|Quarterback Tajh Boyd :: Getty Images|
Clemson fans may be the only group in the nation that wants the general public to forget the Tigers played in a BCS game last year -- even though it was the first berth in school history. But despite an embarrassing 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl that saw the Mountaineers score 49 points in the first half, Tigers coach Dabo Swinney remains proud of what that young team accomplished in 2011.
"We hadn't been to a BCS bowl, we won the ACC for the first time in 20 years, we won 10 games for the first time in 20 years, and we set a school record for wins against ranked opponents," Swinney said. "And we did this with 42 freshmen on our roster. That's almost half of our team right there."
But make no mistake, Swinney doesn't want his team to get run around like that ever again. That's why he fired defensive coordinator Kevin Steele hours after the Orange Bowl and eventually hired the revered Brent Venables away from Oklahoma.
Despite a bit of a tumultuous offseason that included a drug arrest of superstar receiver Sammy Watkins (he will sit out the first two games of 2012) and the academic-induced departure of heralded running back Mike Bellamy, Clemson returns the core of its speedy offense that averaged 441 yards per game in 2011 and recorded the third-most total yards in ACC history.
That's not what fans and pundits are worried about.
The concern is on defense. That's why the Tigers added Venables, who was already one of the nation's top-paid assistants, to try and sew up a porous 2011 unit that allowed opponents to convert over 40 percent of their third downs and surrendered 14 pass plays of more than 40 yards.
"The big thing with us last year was giving up too many big plays and we didn't tackle very well," says Swinney. "Now those guys are a year older and a year more experienced. Some of what Brent has brought with him from Oklahoma will help us."
While the Tigers' defense was susceptible to the big play last year, Venables will likely coach up two budding young sophomore linebackers in Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward to try and cure those ills. Two former five-star recruits, Anthony and Steward joined Watkins and Bellamy in headlining the 2011 class, and now both are expected to anchor a unit that must improve if it hopes to even return to the BCS.
Unfortunately for Venables, he won't be able to ease his new players into a light Week 1 test; Clemson opens the season against the new-look Auburn in Atlanta on September 1.
Can new arrival Brent Venables, one of the highest-paid defensive coordinators in the country, improve the porous Clemson run defense and help take the Tigers back to the BCS?
283 -- First downs Clemson allowed last season, good for 11th in the ACC and 97th in the nation. The Tigers allowed a season-high 31 to West Virginia in their 70-33 Orange Bowl loss.
Andre Ellington, RB, Sr. -- A speedy complement to the Clemson offense, Ellington was overshadowed by Sammy Watkins' monster season. The speedster finished the season with 1,218 yards and 11 touchdowns, capped off by a blazing 68-yard TD sprint in the Orange Bowl. Ellington leads a deep crop of Clemson running backs that might be the best bunch in the ACC.
Sammy Watkins, WR, So. -- The decorated sophomore receiver was a first-team All-America as a true freshman, joining only Herschel Walker and Adrian Peterson as the only players to ever earn such a distinction. Unfortunately, Watkins will have to wait two games to improve on his burgeoning legacy. Coach Dabo Swinney suspended Watkins for the opening two games after he was booked for a drug arrest in the offseason. Watkins was truly sensational last season, earning widespread national recognition after finishing his freshman year with 82 receptions, 1219 yards and 12 receiving touchdowns, all Clemson records.
Rashard Hall, SS, Sr. -- It may be a bit disconcerting that Hall, the strong safety, finished last season as the team's leading tackler. But under new defensive coordinator Brent Venables, Hall should spend less time saving touchdowns and more time patrolling the secondary. Hall's presence is critical to improving a mediocre pass defense that allowed 407 yards and six touchdowns in the Orange Bowl.
Stephone Anthony, LB, So. -- Anthony was one of four five-star talents who signed with Clemson in 2011, and new defensive coordinator Brent Venables will be relying on the talented sophomore to anchor a young but potentially dominating linebacker corps. Anthony finished 2011 with 32 tackles, two sacks and four tackles for loss in inconsistent playing time; in 2012, he is the starting middle linebacker and will see almost every snap.
Isaiah Battle, OL, Fr. -- At 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, Battle is a "tough, physical, tremendous athlete" according to his offensive line coach, Robbie Caldwell, and is "going to be a giant one of these days," according to his head coach. Both coaches may want Battle to step in immediately; four players -- three freshmen and one sophomore -- are competing for the coveted starting right tackle position. With Battle's unusual athleticism and speed, the touted freshman may see more snaps than most of his fellow freshmen.
Now one of the most feared dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation, Tajh Boyd remembers playing almost every position before he ever took a ball under center. Youth coaches stuck him at safety, defensive end, running back, even left tackle, but Boyd didn't mind moving around. And he really liked running.
Around the seventh grade, Boyd developed a fascination with the quarterback position. So Tajh's father, Tim, bought a target for practice and plenty of tapes for his son to study. Week after week, the two dragged the target behind neighboring Bayside Middle School so Tajh could hurl balls at the target for hours while Tim could tinker with his footwork and throwing angles.
Now, Tajh Boyd has emerged as one of the best at both running and throwing. He was named first-team All-ACC as a sophomore and set a conference record for total touchdowns (38) in his first year as a starting quarterback. Boyd is the catalyst of a dizzying Clemson attack trying to improve on a record-setting 2011.
"He's going to be a great quarterback and he's only just beginning," head coach Dabo Swinney said. "He has a tremendous skill set for this position and is a great leader. Now, he needs to take the next step to become a disciplined quarterback and a consistent game-manager. Once he's consistent in that category, he's his only limitation. He has the drive to be one of the best that's ever played at Clemson."
Boyd was raised in Virginia Beach, Va., one of the most fertile territories for dual threat quarterbacks in the nation. Virginia Beach is the hometown of not just several great quarterbacks, but of some of the greatest athletes in recent U.S. history: Michael and Marcus Vick, Allen Iverson, Ronald Curry, Aaron Brooks and Tyrod Taylor. Boyd played his high school football over the water in Hampton, but Bayside Middle School once housed one of Boyd's chief ACC rivals and fellow Heisman Trophy hopeful: Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel.
Primed to join the elite lineage of Virginia Beach quarterbacks, Boyd lists Vick, Brooks and Taylor as his primary influences, right?
"Troy Smith was actually my favorite," Boyd said. "That's who I decided I'd model my game after."
A student of several quarterbacks, Boyd wanted to emulate Smith. Take a glimpse and their respective game film and the similarities are obvious. Nearly identical in size, the primary difference between Boyd and Smith is Clemson's frenzied offensive attack compared to the conservative "Tresselball" offense Ohio State ran during Smith's stint. But as players, Boyd and Smith are eerily similar. Both of them throw on the run well, both confuse defenses with well-executed disguises and both can maneuver a collapsing pocket and break off big runs in a pinch.
Now, Boyd intends to take the next steps that Smith took in his time at Ohio State: win the Heisman Trophy and get to the national title game. Despite helping lead Clemson to its first BCS game last season, Boyd hardly feels accomplished.
"I'm learning most about the leadership aspect now," Boyd said. "A quarterbacks' responsibility is to help and lead by any means necessary. It puts that much more edge to maintain a positive attitude. After one year, I have so much more of an appreciation of what goes into the struggle."
Boyd still has plenty to learn. After all, it's not as if he grew up playing the position.
SI: What was it like for the program to finally get over the hump and into a BCS game?
DS: In this world now, people want to talk about what you haven't done, but we got a lot of hurdles here last year. Absolutely, we wish we would have won our bowl game. But we don't apologize for winning the ACC last year. You hope you grow and learn from the success and failure that we had, but our guys got to experience being champions last year. That's a great, great step for our program and something these guys can build on.
SI: Is a season-opener against Auburn more exciting or just more stressful?
DS: To be honest, all the openers are exciting because you spend so much time preparing for that game and that opener. We're in the middle of camp right now, and you have the whole month of August to prepare, and you just get tired of going against one another. At some point, you are just trying to play somebody and find out where we are. It's always exciting regardless of who you play, but it's always stressful, too. You know that the opponent, just like us, had all summer to get ready for you. For us, opening with Auburn, it's a huge game for both sides on national TV, and they have a new offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator. You're just not really sure what they are going to do. The openers are always a game of adjustments.
SI: How important is the arrival of Brent Venables, and how do you think he will improve the defense?
DS: He's been awesome. He brings a ton of experience, knowledge and energy to the defense. It has been a smooth transition and he's been a great fit for our players, staff and Clemson. Hopefully we will be a defense that isn't going to make a lot of mistakes. Hopefully we will be a sound, consistent, attacking defense that tackles well and minimizes big plays and makes people have to earn things and go the distance.
SI: How many yards of a head start would you need to beat Andre Ellington in the 40-yard dash?
DS: Well, I'd need a pretty good start. He ran a 4.39 or 4.4 this summer, so he's a pretty fast guy. I'd need a bit of a downhill start and a bit of a head start to take him. But I think I could do it.