CLEMSON — Two weeks into the 2012 season, Clemson fans, coaches and players have good reason to be excited. With an exceedingly young roster, the Tigers have rolled up 500-plus yards of total offense in each of their first two games, and figure to be 3-0 (no offense to Furman) in a potential top-10 showdown at Florida State Sept. 22.
They’ve done so with a young, shuffled offensive line, a young defensive line and without Sammy Watkins, who will return from a two-game suspension this week.
While we’ll learn plenty about the Tigers in Tallahassee, what we’ve seen so far gives reason to be excited.
Here are five things I learned from Clemson’s name-your-score 52-27 blowout of Ball State:
1. DeAndre Hopkins is an elite wide receiver: Despite setting Clemson freshman records for catches, receptions and touchdowns in 2010, Hopkins was overshadowed by the supernova that is Sammy Watkins last fall. He improved, but Watkins’ suspension has given Hopkins room to shine. Saturday, he played 30 minutes but still tied a Clemson single-game record with three touchdowns. On the third score, quarterback Tajh Boyd said Hopkins was “posting up” like an NBA center; he simply out-jumped a Ball State cornerback for the ball. When he’ll arrive in the NFL is unclear, but he clearly has a future in the league. Until then, Clemson fans should enjoy him.
2. The offensive line has some depth: Saturday, the Tigers’ line played without starting right tackle Gifford Timothy, who missed the game with lingering knee soreness from an August knee surgery. Starting left guard David Beasley left the game in the first half with a knee injury which is not believed to be serious. Clemson shuffled in its entire second-string line midway through the second quarter but still rolled up 526 yards of total offense, marking the first time since 1980 that the Tigers have had 500-plus yards of offense in the season’s first two games. While it must continue to protect Tajh Boyd, the first two games are a positive sign.
3. The run defense has issues: Entering the season, a defensive tackle rotation that featured three sophomores and two freshmen was reason for concern. It remains so. Ball State has two talented backs in Horactio Banks and Jahwan Edwards, but the Cardinals rolling up 252 yards rushing will get plenty of attention from the rest of Clemson’s schedule. Edwards’ 54-yard touchdown run was as much on safety Xavier Brewer’s poor tackling angle as it was the defensive line, but sophomore defensive tackle DeShawn Williams felt BSU picked up on Auburn’s runs to the edge which were so effective inside the Georgia Dome. That’s a problem.
4. Spencer Benton has a leg: Dabo Swinney says Benton’s problem isn’t leg strength. It’s just knowing where it’s going. He has held off freshman Bradley Pinion at punter, and has emerged as Clemson’s long-range field goal kicker. Saturday, he showed off that leg, booting an ACC-record 61-yard field goal that cleared the crossbar with a yard or two to spare. Benton contributes as a punter and kickoff man as well. Some scoff at using scholarships on specialists, but Benton shows they can be valuable.
5. Sept. 22 is going to be a big night: We’re not in the WestZone, so it’s OK to look past Furman, fresh off a triple-overtime loss to Coastal Carolina, and towards Sept. 22’s trip to Florida State. ESPN analyst Lee Corso said Saturday that the popular College GameDay program is likely to be in Tallahassee for what could be a matchup of top-10 teams (Clemson moved up to No.11 in both national polls Sunday). FSU was the overwhelming ACC preseason favorite, and the first two weeks have shown that the teams are the class of the Atlantic Division, if not the entire league. Eight games will remain after Clemson leaves Doak Campbell Stadium, but the game will set the tone for the rest of 2012.