There is an old saying that goes like this, "There are two sides to every story and then there is the truth." For many years now, posters on Clemson's interactive websites are often categorized as either being "Sunshine Pumpers," or the antithesis of that, "Sunshine Dumpers." The labels refer to those with overly positive and overly negative opinions when it comes to the state of the Clemson program.
In this post, I'd like to present my thoughts on the upcoming season from the "Pumper" point of view. You can find the "Dumper" point of view here.
The third post will be where I actually think the truth lies and will be more or less be my way of laying down some sort of prediction for the season.
I feel like everything in this post is a plausible outcome, albeit likely the best case scenario. I'm putting on the "pumper hat" and presenting the argument for why Clemson will exceed all expectations this year. Remember that this is not my true opinion of what will happen but, it is my true opinion of what could happen and why.
DeShaun Watson is the most talented QB in the nation.
When you compare him with the recent Heisman Trophy winning QBs (Mariota, Winston, Manziel, RGIII, and Newton) Watson is right there in talent and ability. Except for the larger frame that Newton and Winston possess and the straight line speed of Mariota and Griffin, Watson has better tools than all of the Heisman winning QBs. He has better vision, better accuracy, better touch, more zip when he wants it, and better defensive recognition than any of the recent Heisman winners.
Here are the past 5 Heisman winning QBs and their ranking in Total QBR from their Heisman season with DeShaun Watson's freshman year included:
2014 Marcus Mariota...90.9
2014 DeShaun Watson...90.8
2012 Johnny Manziel...90.4
2013 Jameis Winston...89.4
2010 Cam Newton...89.4
2011 Robert Griffin III...82.5
The best QB rating available says that Watson performed at a Heisman level as a true freshman. Since the biggest jump is often made between a player's first and second year in college football, there is also room for improvement. The leap in ability that the Heisman QBs made happened during a redshirt year or off the grid in junior college in Newton's case.
Perhaps the one thing that Watson must learn is how to protect himself and stay healthy. He needs to learn to manage his overzealous desire to win "in the moment" and trust his teammates. In turn, he can become a more effective teammate by simply remaining on the field. The understanding needs to be that a healthy Watson can become the undisputed best football player in Clemson history and should be visiting New York in December the next two years.
Then, from a team standpoint, when you consider the talent of the skill position weapons around him, the offense is poised to become the best offense in school history in 2015. With a healthy Watson, this will be a clinic of offensive dominance and a possible harbinger for an even better year in 2016.
Competition will make this the best OL since 2006.
Yes, the freshmen are young and inexperienced but they will have a bigger impact off the field than on it. That's because the amount of playing time the freshmen receive this year will be determined by the performance of the veteran starters. Remember, the ideal situation is that these freshmen don't play at all. If they play, it's most likely out of necessity.
So, unlike previous years, the veterans have a motivator lighting a brush fire under their butts. This includes the entire two-deep. The threat of losing playing time, losing their spot on the depth chart, and losing their NFL dreams, will be motivation that will make the incumbents fight, scratch, and claw to get better and keep their positions.
The veteran starters will rally around each other, gain confidence, gel early, and only get better from there. By November, the rushing attack will flourish like we haven't seen in many years and Clemson's offense will make a mockery of both the Florida State and South Carolina defenses.
This is the best RB stable at Clemson since 1989.
Wayne Gallman, Tyshon Dye, Zac Brooks, C.J. Davidson, and C.J. Fuller are the best Clemson RB corps since Terry Allen, Wesley McFadden, Joe Henderson, Howard "Junior" Hall, Tony Kennedy, and Charlie James were in the backfield together in ‘89. With an improved run blocking OL able to give these backs a crease at the line of scrimmage, fresh legs at RB will be too much for opposing defenses to handle.
Dalvin Cook and James Connor are the two most talented RBs in the conference but numbers 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7, reside in the Clemson backfield. Bruising downhill runs from Dye and the speed/power combo from Gallman will be complimented by Brooks' NFL caliber hands, and Davidson's blazing speed (it's back this year). The images of Dye and Gallman dragging and running through defenders this year will be fond memories for Clemson fans.
The only question is how ScElliot is going to manage this RB rotation this year. There are not enough carries to go around. Then, what happens next year when former starter Adam Choice is back healthy (coming off a probable redshirt this year) and 5-star RB Tavien Feaster gets added to the fold. We're probably going to see some attrition after the season but, it's going to be fun watching these guys push each other in 2015.
Brent Venables has proven that he is the best DC in college football. By midseason, the Front 7 will be almost as good as last year.
There is talent on defense, just not experience in the Front 7. Venables will figure out the combination to the lock and put the players in the best position to use their ability.
After losing 6 of the top 8 players up front, the DL will be better than expected for a few reasons. First, the starters inside, Watkins and Reader, are pretty darn good. You already know that but, maybe you forgot exactly how talented Watkins was considered to be before the car wreck that affected him mentally and physically.
Carlos Watkins was recruited by Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, and Notre Dame, and played in 9 games and 113 snaps in 2012 as a true freshman. He started the Georgia game in 2013 and then his season was ended by a car wreck that September that injured him and took the life of his friend.
Now a redshirt Junior in 2015, this will be Watkins coming out party. In fact, it will be Reader's too. These two are better natural athletes than Jarrett, Williams, and Watson and have the prototypical build for an interior DL.
However, the biggest reason they will both break out this year is because the physical and mental preparation will pay off. Watkins is two years removed from the serious car wreck that took the life of his high school teammate and by many accounts sapped some of the explosiveness from his legs. Reader is now in his 2nd year of being a football player year-round after dropping baseball. With their starting roles clearly defined and the eyes of the NFL upon them, they will shock the ACC by being just as good as their predecessors.
One thing that has been noticeably different in the transition from Steele to Venables was the aggression level of the LBs. Our LBs went from more of a "read and react" style to an aggressive downhill attacking style. Venables made "point of attack" havoc-players out of Spencer Shuey, Stephone Anthony, Tony Steward, B.J. Goodson, and Ben Boulware.
Venables loves to put his ILBs in an aggressive mindset with bullet stunts and run blitzes. Ben Boulware is already an absolute beast on A and B gap stunts. Aggressive LBs force the offense to react as opposed to the other way around.
Venables will also send the NB/SAM, BCB, and FS on fire/smoke and has a track record of doing so at the most opportune times. He has the "hunch" factor that you want your defensive coordinator to have when he's dialing up the defense.
The aggression will be there and the DC's ability to get the most out of his players will be there, we'll just be hearing different names coming out of Dale Gilbert's mouth that will be doing the same great job.
Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, Stephone Anthony, and Garry Peters ARE replaceable.
Players come and go. You lose guys every year. It's going to hurt to lose these four players, especially early on, but the guys that will be filling their spots are also very talented. Much like the four players above, the new guys will need to be developed and they will need the reps. All four of those players above needed the reps and blossomed with time in the program.
We saw Vic Beasley move positions a couple times and struggle. My best guess was that he would fall victim to attrition and end up playing out his career at somewhere like Georgia State. Instead, the 235 pound DE developed into a first round draft pick.
Garry Peters wasn't even a starter his Junior year. Nicknamed "The Gambler," he just couldn't be trusted out there. The light came on his Senior year though, and he delivered an All American type performance. Watching UNC try to pick on him on three straight plays last year and watching him destroy each play single-handedly was a thing of beauty (Ditto the BCB blitz for a TD against Louisville).
Remember when Spencer Shuey beat out 5-star Stephone Anthony in 2012? Shuey showed Anthony how to play LB in Venables' system. In 2013, Anthony came back with a new understanding of the position. By his Senior year, Anthony was one of the 2 or 3 best ILBs in the nation and he too became a first round draft pick.
These players on defense were not "open the box" and turn them loose type guys. They were developed in the same way that the new crop of talent is being developed right now. History says that trusting in Venables, Brooks, Hobby, and Reed to get the most out of these guys is the smart decision.
The schedule sets up perfectly for us.
The two lesser opponents, Wofford and Appalachian State, give us two and a half weeks and 8 quarters of live game action to build game experience and find answers for some of the questions we have defensively. Our offense will be charged up and ready right out of the gate so both of these games will be ugly early. This will allow us to go through all our growing pains in non-crucial situations and prepare for our first big test at Louisville.
After Louisville, we get the next three games at home including a full 16 days to prepare for Notre Dame. By the time we venture into a hostile environment, if you can call Miami that, it will be late October and we should be much improved from where we were in early September.
Our marquee game of the year, Florida State, will be a home contest in November and we have two lesser ACC opponents before the season finale against South Carolina in late November. Say what you want about Swofford but, this schedule certainly does us a lot of favors.
Chad Morris is very replaceable
The Chad was a very good Offensive Coordinator, no doubt, but after last year it is clear that he was no miracle worker. We didn't know it when Morris was hired, but Morris benefitted from having some of the best skill position talent in ACC history.
Sammy Watkins, Nuk Hopkins, and Andre Ellington were precisely those "open up the box and put them out there" type athletes that made Morris look a lot smarter than he really was. The same can be said for DeShaun Watson who showed up on campus with a skill set that no other QB in Clemson history has been blessed with.
Morris, by comparison to his peers, was never able to have Clemson's offense perform on the level of his mentor, Gus Malzahn. In fact, last year, Morris' offense didn't measure up to the offense of his prize pupil at Tulsa, Mike Norvell. Norvell, the OC at Arizona State, took Morris' offensive scheme and put his spin on it and was able to get more out of less talent than Morris was working with in 2014.
Now, Tony Elliot, Jeff Scott, Brandon Streeter, and Dabo Swinney are ready to do the same thing. There will be no dropoff from a development and schematic standpoint with Morris' departure. In fact, like Norvell, this braintrust will likely get more out of the players than Morris ever could.
We all appreciate Morris' leadership and his ability to establish an offensive identity when we needed one. However, he didn't produce at the level that his salary would dictate and the best thing for Clemson is that his enormous salary be allocated elsewhere.
"Pumper" Season Prediction:
The season will begin with two non-contests against Wofford and Appalachian State. The story from those two games will be that the offensive gluttony was something to behold. The two lesser teams will have no chance to even slow down the Clemson offense and the video game numbers put up will announce the arrival of the best offense in Clemson history.
In the 2nd game, the defense answers some questions and joins the party. Clemson marches into their Thursday night game against Louisville a confident bunch and it shows. Clemson gets better and more dominant as the game goes along with the outcome largely decided by the end of the 3rd quarter.
The following week there will be talk of Gameday returning to Clemson for the showdown between undefeateds Notre Dame and Clemson. Notre Dame has just notched their belt with a win over GT and both teams reside in the top 10. One thing is certain. The Valley will rock that night, gameday or no gameday, and Notre Dame will fall prey to too much DeShaun Watson, too much speed, and too much atmosphere.
Clemson rides the emotional rollercoaster to closer than expected wins over GT and BC and then hits the road for the first time in 5 weeks. Like UNC last year, Miami is ready for us and exposes some holes in the defense that we need to fix, but we come out victorious behind a well played defensive 4th quarter.
The defense looks much better the following week against N.C. State and the offense has a record breaking day behind a confident and healthy DeShaun Watson. With the performance, Watson emerges as the front-runner for the Heisman this week and it is a position he will not relinquish.
Then, Florida State enters the Valley for our yearly showdown. Clemson is a heavy favorite but that doesn't quell the emotion of a close victory over our Atlantic division rival as national pundits are now mentioning Clemson as a possible #1 seed in the playoff.
After two comfortable wins over Syracuse and Wake Forest, the Tigers enter Williams-Brice ranked #1 in the nation. At this point, confidence is at an all time high and Clemson is clicking on all cylinders. The Tigers lay the wood to SC in a game reminiscent of a certain 2003 win. I order my "55 to 20" shirt and await to find out who our opponent will be in the ACCCG.
After a sound thrashing of an over-matched VT team in the ACCCG, the playoff teams are announced and it is revealed that we will travel to Sun Life Stadium in Miami to face #4 seed Michigan State (12-1), the Big 10 champion.
The hype and emotion is palpable for both teams and it is a hard fought game. A late 4th quarter drive and clutch kick from
Lakip Spence seals our appearance in the National Championship Game.
The team travels to Glendale, AZ where they will face SEC Champion, #2 Auburn (12-1). Will Muschamp has their defense ready to play against the Heisman Trophy winner and their DBs are all over our WRs. Carl Lawson is a thorn in our side as
Battle Hyatt gets his lunch eaten in the first half. Auburn takes a 21-13 lead into the half as our only TD comes on a 72 yard Germone Hopper punt return.
Our halftime adjustments prove to be just what the doctor ordered as the offense scores a TD on the first drive of the 2nd half. The defense holds Auburn's offense in check by forcing two turnovers and the score is tied at 27 heading into overtime.
After exchanging TDs in the first OT, the Auburn offense stalls after a holding penalty. The defense is able to hold the Auburn offense to a FG in the 2nd OT. Clemson gets the ball back and hits Leggett on an out who breaks a tackle and gets us a first and goal at the 9. On first down, Elliot calls a counter-option pitch to C.J. Davidson on the short side of the field (yes, the same one that failed multiple times in 2014, I mean why not, it's always open we just can't execute it). Davidson catches this one in stride and there is nobody home for Auburn. Final Score: Clemson 33 Auburn 30. Clemson is your 2015 National Champion.
Edited for Pumper purposes