Leading up to Auburn’s home opener with No. 2 Clemson, I hoped to get more of an inside look at Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers. I reached out to Brad Senkiw, the Clemson beat writer for the Anderson-Independent Mail, for further insight.
Brad answered five questions about Saturday night’s game.
Q: In what areas are you anticipating the most improvement from Deshaun Watson?
BS: As good as he was in 2015, his footwork and fundamentals were sloppy at times, which helped lead to throwing 13 interceptions. He’s worked tirelessly in the offseason to lower that number and clean up that part of his game. He’s also bigger. Watson “naturally” added 15 pounds from a full offseason workout plan that didn’t center on rehabbing from injuries. He feels stronger and faster, which will only help a QB who rushed for over 1,000 yards last year.
Q: Who are you expecting to see take a bulk of the handoffs after running back Wayne Gallman?/Could Clemson use a committee system with its talented backfield?
BS: I certainly expect to see Gallman’s production and workload dip this season after he went over 1,500 yards in 2015. Clemson has a more established run game now, and Adam Choice was actually the starter ahead of Gallman in 2014 before suffering a knee injury that cost him a year and a half of game action. He’s fully healthy and can keep Gallman from having to shoulder 25 or more carries a game. The coaches limited Gallman’s reps in the offseason to keep him fresher late in the year. And don’t forget Watson. I could see him getting more run chances early in the season, taking away from Gallman. Clemson will also try to be more balanced. Last year the offense ran a lot in the first half of the season to establish that part of its game.
Q: Outside of Boulware, Tankersley and Wilkins, who do you think will emerge as stars of the defense in 2016?
BS: Senior Carlos Watkins doesn’t play as flashy as Wilkins, but he’s a potential All-ACC performer, and maybe an All-American, at defensive tackle. Redshirt freshman Clelin Ferrell could be the next great pass rusher at end for Clemson, but he’s not built like former sack artists Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd. Ferrell is more of a speedy edge rusher at 260 pounds and will have to prove he can hold up against the run. Dexter Lawrence is player to watch the most in 2016. A true freshman and the No. 2 recruit in the 2016 class, he’s going to be a star. It’s hard to say for sure it’ll be this year, and I’m not predicting he’ll be a future first-round NFL draft pick just yet, but at 6-foot-5, 342 pounds (18 percent body fat!), he profiles as a big-time player. He just plays a deep position at Clemson, but the coaches and players love his raw power and nimble feet.
Q: Which wide receiver is your dark horse to step up this year?
BS: I don’t think there’s another Hunter Renfrow, a receiver who came out of nowhere a year ago, on this squad. But sophomore Ray-Ray McCloud should finally show off the playmaking ability that made him one of the most coveted recruits of 2015. An injury set him back last year, and he’s been passed over by Renfrow, Mike Williams, Artavis Scott and Deon Cain on the depth chart, but McCloud is much stronger and has learned the nuances of the position. Getting the ball consistently, though, won’t be easy in this offense.
Q: What should Clemson’s biggest concerns be about opening on the road in a prime time game against an SEC team?
BS: The Tigers are made up of 63 underclassmen. There are a couple handfuls of that young group expected to suit up and play meaningful snaps. Can they handle the raucous atmosphere? The offensive coaches are already concerned about racking up procedural penalties and dealing with volume. But there’s also the element of dealing with pressure. Players like Watson, Gallman, Williams, Boulware and Wilkins are used to big-game situations and high expectations that come with being a College Football Playoff contender. The entire roster, though, has to show it can perform with in difficult situations.