Even after losing a record-setting quarterback and receiver (cue James Earl Jones), “This ... is Clemson football.”
“We’re not going change what we do,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Monday at the ACC Kickoff. “From the naked eye, you’re not going to see much different at all.”
Entering his seventh season as coach, Swinney has returned Clemson to prominence with three seasons of at least 10 wins, bowl victories over LSU and Ohio State and back-to-back national top-10 finishes.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins were critical components in that run, but both are preparing to play on Sundays this fall. Clemson returns four offensive starters, and while the offensive line remains a work in progress Swinney’s biggest concern is whether kicker Ammon Lakip can approach the consistency and dependability of Chandler Catanzaro, the ACC’s No.2 all-time scorer.
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Senior Cole Stoudt replaces Boyd, and – theoretically – Watkins’ 101 catches will be split among a deep, experienced corps of receivers and tight ends with assistance from a precociously talented group of backs. Not only was Boyd a prolific passer, he was the team’s most dependable, short-yardage run threat. Swinney said they weren’t depending on Stoudt to fill that role.
“Cole can run. He’s probably faster than Tajh, to be honest with you,” he said. “He looks a little bit like Gumby kind of gangly.
“I don’t know that he’ll be our third-and-one specialist like Tajh Boyd was, but, hopefully, that’s not as much because he can’t do it as opposed to other weapons we may have in place.”
Though Stoudt won the job during spring practice, freshman Deshaun Watson will prepare to play each week. Starting at Georgia, offensive coordinator Chad Morris intends to give Watson enough experience to prepare him as next in line for succession. Swinney said he is unsure whether Watson will play for a series, or if there may be situations that would be more ideal for him.
“As we get closer to Georgia, we’ll have a better feel for that,” he said.
“He’s playing, 100 percent. There’ll be no redshirting of Deshaun,” he said. “Our plan is to play him early.”
Nonetheless, Watson’s high school experience as a four-year starter in a similar offensive scheme has stirred anticipation since he enrolled in January. Other than obvious adjustments to the speed and overall athleticism, Watson’s biggest adjustment has been learning Clemson’s terminology.
“He came out of the gates sprinting,” Swinney said. “He was 182 (pounds) when he got to Clemson in January, he’s 204 today.
“Has taken to it like a fish to water. Not a very big learning curve, because the mechanics of what we do he has been doing since he was 14 years old. It comes easy to him.”
Stoudt unselfishly embraced Watson and has taken a proactive role in preparing him for the future. Nothing but good can come from it, Swinney believes.
“He wants to go win the job, and Cole wants to keep the job,” he said. “At the end of the day everybody’s competitive.
“It should bring out the best in both of those guys.”
In a perfect world, Swinney said, Watson would play the entire season as Stoudt’s backup. “If everything went well and Cole plays at the level we expect him to, that would be great.
“Deshaun has the qualities to be a special football player. He will be,” he said. “Just like I knew Tajh was going to be a great player.
“I think Deshaun is way ahead of where Tajh was as a true freshman, and it’s not even close,” Swinney said, adding, “Cole earned the job, hands down, during the spring.
“I don’t have any doubt that Cole is more than ready to be the leader, and I think he’s going to play well.”