Today’s featured team: Clemson Tigers
Clemson enters 2012′s spring practice with the harsh, yet thrilling reality of inflated expectations. And why shouldn’t they? Sure, the Orange Bowl loss stung. But look at all the good that came from 2011: the schools’ best football season in 20 years, their first conference title in 20 years, three wins over ranked opponents… just to name a few of the accomplishments under head coach Dabo Swinney. Most of all, the team discovered the types of weapons it has at its disposal on offense. Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and Andre Ellington were all stellar last season, and all are projected to improve this season, too. Yet it all starts here in spring. For Boyd, he’ll look to improve upon his accuracy and decision-making under pressure (below average in 2011), while Ellington’s likely to gain more involvement in the passing game. As for Watkins — one of the most dangerously fast men in football — he’s actually demanding to take on punt return duties as well. When someone leads the conference in all-purpose yards as a freshman, are you honestly going to doubt him? The other key for the offense will be quickly developing camaraderie on line tasked with protecting Boyd and their season. The less Boyd is flushed out of the pocket, the more effective he’ll be as the year wears on — the central cog in Clemson’s offense continuing to be as explosive as it was for most of 2011. On defense, former Oklahoma D-coordinator Brent Venables comes to town to fix a team that allowed nearly 30 points per game, including 70 to West Virginia in January. For the past 13 seasons, the coach has run some impressive Sooners defenses, and by all accounts, he’s looking to institute the same pride and tenacity for the Tigers. He’ll need to do so without standout Andre Branch, however. The senior departed with his 77 tackles and 10.5 sacks from last season in hand, and they won’t be easy to replace. There are options, though. Rising junior linebacker Corico Hawkins racked up 97 tackles of his own in 2011, and safety Rashard Hall had 86 for a secondary that was plenty busy from blown assignments from the front seven. Among other returning contributors are also upperclassmen Jonathan Meeks (safety) and Jonathan Willard (linebacker). None of these players are awful — they’ve proven that during their best moments at Clemson. But after the Orange Bowl debacle, they must all start from scratch under Venables. Fundamentals will be the starting point, as this unit will never get better without fixing the shoddy (at best) tackling employed during 2011. If the players buy in (and they should, if any of them would like to be drafted after graduation), Clemson goes from dangerous, to scary pretty quickly.
As stated above, Clemson’s spring really boils down to correcting persistent mistakes, and fine-tuning what’s worked in the past (on offense, at least). While the offense shouldn’t have too much trouble getting to where they need to be by the end of spring practices, the defense has a long, uphill battle ahead. Nothing about Venables says he’s willing to accept laziness, so prepare for the inevitable stories about physical and mental exhaustion coming out of that camp at some point in the next couple months.
Previously: Boston College
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