Clemson: Storylines to watch

Special to The StateAugust 3, 2012 

Coach Dabo Swinney says his team is on the verge of great things. The Tigers return an explosive offense with quarterback Tajh Boyd, wide receiver Sammy Watkins and running back Andre Ellington. New coordinator Brent Venables is retooling the defense before the opening game against Auburn on Sept. 1.

Clemson starts practice at 5:45 p.m. today. Five questions that must be answered in preseason drills:

DOES VENABLES TAKE SUGAR IN HIS TEA?

After losing to West Virginia by 37 points in the Orange Bowl, it was easy for Swinney to thank Kevin Steele for his service and cut him loose. Swinney’s decision to make the change was less about one game and more about what kind of coach he wanted running his defense.

Swinney, who could sell ice to Eskimos, persuaded Venables to leave one of college football’s storied programs. And Venables inherits a wealth of talent, much of it handpicked by Steele.

WHEN SAMMY CAN’T, DOES NUKE GO IT ALONE?

As a freshman, Watkins didn’t make many — if any — mistakes on the field, and was first-team All-America. In May, he was arrested for possession of marijuana and of a controlled substance during a traffic stop. Swinney will pronounce sentence shortly after the team reconvenes for practice. Watkins’ discipline could require him to miss a game or two at the top of the season.

Meanwhile, there are five returning receivers with excellent ball skills to pick up the slack, including junior Nuke Hopkins and two of Watkins’ classmates — Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant — who were ranked higher by some recruiting services.

ARE THERE ENOUGH WEAPONS OF MASS?

Once you cut through all the spin, it’s pretty simple. Senior center Dalton Freeman is the only offensive lineman returning to the same position, and end Malliciah Goodman is the only senior on the defensive line.

The offense has a little more seasoning with junior Brandon Thomas moving from left guard to left tackle, where he’ll serve as Boyd’s chief bodyguard, and sophomore Tyler Shatley from defensive tackle to offensive right guard. As many as seven freshmen and redshirt freshmen might compete for playing time.

Goodman needs to employ those long arms and massive hands to become an impact player much like Andre Branch before him. It requires help from 10 sophomores and freshmen or he’ll see a double-team on every snap.

DINNER WITH ANDRE AND THEM

Andre Ellington has been one of the most productive and periodically dynamic running backs in the ACC — when healthy, but it always seems to be something with Ellington.

Clemson took a significant hit when it lost Mike Bellamy to academics. Freshman Zac Brooks enrolled in January and went through spring practice, but he’s a different runner than Ellington or Bellamy.

Offensive coordinator Chad Morris thinks he has discovered a way to get Ellington into the line quicker, which should also aid Clemson’s young line.

WHAT DOES BOYD SING FOR AN ENCORE?

Tajh Boyd needs to be as good all season as he was the first eight games last year when he was named first-team all-conference.

To that end, he dropped some weight to become more mobile behind a retooled offensive line. Morris added a few wrinkles to the offense with the intent of keeping linebackers from crashing in. And Boyd spent much of the offseason studying film of those final six games in which he threw nine of 12 interceptions.

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