CLEMSON — We’re at the exact halfway point of Clemson’s 2012 season – six games down, six games to go – and the Tigers are in solid position. As players disperse for a little open-weekend fun, Clemson is 5-1 overall, 2-1 in ACC play and ranked No.16 in the Associated Press top 25 poll. It is an excellent time for a little reflection and thoughts about what lies ahead. Here’s a look at five players I’ll be watching closely over the second half of the season:
1. Sammy Watkins: The reigning national freshman of the year and Associated Press All-American set a boatload of records in his first collegiate season, including ACC freshman marks for receptions, receiving yardage and receiving touchdowns. He was the ACC preseason player of the year, but a two-game suspension and a scary internal illness that sidelined him for the Boston College game have Watkins’ stats far below expectations. He has 16 receptions for 118 yards and has yet to score his first receiving touchdown; he does have a 58-yard touchdown run and a 52-yard touchdown pass. Watkins has been a major focus for opposing defenders, and, as offensive coordinator Chad Morris has said, is still working himself into game shape, a function of the suspension compounded by the illness. As we saw last season, Watkins is too good to stay quiet for too long.
2. Travis Blanks: Blanks has been the best freshman defender – and perhaps one of the best defenders, period – in his first half-season on campus. He is smart, aggressive, athletic and generally knows where he is supposed to be at all times. Last week, he got his first start at safety against Georgia Tech following three starts at “Sam” linebacker, a hybrid position in its own right. It didn’t go particularly well, but that appears to be his long-term home. Given Rashard Hall and Jonathan Meeks’ struggles with tackling and angles, there are many who wouldn’t be opposed to seeing Blanks make the move permanent. Junior Quandon Christian is a capable “Sam” presence, and moving Blanks to safety would give the secondary some much-needed depth.
3. Rod McDowell: McDowell has been the forgotten man in Clemson’s backfield, surpassed by Andre Ellington, briefly eclipsed by the falling star that was Mike Bellamy, overshadowed by Zac Brooks and sharing backup time with D.J. Howard. Halfway through his junior season, though, McDowell is finally making an impact. He had perhaps the best game of his career against Georgia Tech, carrying nine times for 56 yards and two touchdowns while spelling Ellington, adding a 23-yard wheel-route pass reception. McDowell runs with toughness and speed and is solidifying his spot as the No.2 tailback behind Ellington.
4. Garry Peters: Thanks in part to a season-ending groin injury which has forced junior Martin Jenkins’ redshirt and junior Darius Robinson’s struggles, the Tigers’ secondary has been a grease fire, which opposing quarterbacks are more than happy to throw water on each week. Take Georgia Tech’s second drive last week: the Yellow Jackets are hardly a pass-happy bunch, but were more than ready to throw three times for 83 yards and a quick touchdown. Peters replaced the ineffective Robinson at Boston College and held his own, making his first career interception. He wasn’t tested much last week but will be plenty going forward. How he responds could play a big role in how much the Tigers’ beleaguered defense improves.
5. Malliciah Goodman: The senior defensive end was expected to have a major impact in his final season on campus. Too often, he has been missing in action, consumed and swallowed by opposing offensive linemen. In 279 snaps, Goodman has 11 tackles, no sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss. In his last 151 snaps – all against ACC foes – he has two tackles and no tackles for loss. In fact, he hasn’t had a tackle for loss since the season opener against Auburn. Sophomore Vic Beasley has six tackles, two sacks and two tackles for loss in 119 snaps; sophomore Tavaris Barnes has nine tackles and half a tackle for loss in 116 snaps. For the amount of time Goodman is spending on the field, he simply isn’t productive enough. That isn’t good enough for the defensive line’s only upperclassman.