Towards the beginning of the Clemson game last season, the Tigers were doing very well. Deshaun Watson had the offense moving and the defense was definitely holding their own against Paul Johnson's option-based attack. At that point, it would have been hard to say any one team had separated themselves from the other. And then Watson got hurt. That injury put the entire pressure of the game on the shoulders of Cole Stoudt--a solid three-star quarterback coming out of high school and co-starter throughout the season. Let's just say he didn't play very well. With Deshaun Watson presumably healthy this season, it will certainly be an interesting match-up this season.
QB Cole Stoudt
Had to do it. Say what you want to about his abilities as a quarterback, but I believe he was a more-than-serviceable back-up quarterback. Just because he played poorly against Tech doesn't mean he was all-around bad. The Tigers went 6-2 in games where Stoudt was the primary quarterback (source). There were a few games where Stoudt showed that he deserved to be in that game. Against Boston College, he was 29-45 passing for 285 yards with no interceptions. In the bowl game against Oklahoma, Stoudt completely showed off completing 26 of 36 passes for 319 yards and three touchdowns, also no interceptions. So Stoudt was not a terrible quarterback. He just had a few bad games. With him gone, the Tigers are going to have to now rely on someone with even less experience for if and when Deshaun Watson gets hurt.
LT Isaiah Battle
As if it wasn't bad enough to lose three starters on the offensive line to graduation, the Tigers then lost starting left tackle Isaiah Battle to the NFL Supplemental Draft. Battle would have returned as the second most experienced player on the line with his 15 career starts. Battle definitely has the body to be a left tackle in the NFL at 6-foot-7 290 lbs. and Deshaun Watson is really going to miss him this year. It's not bad enough that Watson is already injury prone and had to have three offensive linemen replaced, but now he also needs a new blindside protector. It could be another long season for him.
Nearly the Rest of the Offensive Line
As I alluded to earlier, Clemson lost a lot from their offensive line this past season. The most experienced of the three was left guard David Beasley with 30 starts. Right tackle Kalon Davis had 21, and right guard Reid Webster had 13 starts. Replacing four-fifths of the offensive line is never an easy task. Luckily for Clemson, they did bring in some solid offensive line recruits whom I will talk about later in this preview.
DE Vic Beasley
Just like Clemson lost a lot of starters on the offensive line, they also lost a lot on the defensive line too. I'm only going to focus in on two of those players though. The first one is Vic Beasley. It's no secret at all how disruptive Beasley was for the Tigers. His speed off the edge led him to a team-high 12.0 sacks. Granted he didn't have a sack against the Jackets this past season, he still managed to make both of his tackles for a loss. After being drafted in the first round by the Atlanta Falcons, he'll be putting his pass rushing skills to much better use (at least according to Falcons fans).
DT Grady Jarrett
As much as the loss of Vic Beasley hurts the Clemson defense, I tend to agree with Bill Connelly that the loss of Grady Jarrett is far more damaging, especially against Georgia Tech. Jarrett is a beast in the middle of the defensive line and is continually disruptive in the run game. He was a constant force against the Jackets, totaling seven tackles this past season. He will be joining Beasley in Atlanta where his skills will be put to much better use.
LB Stephone Anthony
Another major hit to the defense. Stephone Anthony led the Clemson defense last season in tackles (75), tackles for loss (10.5) and was tied for the team lead in forced fumbles (2), not to mention his 2.5 sacks. All around, Anthony was arguably Clemson's top defender last season. He's going to be missed.
QB Deshaun Watson
Right now, I think Clemson's entire season rests on the health of Deshaun Watson. Say what you want to, but he is a good quarterback, and if he is healthy, Clemson is going to have a good season. Clemson's offense was noticeably better in the games last season where Watson played the majority of the snaps. In those games, they averaged over a yard-and-a-half more per play while also scoring nearly two more touchdowns. Even in Stoudt's three best games, they only averaged 5.1 yards/play and 30.3 points/game. In all of Watson's games, the Clemson offense averaged 6.5 yards/play and 36 points/game. What I'm trying to say here is that yes, Watson is pretty important and (his health withstanding) is worthy of every bit of hype he is getting.
RB Wayne Gallman
Clemson's running game kind of sucks. Gallman was far and away the best guy for the job though. As a redshirt freshman last season, Gallman led the Tigers in every rushes (161), yards (769) and yards/carry (4.8). Only Deshaun Watson had more rushing touchdowns than him, and even then, Watson only beat him 5-4. Something that was pretty impressive that I learned from his bio page on Clemson's website was this little tidbit:
in his last four games against ACC or SEC teams, he had 486 yards two touchdowns on 89 carries
That's a yards per carry ratio of 5.5. That's pretty good. If he can continually do that this season, Clemson's running game will receive a huge boost. It's also worthy of noting that Gallman was named to the Doak Walker Watch List earlier this offseason.
WRs Mike Williams and Artavis Scott
What would Deshaun Watson be this season if he didn't have these two guys to throw to? He wouldn't be nearly as good as he could be. Mike Williams and Artavis Scott proved to be a formidable duo at receiver last season. On their own, they were targeted over twice as much as every other player on the team. So needless to say, Watson and Stoudt relied on them a great deal. And they had the results to prove it too. Williams finished the season with 57 receptions for 1030 yards and Scott finished with 76 receptions and 965 yards. As these two receivers continue to develop, it is perfectly conceivable that they could both finish with over 1000 receiving yards each this season.
C Ryan Norton
As the only returning offensive lineman for Clemson this season, I felt it was only necessary that I put him here. Ryan Norton is the center for the Tigers and will be a senior this season. No surprise at all, he will need to be a leader on this offensive line. He returns his 24 starts and experience snapping the ball to Deshaun Watson. That chemistry is vital for a quarterback and a center, as it results in less fumbles on snaps.
DE Shaq Lawson
With Vic Beasley gone, someone will need to step up in his absence. Right now, it looks like Shaq Lawson is going to be that guy. Standing at 6-foot-3 275 pounds, Lawson has the size to be a fantastic strongside defensive end. I realize that that position is not normally seen as the prolific pass rusher, but I have a good feeling about Lawson. He's got all the tools and had a decent season last year, finishing with 3.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. Now please don't misread this and think I'm predicting him to be as good as Beasley was last season. Far from it, because they are different players. I do think that what Lawson lacks in the pass rush, he will more than make up for in setting the edge against the run. For him, I think it's likely that he finishes with a modest sevenish sacks and 15-ish tackles for loss.
FS Jayon Kearse
And now that we are getting into the end of this preview, I'm finally going to talk about the secondary some. Clemson lost a couple good players from the secondary last season in Robert Smith (SS) and Gary Peters (CB), but neither of them compare to the impact that Jayon Kearse can have on a game. Kearse is a true renaissance player. He finished last season with 52.5 tackles, five tackles for loss, three sacks, two interceptions and five pass break-ups. Oh yeah, I forgot. He's also 6-foot-4 210 pounds and has two years left to continue to refine his game.
WR Deon Cain
In addition to Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, Clemson is going to need to be able to spread it around some. Deon Cain can help with that. He played quarterback in high school, but his 6-foot-2 202 pound body will be playing wide receiver for Clemson. There are no real examples of seeing him catch the football, but his athleticism is on display in his Hudl video below. He's a good runner with long strides. He can take a hit when he needs to, but I think he'll mostly be used with those long strides for deep passes. He'll have to make sure he learns how to win the jump ball, but Cain most certainly has the athleticism to be a good one. Cain was rated as a five-star recruit by 247 Sports (0.9902) and Rivals (6.1).
WR Ray Ray McCloud III
Another receiver, Ray Ray McCloud III could make an impact this season, though I think he's more likely to do so in the return game. Standing at 5-foot-9 175 pounds, McCloud was rated as a five-star recruit by Rivals (6.1), but only as a four-star by 247Sports (0.9594). From the very beginning of his film below, his speed and shiftiness are very evident. That will also come in very handy in kick and punt returns avoiding tacklers. There is a chance he could see some time on offense, but I don't think he is as likely to do so as Deon Cain.
OLs Jake Fruhmorgen and Mitch Hyatt
As I have made pretty clear throughout this preview, Clemson needs help on the offensive line. Luckily for them, they brought in a couple good players in this year's recruiting class. The first one here is Jake Fruhmorgen. Standing at 6-foot-5 280 lbs. Fruhmorgen was rated as a four-star recruit by Rivals (5.9) and 247Sports (0.9435). He's currently listed (source) as the back-up right tackle behind redshirt senior Joe Gore, but there is still plenty of time for him to surpass Gore, if not before the season, then during the season. It's also pretty likely he'll see plenty of playing time regardless of his status on the depth chart.
Mitch Hyatt is the other major offensive line addition. He is currently listed as the starting left tackle (using the same link from above). Hyatt stands at 6-foot-5 285 lbs. and was rated as a four-star recruit by Rivals (6.0) and a five-star recruit by 247Sports (0.9894). The key for both of these tackles is how they adapt to playing at the increased speed of the college game against FBS talent. If they can do that adequately, then they'll be just fine this season.
DT Christian Wilkins
Out of all of these recruits, Christian Wilkins could be the one that has the biggest impact this season, even over Mitch Hyatt. Wilkins will be given the shot to help replace Grady Jarrett. As good as he was for the Tigers, it's going to be hard for a freshman to do it, but Wilkins definitely has the talent to work up to that. He won't be able to do it in this season, but by the time he is done at Clemson, he will most certainly be a fantastic player. Standing at 6-foot-4 and in the 290-300 lbs. range, Wilkins was rated as a five-star recruit by Rivals (6.1) and 247Sports (0.9888).
Clemson has the chance to be a pretty good team this year. However, I see this as more of a reloading year. I won't call it a rebuild simply because the talent is there. Dabo Swinney and the coaching staff has done an excellent job of making sure they can bring in the recruits to replace the talent that has left them. The thing stopping them from being great this year is inexperience. No matter how you feel about recruiting rankings, it takes more than bring in good recruits to be good. Good coaching is vital. Swinney has done an excellent job at picking his coordinators and position coaches, so I'm not worried about the development of these young players. The fact remains, though. They need development. That being said, Clemson is still going to be pretty good this season. Their non-conference schedule is a little easier this year not having to play Georgia, but in their place, they have to play Notre Dame. Right now, I would say a 10-2 record is a fair prediction in the regular season. I do think they'll be the Atlantic representative in the ACC Championship though.
As for Tech's game against Clemson, mainly because of where it is in the season and the fact that the game is at Clemson, I see the Tigers winning this one. It will be close though. I'll say 34-31. This prediction assumes that Deshaun Watson is healthy for the game.