CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson fans don’t seem concerned about the massive losses on last year’s top-ranked ranked defense, the muddled picture at running back or the departure of high-powered offensive leader Chad Morris to SMU.
No, there’s only one issue anyone wants to chat about when it comes to the Tigers: Can quarterback Deshaun Watson stay healthy.
Watson, the smiling, friendly sophomore, said he will hear that question a dozen or so times a day from students, fans and others. He responds the same way, “I’m ready to go.”
That’s good news for the Atlantic Coast Conference favorites, picked to supplant Florida State as champions largely on the strength of Watson’s ability. He missed five games and most of two others because of injuries to his throwing hand and his left knee, which required offseason surgery to repair.
So far, Watson has looked polished and strong in camp. Although, it is difficult for his teammates not to hold their breaths when he lingers too long on the ground. In Monday’s practice, Watson went down hard running a read option play and a hush fell over the field before he popped up with a grin, ready for the next snap.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Watson was selected the ACC’s preseason player of the year based on a small, yet impressive sample size (Watson passed for 1,466 yards and 14 TDs in limited action last fall).
“He’s beyond what you’ve seen,” Swinney said.
Watson has been spectacular at times in his short stint with Clemson. He accounted for 792 yards and 10 touchdowns in consecutive victories over North Carolina and North Carolina State after taking over the starting job in midseason.
And Watson helped end the Tigers five-game losing streak to rival South Carolina, throwing for two touchdowns and rushing for two others — all with a brace on what Swinney later revealed was a torn ACL.
“When he’s out there,” Swinney said. “We’ve got a chance each and every play for something good to happen.”
Some things to watch with Clemson in 2015:
CHANGING DEFENSE: Clemson led the country in defense last season, yielding 260 yards a game. But that was with a group of eight seniors, including NFL first-round draft choices in defensive end Vic Beasley and linebacker Stephone Anthony.
Coordinator Brent Venables was awarded with a $475,000 raise giving him a $1.35 million a year salary. Now he’s got to mold last year’s backups and spot players into starters.
WHO’S RUNNING THE BALL? Clemson has struggled to find consistency in the backfield since Rod McDowell became the sixth Tiger rusher to gain over 1,000 yards between 2007-13. Wayne Gallman led the way a year ago with 769 yards, but did not always show the breakaway speed Clemson hoped for.
Gallman is mixing it up in the starting race with Zac Brooks, Tyshon Dye and Adam Choice, who showed promise of carrying the load yet were slowed by injuries last year.
CLEMSON’S WIDEOUTS: Look for Clemson to have another strong showing from its wide receivers. Junior Mike Williams led the way last year with 1,030 receiving yards while sophomore Artavis Scott came up just short of his 1,000-yard season with 965 yards and team-best eight catches. Joining the rotation this year are five-star freshmen in Deon Cain and Ray Ray McCloud, both who have shined in camp.
OFFENSIVE CALLS: Former offensive coordinator Chad Morris led the Tigers to four of their nine best seasons as far as yardage gained from 2011-2014. In November, Morris left to become SMU’s head coach. Dabo Swinney promoted Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, former Clemson teammates, as co-offensive coordinators.
Elliott will run things from the booth while Scott will remain on the sidelines. Both expect to continue the Tigers fast-paced style.
KICKER PROBLEMS: Clemson’s biggest issue this fall might be the status of kicker Ammon Lakip, who was arrested on drug charges in June and suspended indefinitely by Swinney.
Lakip made 17 of his final 21 field goals after struggles early on where he went a combined 1 of 4 in losses to Georgia and Florida State. Swinney said Lakip will miss games, although he has not yet announced how many.