Life without Tajh & Sammy: Tigers move into new era without brightest stars

Swinney on Watkins: 'It will be a short conversation, real short conversation, if he's going to talk to me'

Clemson's Dabo Swinney and  Tajh Boyd hug after a 40-35 Orange Bowl win over Ohio State at the Discover Orange Bowl in Sun Life Stadium Miami, Florida.

Photo by Ken Ruinard

Clemson's Dabo Swinney and Tajh Boyd hug after a 40-35 Orange Bowl win over Ohio State at the Discover Orange Bowl in Sun Life Stadium Miami, Florida.

It's difficult to think of Clemson's future without Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, but the program's two most recognizable players sure left a lasting impression during their Orange Bowl swan song.

One of the nation's most thrilling and productive pitch and catch duos over their three seasons together went out with a bang in Friday's 40-35 thriller over Ohio State, producing the sort of elite stats that have become synonymous with their performances.

Watkins hasn't officially announced he's leaving early for the NFL (a press conference is scheduled for Tuesday), but his decision appears a foregone conclusion. He said postgame that he would talk to his coaches and parents upon arrival back in Clemson.

“It will be a short conversation, real short conversation, if he's going to talk to me,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.

Watkins was named MVP after smashing Orange Bowl records for receptions and yardage in just three quarters before finishing with 16 for 227 yards and two touchdowns. Boyd totaled a record 505 total yards and six touchdowns in completing 31 of 40 for 378 yards and five touchdowns while rushing 20 times for 127 yards and another score.

“To see (Boyd) finish his career with an exclamation point like he did and leave as the winningest quarterback in the history of our school, there's not a more deserving guy out there and he did it in three years as our starter,” Swinney said. “He's special. He set the standard for every quarterback to come through Clemson. He's got every record in the book at Clemson and a bunch in the ACC. He's done it with class, he's done it with great integrity and character.

“He set the standard for not only how you play the position, but how you represent the program. He put an exclamation on his legacy (Friday).”

The lone quarterback keeping Boyd from other Orange Bowl records was ironically the same one who had a big hand in embarrassing the Tigers at the same event in 2012 when West Virginia's Geno Smith (now starting for the N.Y. Jets) orchestrated a 70-33 mauling of the Tigers.

“During that season we were a very young team. We had won games, but we didn't understand success and what came with it,” Boyd said. “For us, it was all about the transitioning and continuing to move forward year in and year out. You see the accumulation of it in what we are now, just a driven team who knows how to win games in the clutch when we give ourselves a chance.”

Watkins entered as Clemson's all-time leader in receiving yardage and Friday evening passed Aaron Kelly for tops in receptions and tied DeAndre Hopkins with his 27th career touchdown catch.

“The offensive line and the coaches put me in the best situation to make plays,” Watkins said. “I'm definitely blessed with great coaches and a great quarterback for the past three years. It's not all about me, it's definitely the offense that coach (Chad) Morris is running. It's an honor to break all those records, but its great definitely do it with the team and having success with the team.”

With Boyd and Watkins making their exits, just exactly what the Tigers roster will look like next season remains up in the air with several key juniors on both sides not readily making their future plans public following Friday's victory.

Defensive end Vic Beasley and receiver Martavis Bryant no doubt increased their NFL stock with outstanding performances. Bryant only caught three balls, but two were flashy catches in the end zone that emphasized his athletic ability while Beasley was his regular beastly self with four of Clemson's 10 tackles for loss while getting all up in the business of OSU quarterback Braxton Miller.

Both players said they would announce a decision sometime in the upcoming days with each expected to make the early NFL jump. Linebacker Stephone Anthony, who had a team-high eight tackles, and cornerback Bashaud Breeland, who contributed a huge sack, are also on the NFL radar with both statuses unknown. Defensive end Corey Crawford told the Charleston Post & Courier he is definitely returning. Reports Saturday also said OSU's Miller was coming back to school while star defender Ryan Shazier was leaving early.

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TigerNE writes:

I feel so much better that we've reloaded well on offense, with a great 3 way QB competition coming up and with a wider range of WRs and RBs than we've had recently. Not sure if any one of them will stand out as well as Boyd and Watkins, but the depth is pretty terrific.

But I worry somewhat about the defense. Losing guys like Shuey and Anthony and probably Beasley at the same time without clear stars to immediately fill their slots concerns me. I have a ton of faith that Venables has guys in mind and will push and develop them. Who they are just isn't obvious yet. And we still have key guys like Jarrett, Crawford, Reader and Lawson. Hoping it doesn't take a few games to really settle out some of the key players. We need to start out the season beating UGA again after another spectacular bowl win.

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