CLEMSON — The break is almost over. Wednesday, Clemson players join their fellow students and return to classes for the beginning of the spring semester. Their academic slates are clean, and a new cycle of training and work towards the 2012 season starts, too.
On the field, however, final grades are just rolling in.
The Tigers’ 70-33 Orange Bowl thumping at West Virginia’s hands ended an up-and-down 10-4 season which saw big-time milestones (the program’s first ACC title since 1991 and first 10-win season since 1990) and big-time letdowns (a third consecutive loss to South Carolina and a 2-4 finish, capped by the Orange Bowl embarrassment).
This is as good a time as any to give the Tigers their final grades for 2011, position-by-position:
Quarterback: For a guy whose starting position was seriously challenged leaving spring practice and entering preseason drills, Tajh Boyd had an incredible first full season as a starter. Boyd threw for 33 touchdowns and 3,828 yards against 12 interceptions, and was a first-team All-ACC selection.
He developed into a team leader and was a natural fit in Chad Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense, throwing precision passes to a talented receiver corps. Ball security was an issue, especially late in the season. Nine of Boyd’s 12 interceptions came in the four losses, and back-to-back second quarter turnovers changed the complexions of the N.C. State defeat as well as the Orange Bowl. Backup Cole Stoudt was capable in limited duty, especially after Boyd left the Boston College game with a hip injury.
Running backs: Andre Ellington finally showed what he could do over the course of a full season, and it still felt like a little bit of a tease. Despite being hampered for much of the season with hamstring and ankle injuries (missing the Georgia Tech game), Ellington rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 scores, showing explosive speed and moves. His 68-yard touchdown run for the Orange Bowl’s first score showed exactly what he could do. He is considering a jump to the NFL, but most observers expect him to return for his senior season. Behind him, the backfield depth is thin. Five-star recruit Mike Bellamy had a 75-yard touchdown on his first career carry, but had serious attitude issues that wound up with him being sent home from the ACC title game and indefinitely suspended; he’ll have an opportunity (probably a last chance) to work his way back onto the team this month. Behind him, D.J. Howard and little-used Rod McDowell are the only other returning scholarship backs. Howard showed promise, averaging 5.6 yards per carry in backup duty.
Offensive line: Expected to be one of the offense’s strengths with four returning starters, this group had its ups and downs. Former walk-on Phillip Price emerged as a senior to become a very capable and tough left tackle, fighting through a right knee injury sustained in mid-November that eventually knocked him out of the ACC title game and Orange Bowl. Junior Dalton Freeman became one of the nation’s top centers and a finalist for the Rimington Award, and durable right tackle Landon Walker finished his career with more snaps than anyone in Clemson history. However, guard play was an issue, as was depth. Sophomore Brandon Thomas and senior Antoine McClain were both inconsistent starters, and senior backups Mason Cloy and David Smith both fought through injuries all season. With three starters gone, the line will be the offense’s biggest question mark entering spring, especially since a host of youngsters failed to distinguish themselves in reserve roles. Pass-blocking was a plus, but run-blocking – especially in short-yardage – was a big issue.
Wide receivers: At this point, what more can be said about Sammy Watkins? College football’s national freshman of the year was a revelation from the opening seconds of the season-opening win against Troy, scoring his first career touchdown quicker than any Clemson player ever had. He finished with 82 receptions for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns, the best season ever by a CU receiver. If not for the NFL draft rules, he’d likely be preparing for a pro career right now. Meanwhile, DeAndre Hopkins – the guy whose freshman records Watkins smashed – built on a great freshman season with 72 receptions for 978 yards and five scores. Jaron Brown is a solid third-down and possession receiver, and freshman Adam Humphries avoided a redshirt and showed toughness in important situations. Fellow freshmen Martavis Bryant and Charone Peake both showed flashes of why they were so highly-thought of, but both were somewhat inconsistent.
Tight ends: Dwayne Allen channeled his prodigious talent into the best season a Clemson tight end has ever had – 50 receptions for 598 yards and five scores, all CU single-season records. He was a consensus All-America and winner of the John Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end, and has declared for the NFL draft, where he’ll be a potential first-round selection. Converted tight end Brandon Ford showed promise in his first full season as a tight end, with 14 receptions for 166 yards and two touchdowns; he’ll be the No.1 tight end with Allen’s departure.
Defensive line: On a defense which was, by far, the worst of Kevin Steele’s three-year tenure, this group was a highlight. Defensive end Andre Branch completed his rise from virtually unrecruited player to future first-round selection with a virtuoso senior season, dominating Virginia Tech twice. Senior defensive tackles Rennie Moore and Brandon Thompson were both solid run-stuffers, with Thompson a projected first-round pick, per ESPN. All three players finished their eligibility in the Orange Bowl, leaving solid-if-unspectacular junior defensive end Malliciah Goodman as the only returning starter. Freshmen Corey Crawford and D.W. Daniel product DeShawn Williams made strong bids for more playing time at season’s end, and reserve Tyler Shatley figures to get the first long look at the other DT opening beside Williams.
Linebackers: When he was hired three years ago, Steele’s specialty was billed as coaching and developing linebackers, but he’s struggled to develop impact players here. Clemson’s starters were all solid, but never seemed to make game-changing plays and struggled at times with tackling in space. Middle linebacker Corico Hawkins had a good junior season, with 97 tackles, 5.5 for loss, but expect him to be pushed by five-star freshman Stephone Anthony, who improved as the season went on. Jonathan “Tig” Willard had 75 tackles, and Quandon Christian added 48 tackles but was often off the field in pass coverage. Highly-touted freshman Tony Steward tore his ACL and didn’t make an impact, and Justin Parker couldn’t get on the field, save in special teams. Three years in, Steele still has yet to build depth here.
Defensive backs: Here is one area where the NFL exodus really mattered. 2010 starting cornerbacks Marcus Gilchrist and Byron Maxwell both spent the season on NFL rosters, and All-America safety DeAndre McDaniel signed a free agent contract before failing to latch on with a team. Without them, Clemson struggled to defend spread offenses. Coty Sensabaugh developed into a shutdown cornerback as a senior, but Bashaud Breeland and Xavier Brewer both suffered through some growing pains. Jonathan Meeks was a disappointment in his first full season as a starter, and Martin Jenkins and Garry Peters looked like young defensive backs.
A year of seasoning should make a difference next fall, but this group struggled.
Special teams: One of the more pleasant surprises of this fall. Chandler Catanzaro shook off a rough debut season to become a second-team All-ACC kicker, nailing a last-second field goal that beat Wake Forest and clinched the Atlantic Division. Punter Dawson Zimmerman was first-class on and off the field, finishing a solid career; replacing him will be a big spring storyline. And Watkins added punch to the kick return game; his 89-yard touchdown return at Maryland was a game-changer. After so many years of key special-teams mistakes, Danny Pearman’s first year as special teams coordinator was a good one.
Overall: What will fans remember from this season? The ACC title-game rout of Virginia Tech or the highly-disappointing Orange Bowl rout at West Virginia’s hands? This year had some spectacular moments (the two wins over the Hokies, beating Wake Forest at the gun to win the Atlantic Division, ending Auburn’s nation-long winning streak) but also some head-scratchers (the no-show defeat at N.C. State, the Orange Bowl, a third consecutive loss to South Carolina).
Swinney will want fans to remember the good times, but he must note that the down times (an average margin of defeat of 24 points) mean strides must be made, both on defense and in overall mentality, to take the next step forward.