2011 overall record: 10-4
2011 conference record: 6-2 (1st)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1
T Phillip Price, G Antoine McClain, T Landon Walker, NG Brandon Thompson, DT Rennie Moore, DE Andre Branch, TE Dwayne Allen
2011 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Andre Ellington* (1,178 yards)
Passing: Tajh Boyd* (3,828 yards)
Receiving: Sammy Watkins* (1,219 yards)
Tackles: Rashard Hall* (89)
Sacks: Andre Branch (10.5)
Interceptions: Jonathan Meeks* (3)
1. Boyd more consistent: Quarterback Tajh Boyd looked more comfortable and had a better handle of offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ wide-open spread offense in his second season in the system. The Tigers were red-hot out of the gates in 2011 but struggled with consistency and turnovers in the second half of the season. Clemson had only eight turnovers while starting the season with an 8-0 record, but had 16 in its 2-4 finish.
2. Venables takes over defense: New defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who was hired from Oklahoma to replace fired defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, installed a 4-3 defense with simpler terminology. The Clemson defense was shredded in a 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Discover Orange Bowl. Venables opened up every starting job on defense this spring.
3. Two is better than one: Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins was the country’s top freshman last season, catching 82 passes for 1,219 yards with 12 touchdowns. But junior DeAndre Hopkins showed this spring he might be just as good. Hopkins caught 72 passes for 978 yards with five touchdowns in 2011. With tight end Dwayne Allen moving on to the NFL, the Tigers need another big-play weapon.
1. Sammy Watkins: Watkins, an All-American receiver during his freshman season in 2011, was arrested last week on misdemeanor drug charges. Coach Dabo Swinney hasn’t yet announced what punishment, if any, Watkins will face. If Watkins misses any game action, his absence might really hurt the Tigers in their season opener against Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
2. Offensive line overhaul: After losing three starting offensive linemen and five seniors who played in the line rotation in 2011, the Tigers had to rebuild the unit this spring. Morris feels good about his starting five after moving nose tackle Tyler Shatley to right guard. Morris said Shatley brings some toughness to the offensive line. The rest of the line looks like this going into preseason camp: left tackle Brandon Thomas, left guard Kalon Davis, center Dalton Freeman and right tackle Gifford Timothy. It has to hold up for the offense to be effective.
3. Defensive line: The Tigers lost a trio of standout defensive linemen in tackles Brandon Thompson and Rennie Moore and end Andre Branch. Clemson brings back all of its starting linebackers and most of its secondary, but Venables will have to rebuild his defensive front with young players.