Clemson leaning on defense early until offense gets going
CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson’s ascent to a national title was fueled by a dynamic group of skill players on offense like quarterback Deshaun Watson and receiver Mike Williams. If the Tigers hope to climb that mountain again this season, it will likely be on the backs of talented defenders like linemen Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence.
“We’re ready for it,” said Wilkins, the charismatic leader of this year’s defense. “We know what we have to do.”
They might including holding down opponents’ scoring as Clemson breaks several new starters, including quarterback Kelly Bryant, receivers Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud and tailbacks C.J. Fuller and Tavien Feaster — all who had reserve roles last year on the way to the College Football Playoff championship.
The Tigers were staunch of defense last year, finishing eighth nationally. But they had a knack for giving up too many points (Clemson allowed 31 or more points in four of its final eight games) and waiting on Watson’s wizardry to bail them out. Even in the title game last January, Clemson gave up the go-ahead score to Alabama with 2:07 to play and needed the offense’s drive for the ages — Watson’s 2-yard TD to Hunter Renfrow came with a second left — for the 35-31 victory.
Clemson might not need a grace period for Bryant, Cain and the rest to get going. If it does, Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables hopes his crew is up to the task.
The sixth-year coordinator does not get caught up in the hype, especially when it comes to his own players. When he sees it happen on the field and in practice, Venables will be satisfied — but not before.
“I don’t listen to that, the d-line is going to be the best of the defense is going to be best,” Venables said. “I know what the 2014 team did (ending No. 1 overall). They proved it. I know what that looks like in my heart of hearts.”
If Clemson convinces Venables, it might get another playoff chance to defend last year’s title.
Here are some things to know about Clemson for the 2017 season:
QB1: Kelly Bryant, a dual-threat junior, has waited patiently behind Watson the past few years for his chance to take control. If some of the more vocal fans had their say, the job would slide to freshman Hunter Johnson, a 6-foot-4 pocket passer and five-star recruit from Indiana who enrolled in January to go through spring drills and get a crack at the starter’s job. For now, the job belongs to Bryant. But remember in 2014 that senior Cole Stoudt was named starter coming out of fall camp and within three weeks, Watson as a freshman had supplanted the older QB in the lineup.
OTHER OFFENSIVE SPOTS: Clemson seems to be better protected at spots like receiver and tailback. Cain and McCloud have seen considerable action their first two seasons and highly regarded wideouts Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers to the mix to overcome the loss of first-round NFL draft pick Williams and Artavis Scott, the school’s all-time receptions leader. At tailback, Fuller, Feaster and Adam Choice played several snaps the past two years and should fill the void of two-time 1,000-yard rusher Wayne Gallman.
NOT AS BIG DEX: Defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence weighed in a 337 pounds to start camp, 18 pounds lighter than he had been a few weeks earlier. It was work for Lawrence to trim down. An avowed lover of ice cream, Lawence stayed away from his favorite treat for long stretches of the summer lose the weight. The Tigers hope a trimmer Lawrence improves the sophomore’s production. He was second on the Tigers last year with seven sacks and fifth with 78 tackles.
RENFROW’S SUMMER: Few on Clemson have been in the spotlight more this summer than junior receiver Hunter Renfrow , who caught the national title-winning touchdown in Tampa, Florida eight months ago. The moment was captured by Sports Illustrated, who put Renfrow’s catch on its cover the next week. “I must have signed thousands of them,” Renfrow says.
ANOTHER SWINNEY: Clemson coach Dabo Swinney couldn’t help talking up one of his newest receivers, his oldest son Will who joined the team as a walk on. The elder Swinney was excited to have Will close by for a few more years. Plus, he’s glad his son is following the coach’s college path: Dabo was a walk-on receiver at Alabama until earning a scholarship his final year and played on the Crimson Tide’s 1992 championship team.
KEY GAMES: vs. Auburn, Sept. 9; at Louisville, Sept. 16; vs. Florida State, Nov. 11.
PREDICTION: If Clemson stays perfect in September, look for the Tigers to be in the playoff mix once more. It may take the new quarterbacks some time to figure things out. If that’s the case, the Tigers could win nine or 10 games and finish behind the Seminoles in the ACC Atlantic.
SEASON OPENER: Clemson opens at home against Kent State, Sept. 2.
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