Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Clemson Tigers football program will certainly be in the running for the most transformed team heading into the 2014 season.
The Tigers are coming off a 2013 season in which they posted an 11-2 overall record, including 7-1 in Atlantic Coast Conference play. They defeated Ohio State, 40-35, in the Orange Bowl to cap the season, one in which the Tigers received plenty of national attention for having a breakout offense and a steady, solid defense.
The Tigers entered the season as potential challengers for the national championship.
A year later, Clemson is projected to be once again a top-notch program with a strong recruiting class, but has the explosiveness that made the Tigers a legitimate threat last season gone away with the culmination of the NFL Draft earlier this month?
It was no secret players like starting quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant were eying the NFL level, which gave Clemson a chance to prepare for life after these superstars. But in reality, how does a team brace itself for losing such impactful players? One can only hope a strong recruiting class is ready to go by the time the new wave is set to take over.
The offense in 2013 ran through Boyd, who ended up being a sixth-round selection to the New York Jets. Boyd took over as the Clemson starter in the 2011 season after serving as the backup to Kyle Parker in 2010. From that point on, it was Boyd's offense to run.
In 2012, he led Clemson to an 11-2 record while throwing for 3,896 yards and 36 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. He had made a case for himself to be a potential first-round draft pick following that campaign, but he decided to remain in school. He also broke the ACC single-game record for most touchdowns in a contest with eight against North Carolina State - five passing and three rushing.
The 2013 season rolled around and Boyd had another strong year, posting 3,851 passing yards with 34 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also added another 10 scores on the ground. Sure, he had strong weapons with which to work, but his leadership and playmaking ability took everyone's play to a new level.
Now, looking toward the 2014 season, the quarterback position is up in the air for the Tigers, who lost Boyd and just a few weeks ago dismissed Chad Kelly from the team for conduct detrimental to the program. He is the nephew of Buffalo Bills legend Jim Kelly.
But Clemson received some good news recently as Stanford signal caller David Olson announced his transfer from the Cardinal to the Tigers after his graduation from the California-based school. It just so happens the Tigers could use his one year of remaining eligibility.
The loss of Watkins and Bryant on the outside of the offense doesn't help the Tigers' scoring potential any. Watkins is a transformative wide receiver and was selected fourth overall in the draft by the Bills, while the 6-foot-5 Bryant was a fourth-round selection by the Pittsburgh Steelers. A season ago, the two were the top grossing receivers in terms of receptions, yards, yards per game and touchdowns on the Clemson roster.
Watkins reeled in 101 catches for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2013, while Bryant pulled down 42 catches for 828 yards and seven scores.
Among the top returning receivers for Clemson are senior Adam Humphries (41-483-2) and redshirt junior tight end Stanton Seckinger (21-244-4). Germone Hopper and Mike Williams are still on the roster at Clemson and will likely fill a void at the outside receiver positions, though it will be nearly impossible to replicate the dynamic threat Watkins and Bryant brought to the table. Charone Peake, who was enjoying a strong season up until an ACL tear, can be a difference maker once again, providing he makes a healthy return.
On the positive side, though, Clemson may be gearing up for one of its strongest seasons on defense in recent memory.
The return of Vic Beasley to the defensive end position, just after he was graded out to be a Top 20 pick in the draft for 2014, is huge for the Tigers, who also will trot out Grady Jarrett at the tackle position. Throw in players like D.J. Reader, Corey Crawford and Deshawn Williams and Clemson may be looking straight in the face of its program-record 123 tackles for loss attained just last season, ready to break down another wall of a benchmark.
Although Bashaud Breeland, Quandon Christian and Spencer Shuey won't be among the linebackers and defensive backs on the Tigers' roster in 2014 after signing pro deals, veteran collegiate players like linebacker Stephone Anthony (led team in 2013 with 131 total tackles) and safety Robert Smith (79 tackles, five pass breakups) will step in and pick up the slack. Plus up-and-comers Ben Boulware and Jayron Kearse have reportedly had strong spring camps and look ready to fill in where needed.
The amount of talent Clemson lost after last season is simply absurd considering much of the offense went away with the departures of Boyd and Watkins. But coach Dabo Swinney and his recruiting staff have put Clemson in a position to succeed regardless of the heavy production lost to the draft, which is certainly admirable.
The biggest question mark is the quarterback position. At the end of April, junior Cole Stoudt was named the starting quarterback after a strong spring. Any number of unforeseen occurrences can pop up though, which may cause Clemson to put faith in other signal callers.
Once the Tigers get going this summer, their lineup will start to come into clearer focus. It may not seem possible, but somehow they have put themselves into a position to win a number of games despite losing serious impact players after last season.