program. Five years later some would say he has reached that goal. Clemson has won or tied for the ACC Atlantic Division Championship three of the last four years, something that had not been achieved prior to his appointment as leader of the program. That includes an ACC Championship in 2011, a first for the program in 20 years.
Clemson has had back-to-back seasons of at least 10 victories, another first for the program since the 1987-90 era. The Tigers are the only ACC team and one of just 13 programs nationally to win at least 10 games each of the last two seasons. There have been consecutive top 25 seasons, also a first for the program since the 1986-91 era, including a top 10 finish in the final USA Today poll in 2012, the highest final ranking since 1990.
Six of Clemson's 21 wins the last two years have come against top 25 teams, including four against teams ranked among the top 11 teams in the nation in at least one of the polls at the time of the game. That includes a 38-10 win over a third-ranked Virginia Tech team in the 2011 ACC Championship game, and a 25-24 win over seventh-ranked LSU in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl, the highest ranked victory in a bowl game for the Tigers in nine years.
Clemson has three wins over Top 25 SEC teams over the last two years, the only non-SEC school nationally that can make that claim. In fact there have been only seven non-conference wins over SEC teams the last two years and Clemson has three of the seven.
One of the reasons for Clemson's significant improvement has been recruiting. The Tigers 2013 signee class was ranked 13th best in the nation by ESPN.com the Tigers third straight top 13 ranking by that network. Clemson joins elite programs Florida State, Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Florida as the only programs to post three straight top 13 recruiting classes.
This list of accomplishments has been gratifying, but for Swinney, there are still many hills to climb. "I am proud of what we have done, but there is so much more to do," said Swinney.
"We have realized some accomplishments that haven't been done here in 20 or 30 years, but we have higher goals. We finished in the top 10 in the nation last year, but we want to do that multiple years. We reached a BCS Bowl in 2011, but we want to be in the mix for a BCS bowl every year. This is a program that has the resources, the tradition, the fan support, the overall infrastructure to compete for the National Championship."
The 2012 Tigers finished with an 11-2 record, just the fourth 11-win season in Clemson history. Swinney's team set a school record for conference wins in a season (7-1) and tied for the Atlantic Division championship. With the return of 13 starters and 53 lettermen from last year, (plus two others who lettered in previous seasons), there is experience and talent on the 2013 team.
"We have the pieces in place to have another very good season. We have returning experience on both sides of the ball. We have seven starters back on offense and six returning on defense. But on the defensive side we have four other players back who started four games or more. We have the opportunity to be a special team in 2013, but the ball is not round. We have to get some breaks and avoid injury. Because of the past two years this group knows how to prepare correctly."
One of the reasons Clemson should be a consensus top 10-15 team entering 2013 is the return of seven starters on offense from a unit that set 101 school records (33 team and 68 individual) in 2012. There are 26 returning lettermen on offense, 17 of whom played at least 100 snaps last year.
Offensive coordinator Chad Morris guided the offense to 41.0 points and 512.7 yards per game, both school records by a large percentage. The scoring average was sixth best in the nation, while the total offense number was ninth best. Clemson was even better in team passing efficiency at 163.1, fourth best in the nation, and the Tigers also led the ACC in passing at 321.6 yards per game, 13th best nationally.
The leader of that offense returns for his red-shirt senior year. Tajh Boyd will own 51 Clemson records when the season kicks off against a top 10 Georgia team in Death Valley on August 31. Those include career standards for touchdown passes, passing efficiency, touchdown responsibility and 300-yard passing games. He has led Clemson to all 21 wins over the last two years as starting quarterback and needs 11 more to tie Rodney Williams (1985-88) career record for wins by a starting quarterback.
Sammy Watkins also returns and will be Boyd's favorite target. A first-team AP All-American as an all-purpose player in 2011 when he had 82 receptions, Watkins played in just 10 of the 13 games (and one of those was for just two snaps against LSU) last year, but still finished with 57 catches for 708 yards and three scores. He averaged 107 all-purpose yards per game.
The biggest loss on the offensive side from a backs and receiver standpoint was DeAndre Hopkins, a second-team All-American who led the team with 82 catches for a school record 1405 yards and ACC record 18 touchdown receptions. He had 13 catches in the win over LSU for 191 yards and two scores. The reception yardage total was more than any other FBS player during the bowl season.
Top running back Andre Ellington also will be missed. Clemson's number-four ranked rusher of all-time was a first-team All-ACC selection in 2012. He was also an outstanding receiver out of the backfield.
One personnel number that brings a smile to Swinney's face as he approaches the 2013 season is the return of four starters from the offensive line. True, 2013 will be the first time he has not taken a snap from All-America center Dalton Freeman, a four-year starter, but Boyd does welcome back All-ACC tackle Brandon Thomas, starting guards Tyler Shatley and David Beasley, and starting tackle Gifford Timothy.
"If you look over the history of Clemson football, this program has done well in seasons it has four or five starters returning in the offensive line," said Swinney. "Experience and timing through repetition is so important to the success of an offense." Historically, Clemson has won 76 percent of its games when it has at least four returning starters in the offensive line.
Clemson's defense showed improvement over the course of the season under first-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables. The Tigers finished the season 22nd in the nation in sacks, including a season high six in the bowl game against LSU. Clemson held the SEC Tigers to just 219 yards and nine first downs, and forced eight three-and-outs in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Officially Clemson has just six starters returning on defense and only two of the top six tacklers return, but there are 10 players returning on defense who started at least five games last year. Spencer Shuey and Stephone Anthony ranked second (93) and fourth (77) in tackles, respectively, last season and return to anchor the linebacker position.
Josh Watson is back for his junior year after leading the defensive line in tackles in 2012 with 54. Travis Blanks is the leading returning tackler from a hybrid linebacker/safety position a year ago. He looks to be Clemson's starting free safety in 2013 after getting 51 tackles a year ago.
Clemson's greatest losses on defense include top tackler Tig Willard, who had 95 stops and a team best 10.5 tackles for loss, Malliciah Goodman, a defensive end who had seven sacks, including three in the bowl win over LSU, and Rashard Hall, who had 85 tackles from a safety position to go with a team best four interceptions, must be replaced.
"I believe our front seven will be one of the strengths of this team," said Swinney. "We lost just one player off the defensive front line in Goodman and return three players who have significant time starting at linebacker. Spencer Shuey was one of the more impactful players we had last year. We have a strong corps of linebackers and a strong group of young players backing them up. We won't know what we have in the secondary until August when we have a lot of new talented players join the roster."
Clemson should be strong in the special teams area led by the return of senior kicker Chandler Catanzaro, who missed just one field goal attempt in 2013. He kicked the 37-yard game winner against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl at the horn. Spencer Benton is a big loss on special teams as he handled so many duties, including starting punter. But Bradley Pinion is back after a solid freshman season gaining experience at punter and kickoff duties.
Clemson has become one of the top offenses in the nation over the last two years. Clemson has improved from 88th in the nation to ninth in total offense, from 86th to sixth in scoring and from 111th to second in redzone scoring offense. Clemson is a big play threat as shown by an improvement from 100th to first in offensive plays of 25 yards or more.
Last year Tajh Boyd completed 287 of 427 passes for 3896 yards and 36 touchdowns. That was a 67.2 completion percentage and his efficiency rating was 165.6, also a school season record. He finished fifth in the nation in efficiency, the highest national ranking for a Clemson quarterback since Mike Eppley was third in 1983. An average game for Boyd last year was completing 22 of 33 passes for 300 yards and 2.8 touchdowns.
The native of Virginia had three different games with five touchdown passes last year as he guided a Clemson offense that scored at least 37 points in 10 of 13 games. He was honored at the end of the 2012 regular season by being named a first-team All-American by the Football Coaches Association, the first Clemson quarterback named a first-team All-American by one of the five major services.
Boyd has had incredible performances in big games as evidenced by the fact he was the Most Valuable Player of the 2011 ACC Championship game and the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl. He was most notably named the Most Valuable Player of the ACC in 2012.
Many feel Boyd will be a Heisman Trophy candidate in 2013 after accounting for 46 touchdowns rushing and passing, just one less than 2012 Heisman winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M.
"When you look at Tajh Boyd's track record it shows improvement every year," said Swinney. "He takes coaching very well. He studies the game and watches film of himself to get better. Knowledge plus experience, plus talent, plus work ethic equals a great quarterback. He is also a natural leader of this entire team, not just the offense. He has become the face of this program."
Boyd should be well protected in 2013 as the Tigers return four starters in the offensive line. The Clemson program has averaged nine wins a year over the last 30 years when it has at least four starters returning up front on offense.
Cole Stoudt was Boyd's backup last year and actually had a higher completion percentage (.692). He will be challenged for the backup spot by freshman Chad Kelly. Stoudt is the son of former Pittsburgh Steelers signal caller Cliff Stoudt, while Kelly is the nephew of former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly.
The offensive line must replace four-year starting center Dalton Freeman, a first-team All-American by the Football Writers Association, a second-team Academic All-American last year and a two-time finalist for the Rimington Award. While Freeman and his leadership qualities are a major loss, the return of four starters on the offensive line does bring optimism.
"We are finally reaching the point where we have some depth in the offensive line. We have four starters back, but the players behind them have some experience also. Competition is good at any position, but especially in the offensive line. We have 12 returning lettermen. It is the depth that we used to see from Clemson teams when Danny Ford was the coach (1979-89).
The four returning starters up front have 61 combined starts entering the 2013 season. Eight of the 12 returning lettermen have played at least 10 games.
Brandon Thomas was a first-team All-ACC left tackle last year and will be an All-America candidate as a senior. He played 987 snaps for Clemson's record setting offense last year, more than any other player on the Tigers team in 2012. For his career, the native of Spartanburg, SC and Dorman High School has 36 games played and almost 1,900 snaps of experience.
Joining Thomas at a starting tackle position is Gifford Timothy. In his first year as a starter, Timothy had 11 starts and played 820 snaps. Prior to last season, Swinney said there were some offensive linemen who had to step up if Clemson was to be successful and Timothy obviously was one of those key players who did. Timothy was named to the Academic All-ACC team last year.
The returning starting guards are Tyler Shatley and David Beasley. Entering last year, neither had started a game on the offensive line. Shatley played 939 snaps in the 13 games and started every game. Originally a fullback, then a defensive lineman, Shatley is one of the strongest players on the team and is the only active Tiger to letter on both side of the line of scrimmage over his career. He also was named to the Academic All-ACC team last year.
Beasley, a junior from Columbus, GA and Carver High School, played just 30 snaps prior to 2012. But, he made a big move in August practice and started 12 of the 13 games and played 764 plays on offense. He made his move in the season opener against Auburn when he played 89 snaps and had four knockdown blocks.
Ryan Norton is the odds on favorite to move into the starting center position. The native of Simpsonville, SC played 277 snaps last year in 12 games at the center and offensive guard positions. He was named the Offensive Rookie of the Year for the Clemson coaches. Clemson coaches are pleased with his versatility and athleticism. Freshman Jay Guillermo red-shirted last season after coming to Clemson as an ESPN 150 player out of high school.
Isaiah Battle is an interesting story. He came off the bench at tackle for Timothy in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against LSU and held his own against LSU's defensive ends, both of whom will go early in the NFL draft. He played 153 snaps for the season, but 73 of them came in the LSU game. He will compete for significant playing time at a tackle position in the off season. Shaq Anthony had two starts and 123 snaps of action last year as a red-shirt freshman.
Reid Webster is a versatile offensive lineman who has played 16 games the last two years, while Spencer Region is a former ESPN 150 player who played 61 snaps in five games at guard last year. Kalon Davis played 166 snaps at guard last year and has played 23 games over the last two years. Patrick DeStefano is a 6-5 offensive lineman from Spartanburg and will challenge to see action as a red-shirt freshman.
Clemson lost some outstanding receivers off of the 2012 team, led by Hopkins, who set nine records last year. The Tigers also must replace productive tight end Brandon Ford, who had 40 catches for 480 yards and a school tight end record tying eight touchdown catches, Jaron Brown is another starting receiver with over 1000 career receiving yards lost from last year who also had great leadership qualifies.
But, Clemson does have returning receivers who caught 147 passes for 1593 yards and 13 scores in 2012.
The wide receiver position is led by All-American Sammy Watkins, who has 139 receptions for 1927 yards and 15 touchdowns over his first two years. He joins former Tigers Derrick Hamilton and DeAndre Hopkins as the only players in ACC history to catch at least 50 passes as a freshman and as a sophomore.
While Watkins did not have the production of his freshman year on a total basis, he still averaged 5.7 receptions and 71 yards per game, just below his 5.9 catches and 87 yards a game of his freshman year.
Adam Humphries is the second leading returning receiver off a 41-catch season as a sophomore. He will also see action as a punt returner. Charone Peake returns after grabbing 25 passes for 172 yards, while Martavis Bryant is a big play performer who averaged 30.5 yards a catch on 10 receptions last year. That average was best in the nation among receivers with at least 10 receptions last year.
Sam Cooper is an improving tight end who caught 10 passes for 93 yards and two scores last year, while Stanton Seckinger is another returning letterman who will be in the mix at tight end. Darrell Smith is a reliable senior who is a hybrid fullback/tight end who is also a big contributor on special teams. J.J. McCullough red-shirted last season and also will be a factor at tight end.
Swinney must replace three-year starter Andre Ellington as the primary running back. Ellington finished his career with 3,436 yards, fourth best in school history. He also accounted for 33 rushing touchdowns, third best in school history, and averaged 5.4 yards per rushing attempt, sixth best.
Ellington rushed for 1081 yards in 2012 and his production will be hard to replace. But, the Tigers do have 10 of the top 11 rushers returning from an offense that averaged 191 yards per game on the ground.
The leading returning rusher is actually Boyd, who had 514 yards and scored a team best 10 touchdowns. But, among the running backs, Rod McDowell leads the way with 450 yards on 83 attempts, a strong 5.4 average. He also scored five times. D.J. Howard is another experienced letterman who had 138 yards and a couple of scores during an injury plagued season. Zac Brooks, a true freshman in 2012, returns after getting 119 yards last year.
Clemson showed improvement on defense last year under first year coordinator Brent Venables. The Tigers finished third in the ACC in scoring defense, second in conference games. The Tigers were also first in the ACC in red-zone defense and first in fourth-down defense.
The leading returning tackler on Clemson's defense for 2013 will be senior linebacker Spencer Shuey. The native of Charlotte, NC had just 17 tackles over the first five games of the 2012 season, then had seven in just 24 snaps in the win over Georgia Tech. His spirited play that included a tackle for a safety, got the attention of the Clemson coaches and he made his first career start the following week against Virginia Tech.
He turned in a 15- tackle performance against the Hokies that included 2.5 tackles for loss, a major reason Clemson defeated future Hall of Fame coach Frank Beamer's team 38-17. That was the first of three straight double figure tackle games for Shuey and four in a five-game period. He finished the season with 93 tackles, just two short of the total accumulated by leading tackler Tig Willard, who played 181 more snaps over the course of the season.
Stephone Anthony is another returning leader at the linebacker position. The junior had 77 tackles in just 459 snaps, an average of a tackle every six plays. Anthony, also a native of North Carolina (Polkton), had four double digit tackle games last year, including the game at Florida State.
Another returning linebacker with significant experience is Quandon Christian. The quick senior started seven games last year and had 40 tackles in 447 plays. He was a big factor in midseason wins over Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech with 14 combined tackles.
Other returning lettermen at linebacker include Tony Steward and B.J. Goodson. Steward has fought off injuries his first couple of seasons, but has been productive when called upon. He had 26 tackles last year, including 12 that were special teams stops, most on the team. He averaged a tackle every 5.2 plays on defensive scrimmage plays. Goodson had four tackles as a special teams player a year ago.
A player who will definitely be in the mix at linebacker is Kellen Jones, a 6-1, 220-pound sophomore who will be eligible in 2013 after transferring from Oklahoma. He had some strong performances in preseason scrimmages last year. Justin Parker red-shirted last year due to injury and returns to the linebacker position with considerable experience.
Clemson's first line of defense returns starters Corey Crawford, Josh Watson and Grady Jarrett. Backups Vic Beasley, DeShawn Williams, D.J. Reader and Tavaris Barnes also give Clemson some depth across the front.
Crawford started all 13 games at defensive end in 2012 and had 47 tackles, including six tackles for loss. A junior in 2013, Crawford had eight tackles in the win over Virginia Tech and six in the win over NC State, big wins in Clemson's drive to tie for the Atlantic Division title.
Watson might have led the defensive tackles in big plays last year. The junior had 54 tackles, most among the returning defensive linemen, 12 quarterback pressures, and a blocked kick last year.
Jarrett was named the most valuable player of the Clemson defense in 2012, quite an honor for a sophomore. He had a strong finish to the season with four tackles, including a sack in the win over LSU and had 8.5 tackles for loss for the season, most among returning Clemson defensive players.
Williams, the son of former Clemson All-ACC running back Ronald Williams, had 50 tackles in five starts and played 370 snaps in 2012. He played one of his best games against Georgia Tech when he had seven tackles. Reader, also a baseball player at Clemson, was among the most productive players on defense with 40 tackles in just 236 snaps, a tackle every 5.9 plays.
Vic Beasley was the surprise of the Clemson defense last year with a team best eight sacks in just 288 plays of action. Three of those sacks came in the win over NC State and quarterback Mike Glennon. Barnes had 24 tackles a year ago as a defensive tackle and end.
Clemson's secondary will be led by returning starter Travis Blanks. The native of Tallahassee, FL played outside linebacker and as a fifth defensive back much of last year. He figures to play safety in 2013. Blanks had 51 tackles to rank eighth on the team in 2012. He made eight starts, including the Florida State game when he made a season high eight tackles in front of his hometown fans.
Bashaud Breeland and Garry Peters are two more returning secondary players who had significant experience last year. Breeland played in 10 games and started five before missing the last two games with an injury. He had 32 tackles for the season. Peters saw more playing time in the second half of the season and finished with 20 tackles and eight passes broken up, including two important deflections in the win over LSU.
Darius Robinson started six of the first seven games a year ago before missing the final six with an injury. He had 13 tackles, an interception and two passes broken up over the first half of the year. Robert Smith is a returning letterman at safety who had 14 tackles in 13 games a year ago.
Martin Jenkins played 25 games over the 2010 and 2011 seasons, including three as a starter and he returns off an injury red-shirt season as well. He was a key contributor in the secondary to Clemson's 2011 ACC Championship team.
All-America candidate Chandler Catanzaro leads Clemson's special teams. The senior from Greenville, SC made 18-19 field goals last year, fourth in the nation in field goal percentage. He owns 10 Clemson records overall and is coming off a season in which he led Clemson's record scoring team with 111 points.
Catanzaro made 5-6 outside 40 yards last year and has made 20-27 for his career from that distance. He needs just four field goals of 40 yards or more in 2013 to break all-time great Chris Gardocki's Clemson record for made field goals of 40 yards or more.
Catanzaro has been a clutch kicker as well. In 2011 he made a 43-yard field goal on the last play of the game to beat Wake Forest and clinch a spot in the ACC Championship game. Last year he made a 37-yard field goal on the last play of the game to beat LSU 25-24.
Clemson must replace Spencer Benton, the Swiss Army Knife of the Clemson special teams a year ago. Benton punted, kicked off and served as the holder on placements last year. He even kicked a 61-yard field goal against Ball State to set the ACC record.
But, Clemson does have a kicker with experience in two of those three areas. Bradley Pinion had nine punts last year for a 39.4 average, including a net figure of 38.8, two yards better than Benton. Pinion also had 26 kickoffs, 18 of which went for touchbacks.
As far as the return game is concerned, Sammy Watkins will be a leader there. Watkins averaged 20 yards per return last year and has a 23-yard average for his career. Adam Humphries is a returning starter in terms of punt returns.