Tigers ready for title defense

Dabo Swinney has Clemson in uncharted waters. For the first-time in over 20 years, the Tigers will defend the ACC title.

The addition of a brand new offensive coordinator, first-year starter at quarterback and host of talented freshmen had Clemson fans buzzing before play began in 2011.

But who could have imagined the fashion in which things transpired last fall?

Now, about 365 days later, the annual late-summer excitement is mixed with a level of expectation that hasn't been seen around Clemson in a couple of decades.

The Tigers open preseason camp on Friday, Aug. 3 and begin their preparation for the Sept. 1 season opener in the Georgia Dome.

Here's a look at the top storylines heading into camp:

When exactly do we get word on Sammy Watkins?

Watkins was arrested in the first week of May when he was pulled over by a campus police officer. The All-American was charged with two misdemeanors: possession of a controlled substance and simple possession of marijuana. Nearly three months since the arrest, Dabo Swinney has yet to announce a punishment.

Swinney gave Watkins a set of criteria to meet throughout the summer, to help determine the length of his punishment during the season. How Watkins is able to handle those requirements will determine the length of his suspension.

Before the start of his annual summer camp, Swinney said that Watkins would miss game time. At the ACC Kickoff in Greensboro, Swinney said the length of Watkins' suspension will be announced after camp opens on Friday.

Plenty of folks are anxiously waiting to hear what it is.

Thomas could move to left guard if one of the freshmen tackles is ready to play.

How will things shake out at tackle?

It would appear that the Clemson offensive coaching staff is comfortable with making Brandon Thomas as the protector of Tajh Boyd's blindside. Thomas has come a long way over the last couple of years. After spending a year or so in Swinney's doghouse, Thomas has emerged as a leader.

In a perfect world, Thomas would slide inside to left guard. That would mean either Shaq Anthony and/or Isaiah Battle are ready to hold down the fort at left tackle. Probably a safe bet that neither of the freshmen will be ready to start against Auburn. But that's not to say one won't be ready at some point this fall.

The bigger question: what happens at right tackle?

Gifford Timothy exited the spring as the No. 1. Joe Gore, who began his career with a knee injury at defensive end, has been praised by the coaching staff for his athleticism and upside. Timothy is the steady performer that offers little surprises with his play on the field.

Timothy played a handful of snaps last season as a redshirt freshman. Gore is a redshirt freshman. Whoever it is will be inexperienced.

Can the defense make any improvements?

The regular season performance by last season's defense left little to be desired. It was easily the worst season by a Clemson defense in the three-year run under Kevin Steele.

In Steele's first two seasons at Clemson, the Tigers finished no worse than 27th in the country in any of the four major statistical categories [pass efficiency defense, total defense, scoring defense and pass defense].

Clemson was 74th in pass efficiency defense, 71st in total defense 81st in scoring defense and 50th in pass defense in 2011. The 70-point drubbing by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl certainly didn't help matters.

Out went Steele, in came Brent Venables.

The coordinator change will also bring about a change in philosophy. Steele is strictly a press-man kind of guy. Venables incorporates a number of zone coverage looks.

Gone with Steele are the top three players from last year's team. Defensive linemen Andre Branch and Brandon Thompson are playing for the Jaguars and Bengals, respectively. Cornerback Coty Sensabaugh is with the Titans.

Returning players believe the system under Venables is easier to grasp, mainly because the verbiage in the calls is simpler.

Who's the No. 2?

Kelly was ranked as a three-star prospect by Scout.com.
Tajh Boyd is the starting quarterback. Andre Ellington is No. 1 at running back. That much we know. Things start to get murky after that.

The battle for Boyd's backup is likely a two-way race. Cole Stoudt, last season's No. 2, will battle freshman Chad Kelly. Kelly, who was targeted by Chad Morris last winter, brings a dual-threat dynamic that no other Clemson quarterback has. Stoudt's sophomore season could be in question because of a recent flair up from a previous leg injury.

Running back No. 2 would have been Mike Bellamy had he not been ruled academically ineligible after the spring semester. D.J. Howard and Roderick McDowell each have a handful of carries. Then, there's freshman Zac Brooks.

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