Clemson QB Deshaun Watson (above) is one of the top players in the country heading into the 2016 season.
Coming off a 14-1 season and pushing Alabama to the limit before falling in the national championship game, the Clemson Tigers return one of the most talented offensive units in the country but must replace a load of talent off defense for Coach Dabo Swinney.
With injuries hampering an already inexperienced defensive line, early in the season Clemson will lean on what should be one of the nation's most dynamic offensive units.
Leading the way for an offense that has eight All-ACC selections is a returning All-American and Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, junior Deshaun Watson. Completing 333-491 passes a year ago for 4,104 yards and 35 touchdowns with 13 interceptions, the 6-3, 215 junior would be a challenge for the Auburn defense because of his arm alone, but that’s just part of what he brings to the table at the position.
Also a very capable runner in Clemson’s spread attack, he ran for an additional 1,105 yards and 12 touchdowns to key an offense that averaged 514.5 yards and 38.5 points per game. Watson is the only quarterback in FBS history to throw for more than 4,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 yards in the same season.
Auburn senior defensive back Josh Holsey said because of what Watson can do with his legs they are counting on the pass rush to help the secondary with their jobs on Saturday night.
“With a great rush that kind of helps us to not have to cover for seven or eight seconds,” Holsey said. “If it does happen you just have to continue to play and when he scrambles you have to stay with your man and if you’re in zone you have to find somebody to plaster to so he doesn’t have an easy throw down the field while he’s scrambling. That’s probably when he’s at his best, when he’s outside of the pocket.”
Watson is far from the only weapon for the Clemson offense with running back Wayne Gallman (6-0, 210, RJr.) also a very capable runner. Coming off a season in which he ran for 1,527 yards and scored 13 touchdowns, Gallman is a perfect complement to Watson’s dynamic dynamic play because he is a grinder that usually finds a way to get positive yardage.
Wayne Gallman is a serious running threat for Clemson.
The wide receiver group for Clemson is among the best in the country with Artavis Scott (5-10, 190, Jr.) returning following his 93 receptions a season ago for 901 yards and six touchdowns. Florida natives Deon Cain (6-1, 210) and Ray-Ray McCloud (5-10, 180) showed plenty of promise a season ago with 63 combined receptions and along with 5-11, 180 Hunter Renfrow (33-492-5 TDs) that would be plenty of weapons for Watson to use, but Clemson also gets back Mike Williams and that takes the group from dangerous to downright loaded.
A second-team All-ACC selection in 2014 with 57 catches for 1,030 yards, the 6-3, 225 Williams missed all of last season with a neck injury but is back and full speed heading into this fall. Throw in second-team All-American and 6-5, 260 tight end Jordan Leggett (40-525-8 TDs) and it’s an embarrassment of riches for the Clemson offense.
Up front Clemson returns three starters and is anchored by center Jay Guillermo (6-3, 310). The three-time ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week a year ago, he joins forces with freshman All-American tackle Mitch Hyatt (6-5, 295) to give the visiting Tigers a solid unit up front.
Defensively, Clemson returns just four starters from a unit that statistically was one of the best in college football a season ago. The leader of the group is senior linebacker Ben Boulware (6-0, 235, Sr.), an old-school player that is physical and athletic. Finishing with 138 tackles, three and a half sacks, eight tackles for losses and a team-high 23 quarterback pressures, Boulware’s ability to get to the quarterback should help out a young but talented defensive line.
No matter the names, Lashlee said you always know what to expect when you face Brent Venables and the Clemson defense.
“It's a very aggressive, attacking-style defense,” Lashlee said. “That's Coach Venables. You can tell that's his personality. His personality carries over to his defense and good teams, whether it be on offenses or defenses, they carry the personalities of their coaches. They force a lot of negative plays. Whether it be sacks, turnovers, they're a very disruptive bunch.
“From their front, the way they pressure, the way they cover, they're in your face and they're not scared to get up and press and they're not scared to bring the safeties down tight. They're going to be aggressive and force the issue. Knowing that's their style, you know they're going to have a lot of confidence.”
Ben Boulware is a physical linebacker.
With All-American Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd both gone from last season at defensive end Clemson was counting on sophomore Austin Bryant to give them some production, but a foot injury suffered in the preseason has him out for the opener. That likely means a move for 6-4, 310 Christian Wilkins outside, but it’s something he can handle.
One of the top prep players in the country two years ago, Wilkins made 84 tackles a season ago and earned freshman All-American honors. His move outside is made possible because of a wealth of talent already at the tackle position led by returning starters Carlos Watkins and Scott Pagano. An All-ACC pick, the 6-3, 305 Watkins made 69 stops a season ago while Pagano (6-3, 295) is known as a run stopper. Throw in talented sophomores Jabril Robinson (6-2, 265) and Albert Huggins (6-3, 305) along with massive true freshman Dexter Lawrence (6-5, 340) and you have a Clemson defensive line that is still one of the most talented in the country.
In the secondary Clemson loses three talented players in Mackensie Alexander, Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green, but returns third-team All-ACC cornerback Cordrea Tankersley and his five interceptions. Finishing with 51 tackles, the 6-1, 200 Tankersley defended 16 passes a season ago and should be a player to watch in the opener. Marcus Edmond (6-0, 175) missed a few weeks with a hamstring issue in fall camp, putting Mark Fields (5-10, 180, So.) and Ryan Carter as the co-starters opposite Tankersley. Jadar Johnson (6-0, 210, Sr.) is expected to work in at the safety position along with Van Smith (5-11, 195, So.). A name to watch is Trayvon Mullen (6-2, 185), who comes to Clemson as one of the top defensive backs in the country out of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Another freshman expected to contribute is linebacker Tre Lamar, a player Auburn recruited out of Roswell, Ga. last year.
Greg Huegel returns after connecting on 27-32 field goals a season ago and scoring 138 total points. Punter Andy Teasdall (5-11, 190) doesn’t have a huge leg, averaging just 39.5 yards per punt, but downed 23 of his 67 total attempts inside the opponent’s 20-yard last last year.