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OVERVIEW: Clemson's offense will switch to a no-huddle, hurry-up scheme under new coordinator Chad Morris, who replaced the fired Billy Napier after the Tigers ranked 10th in the ACC last season in points (24.0) and yards (334.6) per game. Morris, a longtime high school coach, has only one year of college experience, as Tulsa's coordinator last season. But he did a heck of a job: The Golden Hurricane ranked fifth in the nation in total offense (505.6) and sixth in scoring (41.4) while going 10-3 and winning the Hawaii Bowl.
BACKFIELD: Clemson's success depends on how well first-year starting QB Tajh Boyd adapts to Morris' scheme. Boyd won raves this spring for his ability to run this offense, but he needs to prove he can do it in the fall. Boyd, a former Rivals100 prospect, backed up Kyle Parker last season and led a fourth-quarter comeback in the Meineke Car Care Bowl that came up just short. Although he isn't listed as a returning starter because a toe injury knocked him out for the second half of the 2010 season, TB Andre Ellington is a legitimate All-ACC candidate. Ellington rushed for 686 yards and 10 touchdowns on 118 carries last season. Clemson traditionally has relied on two running backs to share the load, so sophomore Roderick McDowell, redshirt freshman Demont Buice or true freshman Mike Bellamy could get plenty of carries. Bellamy was the No. 25 overall prospect in the 2011 recruiting class.
RECEIVERS: The Tigers feature plenty of youth at this position. Clemson's top returning receiver is DeAndre Hopkins, who caught 52 passes for 637 yards and four touchdowns as a true freshman last season. Junior Jaron Brown (32 catches, 405 yards, three TDs) also returns. But don't be surprised if true freshmen Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant and Charone Peake make immediate impacts. Watkins - like Bellamy, an all-state player in Florida - was the No. 15 overall prospect in the 2011 recruiting class. Peake was ranked 83rd and Bryant also is a four-star recruit. The veteran of this group is junior TE Dwayne Allen, a second-team All-ACC selection last season.
LINE: Experience won't be a problem. Junior C Dalton Freeman, senior G Antoine McClain, senior G David Smith and senior T Landon Walker are returning starters. The Tigers also return junior C/G Mason Cloy, who started two games last season and has made 19 career starts overall. The lone new starter is at left tackle, where senior Phillip Price exited spring practice atop the depth chart. But the biggest new face is on the sideline, as former Vanderbilt interim coach Robbie Caldwell takes over as Clemson's line coach.
OVERVIEW: Clemson could have a tough time replacing Nagurski Trophy winner DaQuan Bowers at end and All-America SS DeAndre McDaniel. Coordinator Kevin Steele has built Clemson's defense into one of the ACC's best since arriving in 2009. Clemson traditionally runs a 4-3 defense, but the Tigers plan to show more 3-4 looks than usual this season.
LINE: The Tigers simply aren't going to replace the production of Bowers, who led the nation with 15.5 sacks last season. But they do believe they have a quality pass rusher in senior Andre Branch. He had five sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss last season. Senior NT Brandon Thompson is a third-year starter who had 40 tackles (6.5 for loss) a year ago. His return should assure that Clemson has a quality run defense. New starters are junior E Malliciah Goodman and senior T Rennie Moore.
LINEBACKERS: This area has been a major weakness for Clemson's defense under Steele, and the Tigers could need immediate contributions from some highly touted true freshmen. Returning starters are junior Corico Hawkins and sophomore Quandon Christian. Hawkins is Clemson's top returning tackler after making 73 stops last season, including 10 for loss; he arguably is the only linebacker who has locked up a starting job this season. Christian started seven games and delivered 23 tackles last season. The other first-teamer at the end of spring practice was junior Jonathan Willard. Clemson's heralded 2011 recruiting class included two five-star linebackers: Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward, a third five-star prospect that the Tigers signed out of Florida. Both could end up playing immediately.
SECONDARY: Clemson must retool its secondary following the departures of McDaniel and CBs Marcus Gilchrist and Byron Maxwell. The Tigers do have a promising free safety in Rashard Hall, a junior who already has made 19 career starts. Junior CB Xavier Brewer had 54 tackles and eight pass breakups last season. Cornerback Coty Sensabaugh finally gets a chance to emerge as a full-time starter in his senior season. Sensabaugh made three starts last season. Junior Jonathan Meeks exited spring practice as the first-team strong safety.
Chandler Catanzaro returns as Clemson's kicker after going 14-of-22 on field-goal attempts last season, with a long of 48. Catanzaro was 6-of-9 from 40-49 yards. Senior P Dawson Zimmerman averaged 42.7 yards per attempt last season while helping Clemson rank 24th nationally in net punting. Clemson showed it could continue to have dangerous return men in the post-C.J. Spiller era last season by ranking 29th nationally in punt-return average and 39th in kickoff-return average. The Tigers also were 31st in kickoff coverage and 41st in punt coverage.
Clemson signed four five-star prospects shortly after completing a losing season, so the Tigers have plenty of freshmen who could play right away. The most logical candidate is Watkins. He caught 126 career passes for 2,965 yards and 36 touchdowns at South Fort Myers (Fla.) High. Clemson lacks dynamic receivers, so Watkins could step into the starting lineup. It also wouldn't come as a surprise if Anthony (the nation's No. 24 overall recruit) moves into the starting linebacker corps at some point in the season. And Bellamy could be splitting carries with Ellington by the end of the season.
Clemson should win its first two games, against Troy and FCS program Wofford at home, but the schedule gets downright brutal after that. The Tigers follow that up with back-to-back home games against defending national champion Auburn and defending ACC Atlantic winner Florida State. What's after Florida State? A trip to defending ACC champion Virginia Tech. In all, nine of Clemson's final 10 opponents played in bowls last season. The Tigers should enjoy playing their first four games at home, but they'll pay for it later when they have three of their last four games away from Death Valley, against Georgia Tech, North Carolina State and South Carolina.
It's tempting to say Clemson will be one of the nation's biggest surprises. If Boyd effectively adjusts to Morris' scheme, this offense could make major strides in a conference that hasn't seen many of these no-huddle, hurry-up attacks. Florida State could be ripe for the picking when it comes to Death Valley just a week after a highly anticipated game with Oklahoma. Steele's track record suggests the defense should remain solid even without Bowers in the fold. And you have to expect at least one of those four five-star prospects from the 2011 recruiting class to make a major impact right away. But a couple of factors make us wary about the Tigers' chances. First, we're not sold on Swinney as a coach. When Clemson's 2010 season went off the rails, he couldn't get the Tigers back on track. Reports circulated last season that Swinney started meddling with the offense as the Tigers struggled to move the ball under Napier. Will Swinney give Morris complete autonomy? Swinney undoubtedly is an outstanding recruiter, but how good a motivator and tactician is he once he gets these guys on campus? We're still not sure. And that schedule doesn't do Clemson any favors. Clemson faces each of the four teams that title games. And when you're adapting to a new offense, you don't want your first two ACC games to be against the best teams in the conference. Clemson has far too much talent to endure a second consecutive losing season, but the coaching issues and the schedule strength make it hard to predict anything better than a 7-5 finish.
For more on Clemson now and throughout the season, check out TigerIllustrated.com
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