CLEMSON — Virtually every coach says their team’s open week comes at an optimal time.
It could be in the second week of the season or second-to-last week of the season. Doesn’t matter: the open week comes at a time when their players can heal up and focus on the rest of the year.
In Clemson’s case, however, that sentiment actually rings true.
The Tigers enter their open week on a roll, following wins over Boston College and Georgia Tech. At 5-1, 2-1 in ACC play, they rank 16th in this week’s Associated Press top 25 and are in the conversation to win the ACC Atlantic Division and a second consecutive ACC title, should Florida State stumble somewhere in the season’s second half.
What’s more, this open date is positioned perfectly in the middle of the season, with six games down and six games to go. It’s an excellent time to examine what has gone well and what hasn’t for the Tigers as they prepare for 2012’s stretch run. Here’s a midseason position-by-position report card:
Quarterback: Junior Tajh Boyd regressed in the final six games of 2011, throwing nine touchdowns against nine interceptions. Following an offseason focused on studying film, footwork and awareness, he has authored an impressive first half, throwing 14 touchdowns against five interceptions while averaging 291 yards passing per game. He has also become a more effective runner, averaging 37.1 yards per game and becoming a force in short-yardage situations. Grade: A-
Tailback: A year ago, Andre Ellington rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns in 13 games, all while battling several nagging leg injuries. He’s healthy this fall and it shows; he’s averaging 99 yards rushing per game with six touchdowns, as well as a 52-yard rushing score. Assuming Clemson plays 13 games this season, he’s on track to rush for 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns. Pretty impressive. Backfield depth has been an issue, but junior Rod McDowell is improved; he rushed for 56 yards with two touchdowns against Georgia Tech. Grade: B+
Receivers: This summer, sophomore Sammy Watkins was the ACC’s preseason player of the year and a fringe Heisman candidate, despite beginning the season with a two-game suspension. Instead, Watkins has been superseded by junior DeAndre Hopkins, who has 777 yards and eight touchdowns on 49 receptions. He’s on pace to smash Watkins’ 2011 numbers (82 receptions, 1,219 yards, 12 TDs) as well as his own career highs (72 receptions, 978 yards, 5 TDs). Watkins has played in only three games with 16 receptions for 118 yards; he has a long touchdown run and touchdown pass, but isn’t in game shape yet. Adam Humphries (18 receptions, 144 yds) is a steady option, and senior Jaron Brown specializes in third down and over-the-middle grabs. Senior tight end Brandon Ford (20 receptions, 234 yards, 4 TDs) has been a more-than-capable replacement for John Mackey Award winner Dwayne Allen. Grade: A-
Offensive line: This was perhaps the roster’s biggest question mark entering the season, considering only two starters (senior center Dalton Freeman and junior left tackle Brandon Thomas) returned from 2011. Instead, it has been a pleasant surprise. Boyd has been sacked 10 times in six games, but the offense has flowed smoothly, averaging 525.8 yards per game (10th nationally) and 201.2 rushing yards (31st nationally). New starters David Beasley, Tyler Shatley and Gifford Timothy have been effective, and Boyd certainly seems more comfortable behind this athletic group. Grade: B+
Defensive line: With only one starter (senior end Malliciah Goodman) returning, this was also a question mark. Far fewer of those questions have been answered, though: the line has only four sacks in six games (two each from sophomores DeShawn Williams and Vic Beasley). Goodman has only 11 tackles, 2.5 for loss, and no sacks. Williams, Grady Jarrett and Josh Watson are showing signs of improvement, but they aren’t dominant every-down players yet. Grade: C
Linebackers: Want an indication of the talent level Brent Venables inherited from Kevin Steele? Senior Corico Wright spent the last two seasons as the starting middle linebacker, but has been reduced to a seldom-used reserve at “Will” linebacker behind senior Tig Willard, with 15 tackles in six games. Willard has been solid, with 41 tackles, 2.5 for loss, in five games. Sophomore middle linebacker Stephone Anthony has progressed, making 51 tackles in six games, but found himself yielding to junior Spencer Shuey in the second half against Georgia Tech; Shuey made a game-changing safety. Junior Quandon Christian has 25 tackles at “Sam” but has struggled at times; former five-star signee Tony Steward is still recovering from his second ACL tear in as many years. Grade: C
Defensive backs: With four experienced upperclassman starters (junior Darius Robinson and seniors Xavier Brewer, Rashard Hall and Jonathan Meeks) returning, the secondary was expected to provide a foundation. Instead, it has been more of a sieve: Robinson has been benched in favor of sophomore Garry Peters and Hall and Meeks have struggled with tackling and angles. Brewer and sophomore corner Bashaud Breeland have been the most effective members, while freshman Travis Blanks could eventually provide an answer at safety. However, there are precious few answers in pass or run coverage right now. Grade: D-
Specialists: A major liability two years ago, junior Chandler Catanzaro has made all 11 field goals, setting a program record for most consecutive made field goals. Senior punter Spencer Benton averages 38.7 yards per punt, but he and freshman Bradley Pinion have been inconsistent as kickoff specialists, combining for only 28 touchbacks in 46 attempts. Clemson kick returners are averaging 19.6 yards per return; college football’s new kick rules are having an effect. Grade: B-
Overall: With 62 freshman and sophomore scholarship players on the roster, this was expected to be a work in progress, albeit a talented one. It has been just that. The Tigers’ offense can score with anyone, while Venables’ defense (allowing 445 yards per game, 96th nationally) needs a talent infusion. With a little help, this season could easily find its way to Charlotte for the ACC title game, and that’s not a bad place to be two years in a row. Grade: B+