THE QB OF THE FUTURE IS HERE
A broken right index finger and a torn left ACL couldn't prevent the arrival of quarterback Deshaun Watson. Despite missing nearly seven full games with injuries, he threw for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman and looked every bit the five-star signee he was. Now healthy, Watson says, "I want to come back even better."
With the departure of offensive coordinator Chad Morris to SMU, Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott jointly take over a fast-paced unit that has just one starting lineman returning—center Ryan Norton—but plenty of talent: 6'4" junior wideout Mike Williams (57 catches for 1,030 yards), sophomore receiver Artavis Scott (76 catches, 965 yards) and sophomore running back Wayne Gallman (769 rushing yards in '14).
After leading the country in total defense last fall (4.0 yards per play), the Tigers have to replace All-America linemen Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett and two All-ACC picks, linebacker Stephone Anthony and corner Garry Peters. Still, coach Dabo Swinney says, the unit "is talented—maybe more talented." Junior ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd and senior tackle D.J. Reader lead a rebuilt front, with sophomore corner Mackensie Alexander heading up the secondary.
Clemson can work out the kinks against Wofford and Appalachian State before its season-defining stretch: a Thursday-night trip to Louisville (Sept. 17), followed by daunting home games against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. If the Tigers make it through mid-October unbeaten, a visit from Florida State (Nov. 7) will be the biggest obstacle in their quest for an ACC championship.
As a freshman All-America, Shaq Lawson had 35 tackles (10 for loss) and four sacks. He followed that up in 2014 with 44 tackles and 3½ sacks. Now, after a mass exodus of Tigers linemen, much more will be expected from the 6'3", 275-pound junior. Lawson's off to a good start: Dabo Swinney raved about his pass rushing during the spring.
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
Deshaun Watson is going to be the guy who makes the offense go. The added dimension he brings is his accuracy, especially down the field.... The key is keeping him healthy. They ask the quarterback to run, but how much risk are they willing to take? It might be one of those things where you see Watson run more in the red zone or in short-yardage situations, as opposed to general play.... The defense was really good and fun to watch. It was multiple, hard to block and athletic. Coordinator Brent Venables has done a great job.... I don't want to use the word rebuilding, but they lost some guys, and I'm not sure they'll be quite like they were last year. They don't have the experience, but do they have enough players to be a dominant defense in the ACC?
RAINIER EHRHARDT/AP (WATSON)
DOUG BUFFINGTON/ICON SPORTSWIRE/AP (LAWSON)