College football preview: Breaking down Clemson's depth chart

Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd runs near Clemson running back Andre Ellington. Clemson holds their first day of practice August 3, 2012.

Photo by Ken Ruinard

Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd runs near Clemson running back Andre Ellington. Clemson holds their first day of practice August 3, 2012.

INSIDE THE TIGERS

Coach: Dabo Swinney (29-19, 20-11 ACC in 3-plus seasons).

Returning starters: 5 offense, 8 defense

Key returnees: QB Tajh Boyd, RB Andre Ellington, WR Sammy Watkins, WR DeAndre Hopkins, C Dalton Freeman, DE Malliciah Goodman, S Rashard Hall, LB Stephone Anthony.

2011 season: 10-4 overall, 7-2 ACC (including 38-10 win over Virginia Tech in ACC Championship Game)

2011 bowl game: Lost 70-33 to West Virginia in Orange Bowl

COVER 3

1. Hold the line

With only senior center Dalton Freeman and junior left tackle Brandon Thomas returning from a sometimes-shaky line, the Tigers’ offensive line was already a concern. But projected starting right tackle Gifford Timothy’s torn meniscus — which could keep him out of the starting lineup against Auburn — only exacerbates the problem. Sophomore left guard Kalon Davis hasn’t been impressive, and redshirt freshman Ryan Norton could supplant him against AU.

2. Quick adjustment

Brent Venables’ simpler, zone-based, react-first system should eliminate some of the confusion bred by Kevin Steele’s complex pro-style system. And having three returning starting linebackers will help the transition as well. However, it remains to be seen just how quickly those changes will translate into results. Clemson has two major tests in the first month against Auburn and, two weeks later, at Florida State.

3. Super sophomores

With only 24 juniors and seniors on scholarship, this season will ride heavily on a talented sophomore class. Wideout Sammy Watkins is a known quantity, but defensive linemen like Corey Crawford, DeShawn Williams, Grady Jarrett and Josh Watson must step forward, as must linebacker Stephone Anthony and wideouts Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant.

DEPTH CHART BREAKDOWN

QUARTERBACKS

(10) Tajh Boyd

(8) Cole Stoudt

(11) Chad Kelly

(15) Morgan Roberts

The Scoop:

Boyd had a breakout sophomore season, setting program records for total offense, completions, passing yards and touchdowns, as well as an ACC record for touchdown responsibility (combined passing and rushing scores). He faltered down the stretch, throwing nine touchdowns and nine interceptions in his final six games after a 24-3 ratio in Clemson’s 8-0 start. He worked extensively this offseason on decision-making and also got in better shape (he’s down to 220 pounds after weighing as much as 235 by season’s end). Behind him, Kelly, Stoudt and Roberts are waging a spirited battle for the backup spot. Kelly has impressed coaches with his arm and knowledge of the offense, but Dabo Swinney made it clear he won’t burn his redshirt for a handful of snaps. Stoudt won the Boston College game in relief after Boyd left with a hip injury.

RUNNING BACKS

(23) Andre Ellington

(22) D.J. Howard

(25) Rod McDowell

(24) Zac Brooks

The Scoop:

Mike Bellamy’s departure for academic reasons leaves the backfield thin. Ellington is an electric talent who rushed for over 1,200 yards and 11 scores last season, all while battling through hamstring and ankle injuries. He was projected as a third-round pick in the NFL draft, but chose to return to build a more complete, healthier resume as a pass-catching back. Howard showed promise as a power back in 2011, but must cut down on crucial fumbles. McDowell is a steady backup who has impressed coaches this month with big plays. Brooks has the ability to line up in the slot and catch passes, but he’ll begin as more of a depth back while he picks up Chad Morris’ offense.

RECEIVERS

Wide receiver

(6) DeAndre Hopkins

(1) Martavis Bryant

Wide receiver

(18) Jaron Brown

(19) Charone Peake

Wide receiver

(2) Sammy Watkins

(16) Adam Humphries

Tight end

(80) Brandon Ford

(86) Sam Cooper

The Scoop:

This might be the strongest overall unit on the Tigers’ roster. Watkins had one of the best freshman seasons ever by a college receiver, setting ACC freshman records for catches, touchdowns and receiving yardage, winning consensus national freshman of the year honors and becoming the fourth true freshman ever to be named a first-team AP All-American. He smashed Hopkins’ Clemson freshman records; Hopkins built on the year with 72 receptions for 978 yards and seven scores. Brown is a steady force who always seems to make big catches over the middle and in clutch situations. Peake and Bryant both struggled with consistency as freshmen, but both have deep-threat ability and are a year more mature; they’ll both be counted upon while Watkins serves a two-game suspension following his May drug arrest. Humphries must fill the void as well; Morris thinks he can double his freshman numbers (15 receptions, 130 yards).

Ford faces a tall task in replacing John Mackey Award winner Dwayne Allen, but the converted receiver impressed last fall with 14 receptions for 166 yards and two scores. Cooper and junior Darrell Smith will also see time behind Ford, but the ‘X’ factor could be redshirt freshman Stanton Seckinger, a converted receiver who has flashed pass-catching ability and profiles as a difficult matchup.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Left tackle

(63) Brandon Thomas

(79) Isaiah Battle

Left guard

(68) David Beasley

(67) Kalon Davis

Center

(55) Dalton Freeman

(58) Ryan Norton

Right guard

(62) Tyler Shatley

(77) Reid Webster

Right tackle

(76) Shaq Anthony

(73) Joe Gore

The Scoop:

This group, meanwhile, is the roster’s biggest question mark. A line that struggled last fall in short-yardage situations lost starters in tackles Phillip Price and Landon Walker and guard Antoine McClain, as well as experienced backups in Mason Cloy and David Smith.

Freeman, a finalist for the Rimington Award, given to the nation’s top center, will anchor the line; he’s capable of playing all five positions. Thomas was passable at left guard last fall, but struggled at tackle; he has improved his blocking and leadership this spring, although it remains to be seen how he’ll respond in pressure situations.

Beasley has shown toughness, displacing Davis (the starter entering preseason). Shatley quickly picked up the offense after moving across the line from defensive tackle; he has become a leader and was a starter from day 1 of spring practice. Projected starter Gifford Timothy is not expected to start against Auburn following August knee surgery; Anthony has shown improved focus, but he’s an unknown quantity.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Defensive end

(97) Malliciah Goodman

(6) Tavaris Barnes

Nose guard

(50) Grady Jarrett

(92) Roderick Byers

Defensive tackle

(99) DeShawn Williams

(91) Josh Watson

Defensive end

(93) Corey Crawford

(3) Vic Beasley

The Scoop:

Goodman is the only returning starter from a talented, physical line that sent three starters to NFL camps, with two draft picks in end Andre Branch and defensive tackle Brandon Thompson. He has been challenged to improve his physical conditioning, as well as his pass rush skills, musts for a line that doesn’t have another upperclassman. Jarrett, Watson and Williams call themselves the “Three Horsemen” and figure to rotate freely at both tackle spots; Crawford is a talented pass rusher but is being pushed hard by Beasley, an athletic former linebacker who has found a home at rush end. True freshmen Carlos Watkins and D.J. Reader both have road-grader bodies and should figure for significant playing time; junior Tavaris Barnes began preseason at tackle but is an athletic force who will provide nice depth at end.

LINEBACKER

“Sam” linebacker

(34) Quandon Christian

(11) Travis Blanks

(20) Lateek Townsend

Middle linebacker

(12) Stephone Anthony

(33) Spencer Shuey

“Will” linebacker

(46) Jonathan Willard

(42) Corico Wright

(7) Tony Steward

The Scoop:

Expect this group to take a major step forward in Brent Venables’ simpler, instinctive scheme. Venables is confident in Anthony, a former five-star signee who improved as the season went on last fall, installing him as the starter in his first meeting. He is athletic and projects as an excellent sideline-to-sideline force, but faces a learning curve as the defense’s quarterback, making changes at the line of scrimmage. Wright (formerly Corico Hawkins) moved outside and has conducted a spirited battle with fellow senior Willard; both are tenacious tacklers who can improve their overall athleticism. Steward is recovering from his second ACL surgery in as many seasons; he was also a five-star signee with immense athletic potential. Christian was a disappointment last fall at “Sam”; he and Blanks will serve as hybrid linebacker/defensive backs when Venables uses a 4-2-5 scheme. Christian now weighs 228 pounds (up 10 pounds from a year ago), and can cover tight ends and wideouts; Blanks is a versatile cover man who flashed quickness and work ethic in the spring. Townsend is an excellent pass rusher who still must improve his defensive knowledge.

SECONDARY

Cornerback

(21) Darius Robinson

(26) Garry Peters

Strong safety

(5) Jonathan Meeks

(31) Rashard Hall

Free safety

(31) Rashard Hall

(9) Xavier Brewer

Cornerback

(17) Bashaud Breeland

(29) Cortez Davis

The Scoop:

This group took its lumps last season, but should be improved by virtue of experience; outside of Breeland, it’ll be all upperclassmen starting. Hall was Clemson’s leading tackler on a knee that required offseason microfracture surgery; he is now healthy and has been an active force this month. Meeks was a disappointment as a junior, but worked to improve his mobility and flexibility and is determined to have a standout final season. Brewer shifted between cornerback and safety last season, and could do so again this fall, providing versatility and solid pass coverage. Both Breeland and Robinson struggled at times in their first season as starters, but both possess solid speed and coverage ability. Breeland could also fit in at safety or nickel back if necessary.

SPECIALISTS

Kicker

(39) Chandler Catanzaro

(36) Ammon Lakip

Punter

(13) Spencer Benton

(92) Bradley Pinion

Kick returner

(2) Sammy Watkins

(1) Martavis Bryant

Punt returner

(6) DeAndre Hopkins

(2) Sammy Watkins

The Scoop:

Catanzaro bounced back from an up-and-down freshman season to become a second-team All-ACC selection last fall, making 22 of 27 field goals, including a game-winner against Wake Forest that clinched the ACC Atlantic Division. Lakip is talented, but is coming off a broken toe suffered while playing soccer. Benton and Pinion are battling for the spot vacated by steady Dawson Zimmerman; Benton, the Tigers’ kickoff specialist, had two punts last season, but Pinion is regarded as one of the nation’s top punter recruits and possesses a massive leg. Watkins was electric as a kick returner last fall; his 89-yard return fueled a 56-45 comeback win at Maryland. Hopkins and Bryant are capable of making plays while he serves his suspension. Andre Ellington could also factor in here.

© 2012 OrangeAndWhite.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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