Tigers hit home stretch

Coming out of a bye week, it's hard to ever really know what to expect out of a football team.

Did the break come at a good time and re-energize the players? Or will the time off hurt the team and kill any momentum it had going into the break?

The coaches use the week to re-evaluate their personnel and go forward with any changes that need to be made to help the team improve as it returns to the field. At the same time, the players try to heal up any bumps and bruises and get ready for the stretch run.

Those factors are especially true when the bye week comes in the middle of the season and splits the season in half. That's what the Clemson players and coaches have been working through this past week as they prepare for what they hope will be a strong second half.

So looking ahead, here's what we can expect to see out of the Tigers the rest of the season.

SAMMY BACK IN SHAPE: Sammy Watkins' first half has been nothing like his dynamic freshman season because he has been slowed first by a two-game suspension and then by an illness/injury that caused him to miss another game.

And while Watkins has been solid when he has been in the lineup, he hasn't been the game-changer that he was last year. The bye week came at a perfect time for him, and it should help him get back into game shape and get ready for the second half of the season.

The offense will need him to return to the level he played at last year. Watkins has one touchdown so far, and that score came on a running play. The Tigers have gotten production out of other players, for sure, but they will need much more from Watkins to get where they want to go with this season.

His deep threat opens things up for everyone in the offense, and that will be important moving forward.

MORE DYNAMIC DUO: The main player to step in and fill some of Watkins' go-to role from last year is DeAndre Hopkins. He has been the best player on the offense, coming up with big catches in key situations to keep drives going and get the offense into the end zone.

Hopkins' play has been so strong that he is making a case to be the ACC Player of the Year. That was an award many had reserved for Watkins, but Hopkins is the one who has stepped into the spotlight and is coming up with the key plays when the offense needs them. Even if Watkins does get back into the swing of things and starts making those same kind of plays, that won't slow down Hopkins; he has worked too hard to get to this point. In fact, it will just enhance what Hopkins is doing and make the offense even more dangerous.

The other part of the dynamic duo has been quarterback Tajh Boyd, who is having another tremendous season. Boyd played at a high level for the first half of last season before struggling in the second half of that season. He has stepped up his play even more this season, taking on an important leadership role, as well, and there is no reason to believe Boyd's play will drop off in the final six regular-season games.

Boyd has a lot of weapons at his disposal, and he continues to grow in his knowledge of how to use them. He will take that knowledge to another level the rest of this season.

GOING TO THE GROUND: Running back Andre Ellington had a strong outing in the season opener against Auburn, and the Tigers do have solid rushing numbers so far, but the running game can be better. And it should be coming out of the bye week.

Ellington has stayed healthy this season, something that has been an issue in his career, and he looks ready to have a breakout second half. He looks explosive in the backfield when he gets the ball in his hands, and he has improved his pass catching skills, as well, to add another dimension to his game.

Ellington has gotten plenty of help from improved play by the offensive line this season, but that should only get better. The line had plenty of questions coming into the season, but that group has performed well as it continues to grow as a cohesive unit. The knowledge of each other and working together will help the linemen improve and open more holes for Ellington.

DEFENSIVE GROWTH: Clemson's defense certainly can use some growth after an inconsistent, at best, first half.

But there have been steps forward the past two weeks as the Tigers' unit showed some life in the second half of wins over Boston College and Georgia Tech. That will continue as the young defensive group keeps growing together and improving while it does.

That starts up front, which has seen a good amount of growth for an extremely young group. The Tigers' defensive linemen will continue to push forward and improve, and they will need to because strong play by the line is key to any defensive unit's success.

The linebackers need to keep getting better at grasping first-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables' system. That will be important, as will better play from the secondary.

That unit isn't as young as the line or linebackers, but the players in the secondary have to tackle better and cut down on blown assignments and the big plays that come with them. That's the only way this defense will improve.

STRONG AT HOME: Coming out of the break, the Tigers have an important game at home against Virginia Tech, which should be a confidence boost for the team because it has played so well at home in recent seasons.

After that game, there are road games against Wake Forest and Duke – two games the Tigers should be able to win if they keep their focus. And then the closing stretch – against Maryland, N.C. State and South Carolina – is all at home. Those three teams gave Clemson trouble last year – N.C. State and South Carolina both whipped the Tigers, and Maryland put up a heck of a fight -- but all of those games were on the road.

It should be different this year with the games being played at Death Valley. The Tigers are 23-4 at home under head coach Dabo Swinney, and they have won their past 10 games at home. Having four of their final six games at home should be a big bonus for the Tigers and lead to big things the rest of the way.

Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter @DM_Shirley

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