Matt Connolly

Early on, Clemson looks deserving of high ranking

Tigers running back Wayne Gallman enters 2016 with high expectations after breaking Clemson’s single-season rushing record last year.
Tigers running back Wayne Gallman enters 2016 with high expectations after breaking Clemson’s single-season rushing record last year.

There’s only so much you can learn in less than a week of practice, but early returns say Clemson is worthy of its No. 2 ranking in the Coaches Poll, which was released last week.

What we’ve learned so far is if the Tigers stay healthy on offense, they should shatter school records.

Last season, star quarterback Deshaun Watson became the only quarterback in FBS history to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season, and he did that coming off a torn ACL injury.

After missing spring practice entering his freshman and sophomore seasons, he was finally healthy for an entire offseason this past spring and summer, and made the most of his opportunity to get better, adding 15 pounds of muscle.

Watson’s supporting cast should be better than last year. The Tigers’ leading receiver in 2014, Mike Williams, is back from a neck injury suffered in the opener last year, and he said he’s bigger, faster and stronger.

That appears to be the case. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder doesn’t look like he’s lost a step and will join preseason All-ACC selection Artavis Scott, as well as proven playmakers Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow, Trevion Thompson and Ray-Ray McCloud to make up Clemson’s deep receiving corps, which is arguably the best in the country.

Watson has more weapons at tight end in Jordan Leggett. The senior should become the most productive tight end in Clemson history by the end of the year.

Leggett isn’t the only playmaker at tight end, though. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has mentionedhe’s as excited about the tight end position as any on the team because of the depth the Tigers have there.

At running back, Clemson returns Wayne Gallman. All he did last season was set the single-season rushing record at Clemson, topping the 1,500-yard mark. Gallman will be joined in the backfield by perhaps the talk of camp thus far, former Spartanburg star Tavien Feaster.

The speedster’s name was brought up just about every time a coach or player was asked which young guy has been impressive over the past week. Unprovoked, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables took an opportunity to brag on the freshman when asked if any of his defensive ends were standing out so far.

“Not really,” Venables proclaimed. “But 28 on the other side... He’s really good.”

Speaking of Venables’ unit, the question marks at Clemson are without a doubt on defense, where the Tigers return only four starters. While Clemson will be young, there’s plenty of talent.

The biggest unknowns are at defensive end and in the secondary, but Venables likes what he’s seen from those groups.

“We’ve had a lot of energy out there and guys are flying around,” he said. “It’s a good group of guys. Even the young guys seem like they have a pretty decent understanding. It’s an intelligent group. They get football, and they like to compete, like to work.”

One of the few players on defense who’s moving into a new role as a starter, but who has received substantial playing time, is senior safety Jadar Johnson.

The Orangeburg native certainly doesn’t lack for confidence.

“It won’t be no drop off at all. I feel like the guys we have this year are just as good, if not better, than the guys we had last year,” he said.

Johnson tied for second on the team in interceptions in 2015 with two, despite playing a reserve role, but he feels he should’ve gotten more playing time last season.

“The snaps that I got were pretty good. I feel like I should’ve gotten more, but the snaps that I got I feel like that was enough experience for me to get out there and feel comfortable,” Johnson said.

“I feel like I was just as good as the starters were last year, not taking anything away from them, because they were pretty good guys and NFL-caliber guys, obviously. I just feel like I was as good as them. But sometimes you’ve got to wait your turn. Only two safeties can go out there at a time so that’s just how it goes.”

His plan for 2016 is simple – win a starting job, make plays on defense, help Clemson return to the national title and finish the job this time.

“If we get back this year, we’ll show them that we’re definitely the better team,” he said. “I feel like we were the better team last year. We were just a couple of plays from winning it all. But if we get back there, we’ll show them.”

Even though Clemson has been practicing for less than a week, from what I’ve seen thus far, I wouldn’t bet against them.