Five questions for 2012

With a 10-3 season and an ACC Championship in the books, what's in store for Clemson football in 2012?

5. How high will Clemson's 2012 recruiting class finish?
Dabo Swinney made an interesting point in one of his final press conferences of the regular season when he debunked a myth about Clemson's recruiting efforts over the years.

He said, "How many top 10 recruiting classes have we signed here recently? One? Two? None?"


Clemson could finish with its highest recruiting ranking ever in 2012. (Scout.com)
The fact is Clemson has never finished ranked among Scout.com's top 10 recruiting classes. In 2008 it was close at No. 11, and again last year at the same spot, but never in the top 10.

Oh sure, ESPN ranked the 2008 class No. 2 in the nation, which we maintained wasn't anywhere close to being accurate and that proved to be the case. But never have the Tigers finished in the top 10 - perhaps until this year.

Currently Clemson is No. 7 in Scout.com's rankings with 20 verbal commitments, and the possibility of acquiring four more prospects under the right circumstances - including four-star DE Jonathan Bullard.

There's nothing like starting the new year with a bang, and this staff is poised to do exactly that come signing day - for the second straight year.

4. Who turns pro?
The three main candidates are center Dalton Freeman, running back Andre Ellington and tight end Dwayne Allen.

If all three were to leave Clemson, it would create more holes than we'd care to mention in an article like this.


Dwayne Allen is likely headed to the NFL after the upcoming Orange Bowl. (Roy Philpott)
Fortunately, it appears that likely won't happen.

Allen, who is widely considered to be the top tight end available in this year's draft and a likely first-round pick, should head to the NFL. It makes sense, and unless he feels like he simply isn't ready to enter the adult world, he's gone.

Ellington, who figured to be a lock to leave after this year had he stayed healthy - didn't. While he closed the season strong, he doesn't have the kind of momentum needed to establish himself as a high-round pick. Our hunch is he's likely headed back to Clemson for his senior year.

Freeman should also be back, although he would likely leave if he was projected as a first-round pick. At this point, even though he's one of six finalists for the Remmington Award honoring the nation's top center, that doesn't seem likely.

Freeman, like Ellington should be back.

3. Who blocks next season?
It's a simple question that truly does not have an answer as of this writing. While Clemson will return virtually all of its skill players next year, minus Dwayne Allen, the offensive line is a major question as the Tigers will lose senior starters Phillip Price (LT), Landon Walker (RT) and Antoine McClain (RG), as well as reserves David Smith (LG) and Mason Cloy (C).


Kalon Davis is just one of several young offensive linemen who must step up in 2012. (Roy Philpott)
Ouch.

Assuming Freeman comes back at center, that leaves just two starters on the offensive line (Brandon Thomas) from this year's team in 2012, and virtually no reserves with significant playing time. That means career third-teamers such as Giff Timothy, Kalon Davis, David Beasley and Reid Webster have to be ready.

If not, the staff will have to look in the direction of even younger players such as Joe Gore or Spencer Region.

While players like Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins will grace the covers of preseason magazines, the real success for Clemson football in 2012 could very well rest on the shoulders of players who haven't come close to cracking Clemson's two-deep depth chart the last two years.

To suggest it would be an important offseason for Clemson's offensive line would be a gross understatement.

2. Who tackles?
Another simple question with answers we simply don't know at this writing. The good news is virtually every significant contributor in the back seven will be back in 2012. The bad news is three of Clemson's four starting defensive lineman are gone.


Is Corey Crawford the next Andre Branch? (Roy Philpott)
That means Kevin Steele has to find replacements for two of Clemson's key playmakers next season in DT Brandon Thompson and DE Andre Branch.

Steele will also look to find additional help at linebacker as well. That means more playing time for Stephone Anthony, a healthy return for Tony Steward, and perhaps more playing time for Lateek Townsend.

There will also be immediate help on the way in the secondary in the form of cornerback Travis Blanks. Redshirt freshman Cortez Davis will also get a strong look as well, among others.

But the real concern is at the line of scrimmage. Can Tyler Shatley and Deshawn Williams hold down Clemson's interior line? Is Corey Crawford ready for significant playing in place of Branch? Is there another first-year player who could rise up that we aren't even thinking about right now?

These are just some of the questions we'll be posing before spring practice and preseason camp.

1. Can this team be better?
2012 will be unique in the sense there will be no more wondering about Clemson "taking the next step," or "getting over the hump." After all, the Tigers won 10 games this year and also claimed their first ACC Championship in 20 years as well.


How much better will Tajh Boyd be in 2012? (Roy Philpott)
Finally, the goals set forth by Tommy Bowden back in 1999 were accomplished.

What's next?

Well, the schedule may get a little easier next year, but not much - especially with road trips to Florida State and Wake Forest, not to mention opening the season with Auburn in the Georgia Dome and hosting Viginia Tech and South Carolina.

Still, Clemson would likely be favored in every game it plays minus a road trip to Florida State and possibly at home against South Carolina.

And Clemson will get back key playmakers in Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Nuke Hopkins, likely Andre Ellington, plus up-and-comers Martavis Bryant, Charon Peake and another talented recruiting class that includes prospects Germone Hopper and Zac Brooks.

Can Boyd be better? Will he become a better runner? And what about Sammy Watkins - what could he possibly do for an encore after a freshman year that blew everybody's already unrealistic expectations out of the water?

Given the state of the ACC, the expectation will naturally focus on Clemson winning the league in back-to-back seasons.

Increasing the 10 wins seen in 2011 will be tough, but there's little doubt this team will have the opportunity for big things once again in 2012.

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