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Clemson football has a ‘next man up’ mentality

Kim Montuoro, Photo Editor
Who’s next?

After a come-from-behind victory over Alabama in the National Championship game, Clemson senior linebacker Ben Boulware gave an impassioned speech honoring the players who had come before him and set the table for the program.
“Y’all started this! Y’all built this! All we did was build upon it and finish it,” he said after listing several former Tigers who have left their mark — not only upon Boulware, but the program as a whole.
Looking back, it’s easy to see how Clemson football has been trending upwards over the past eight years under Head Coach Dabo Swinney. You can argue exactly where it began; perhaps when CJ Spiller returned for his senior season rather than leaving for the NFL Draft, or when Tajh Boyd led the Tigers to their first ACC Championship in 2011, it doesn’t really matter. Everyone close to the program knew it was only a matter of time until Clemson was able to build itself up to this level.
Now they have. But what’s next?
Deshaun Watson will undoubtedly be a legend at Clemson forever, leading the team to its second ever National Championship, and against the Goliath of college football at that. But his time at Clemson is done and he is moving on to the NFL along with Mike Williams, Wayne Gallman, Artavis Scott, Jordan Leggett and Boulware. That’s almost every big name for this team.
It is no secret that Watson is the main reason Clemson has had success over the last two years, and many think that once he leaves Clemson will return to its average roots and that it may take another 35 years for them to claw their way to the top.
That’s not necessarily the case. Swinney and his staff have excelled at recruiting over the last several years, and that tradition has continued for the 2017 recruitment class.
While five-star quarterback Deshaun Watson is leaving, five-star recruit Hunter Johnson is coming in. He is ranked as the No. 2 quarterback of the class and passed for a total of 66 touchdowns in his high school career. He is a pro style quarterback with an excellent pocket presence and arm strength. However, in his time at Brownsburg High in Indiana, he ran a spread offense.
While he isn’t a dual threat quarterback, he has rushed for five touchdowns in his career and shown his elusiveness in scramble plays. There will be a learning curve for him as he enrolls in Clemson, but Johnson has a tremendous upside that could make the quarterback battle in the spring very interesting as Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel will both be returning and looking for their first career starts as well.
Chase Brice, another highly ranked recruit will also be enrolling at Clemson and could have a shot at the position. While it isn’t likely he will start his freshman year, Brice is yet another talented quarterback on the Tigers’ roster. As a native of Grayson, Georgia, he picked Clemson over the UGA, showing Swinney’s ability to recruit in the southeast against other big name universities. Brice has the potential to grow and be an excellent player for the Tigers, especially with his command of the ball.
Overall, the Tigers won’t be lacking in talent at the quarterback positon, just in experience.
With the loss of almost the entirety of the receiving corps, you might expect there to be a drop off at the position. You would be wrong.
Hunter Renfrow shocked the nation in the National Championship game; as a walk-on wide receiver standing only at 5’11 who caught two touchdown passes including the game winner.
Renfrow will return next season and will probably see even more action than this year with Williams and Scott moving on to the NFL. While he doesn’t have the outright athleticism Williams does, he has hands almost as good. He seemed to be one of Watson’s favorite targets in critical situations, largely because he is reliable; there are very few catchable passes he doesn’t come down with.
Deon Cain will also be back next season and will likely take on a larger role as well. This season, he typically played as Williams’s back up and was another down the field threat for Watson. He also does not have the athleticism of Williams, but his height and speed make him a force to be reckoned with down the sideline.
He needs to work on his hands a bit, as he dropped a few critical passes throughout the season. Assuming one of the multitude of quarterbacks on the roster can throw the deep ball, expect Cain to have some eye-popping stats next season.
Along with Renfrow and Cain, Clemson landed five-star recruit Tee Higgins as well. The Tennessee Native chose the Tigers over the Volunteers and will likely make a splash early in his career here. He is 6’4, which will be nice for a unit that is otherwise fairly undersized.
He and fellow Tennessee receiver Amari Rodgers started a trend this summer of Volunteer State players committing to Clemson. Rodgers is a bit of a lower ranked recruit but will likely get a chance at playing simply due to the massive talent loss at the position. However, there are a few redshirt players and backups who will make it competitive and keep the tradition of Clemson’s excellent receivers intact.
Gallman became a household name in Clemson last season and continued to impress this year. His absence may be one of the hardest to fill simply because of his ability to seemingly always get positive yardage and how he rarely turned the ball over. Tavien Feaster will be a sophomore next year and will likely see more reps than this season. He has already shown his explosiveness and quickness but now has to prove he can do it consistently and against some of the best defenses in the ACC.
For once, Clemson’s defense will not be losing most of its players. Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables will return all but two of his front seven starters. Boulware and Carlos Watkins will be moving on, but talented Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrel will be returning.
Venables also gained a few recruits to help add depth to his squad, including Logan Randolph. Randolph is a four-star from Rock Hill, South Carolina, who committed to Clemson in a Twitter video where he posed in cut-off shorts while chopping wood. Rudolph is an excellent athlete who doubled as a tight end for his high school team and has the ability to play almost every down due to his endurance. He did suffer a torn labrum early in his last season in high school so that could affect how much playing time he gets come fall.
As for the Clemson secondary, Cordrea Tankersley was the only returning starter from the 2015-2016 team and will be the only one leaving this season. He will hand the reins over to cornerback Marcus Edmond and safety Van Smith.
Adrian Baker is a veteran corner who received meaningful snaps in the 2014-2015 season before tearing his ACL. With his possible return, Clemson’s secondary shouldn’t see a significant drop off in production.
Overall, Clemson will be replacing almost the entirety of its offense while maintaining its defense.
With the success of this season, expectations are likely to be high for fans and spectators. While it isn’t necessarily feasible for Clemson to return to the National Championship next year, don’t expect them to fall apart at the hinges either.
Give them this year to reload and watch as that foundation Boulware spoke about continues to grow.

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