Clemson opens practice for the 2014 season Friday at 6 p.m., with coach Dabo Swinney’s team starting with a No. 16 ranking in the USA Today coaches poll.
The Tigers open the season on Aug. 30 against Georgia in Athens. Between now and then, expect these five topics to dominate the conversation:
1. LIFE AFTER TAJH AND SAMMY
Clemson must find a way to score more points than its opponents without two of the most prolific offensive weapons in school history. Clemson signed a number of potential impact players the past two years, including a quarterback and three receivers who enrolled in January and a herd of running backs. In time, some of the names might become familiar. The ace up the sleeve is offensive coordinator Chad Morris.
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2. PEAKE’S OR VALLEY
If there’s one player who might replace Sammy Watkins it’s Charone Peake, who upon signing with Clemson was rated at least comparable if not higher. Peake struggled with self confidence early and fell behind Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, a pair of first-round draft picks. Just as he was finding traction last fall, he sustained a torn ACL. Then, during a workout last week, he tweaked the knee, and it will cost him the first week of practice. Peake’s maturity and leadership could be huge assets as the offense acclimates to the transition.
3. WATSON’S ELEMENTARY EDUCATION
As painful as it was to show Chad Kelly the door, this probably worked out best. With his even disposition and willingness to take Deshaun Watson under his wing, senior Cole Stoudt should be the perfect mentor. Also, Morris remembers what happened to the season after Kyle Parker was blindsided at Auburn with Tajh Boyd frozen on the sideline, so there’s an urgency to have Watson ready should anything untoward befall Stoudt.
4. DEFENSE ON THE OFFENSIVE
It’s easy to be distracted by the presence of Vic Beasley, conceivably the best pass rusher in the game, but there are so many talented pieces that this might be the best Clemson defense in more than a generation. Brent Venables has everything he needs: a deep and talented defensive line, a bull at middle linebacker and depth in the secondary, including an ace at corner.
5. NAVIGATING THE SCHEDULE
Fan expectations are tempered but there’s intrigue with games at Georgia and Florida State the first month of the season. A win at Georgia could launch Clemson on another run and raise the expectations heading to Tallahassee. The road becomes more treacherous if the Tigers can’t win in Athens, so it should be interesting to see who locks down offensive right tackle, which running back projects to carry the biggest load and how much work Watson expects to receive.