Taking it to the next level


by - Senior Writer -
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Branch finished last season with five sacks, 55 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 15 quarterback pressures and seven pass breakups.

Fall practice starts on Friday, and the first game is 29 days after the first practice.
The season beckons us all, as we dream of tailgating, Tiger Walk, the bands, the cheerleaders, and Running Down the Hill.

TigerNet has taken a look at several of the younger breakout players and position battles to watch during the next 29 days, but today we take a look at five veteran players who will have to take their game to the next level this season.

These five players – juniors and seniors – have a chance to not only help the Tigers achieve their goal of going back to the ACC Championship Game, but improving their NFL draft stock in some cases.

*Tight end/H Back Dwayne AllenDwayne Allen
Tight End
#83 6-3, 245
Fayetteville, NC

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– The 6-4, 255-pound junior out of Fayetteville, N.C. has always had the talent, and last season was supposed to his breakout year. Senior Michael PalmerMichael Palmer
Tight End
# 6-4, 228
Lilburn, GA

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had graduated, and Allen entered 2010 with dreams of breaking Palmer’s school record for catches by a tight end (43 for 507 yards and four TDs). That record never materialized as Allen wound up with 33 catches for 373 yards, but the dynamic of Clemson’s offense changed after running back Andre EllingtonAndre Ellington
Running Back
#23 5-10, 190
Moncks Corner, SC

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went down with an injury. Allen turned into more of a blocker, and in the red zone, Allen all but disappeared as a weapon and an option as he was used to open holes for other players.

Enter new offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who says he recognizes what Allen brings to the table, and his eyes lit up at Dabo Swinney’s media golf outing a few weeks ago when he was asked about how he would utilize Allen.

“This offense is all about taking advantage of the mismatches,” Morris said. “Dwayne is an obvious mismatch for most linebackers because he is faster, and he is bigger than the safeties that might have to cover him downfield. We might even let him carry the ball. There is no telling. But we have to find ways to get him the ball.”

An interesting note about Allen is that he had some of his best games on the road a year ago – at Auburn he had five catches for 66 yards, 7-for-55 at North Carolina and 7-for-57 at Boston College. So 17 of his 33 catches came in just three games, and the only other game that he caught more than two passes was the home game against Miami when he caught three.

*Bandit end Andre BranchAndre Branch
Defensive End
#40 6-5, 260
Richmond, VA

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– The 6-5, 260-pounder out of Richmond told reporters last season that he and fellow end Da’Quan Bowers were going to “meet at the quarterback.” Bowers ended up with a school-record for sacks, while Branch ended up with five sacks, 55 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 15 quarterback pressures and seven pass breakups.

This season, Branch doesn’t need to chase Bowers’ sack record in order to have a successful season, but double digits would be a nice goal to shoot for. Branch proved his versatility and athletic ability when he played linebacker against Georgia Tech last season, and could see more time dropping into coverage on zone blitzes this season. Last season was Branch’s first as a starter, and he went from playing 337 snaps in 2009 to 651 last season. He also played linebacker in high school, so he has had to learn how to play with his hand on the ground, and like Bowers, he has had to learn to play within the system and not run himself out of plays. If he continues to improve –and the coaches think he will – he could turn into an elite talent.

*RB Andre Ellington – The promise and potential have always been there, and Clemson fans got a taste of what a healthy Andre Ellington can do. Ellington had 686 yards on 118 carries before his injury, and he still finished tied for third in the ACC with 12 touchdowns, despite missing four games. He had 238 yards on seven kickoff returns – including returning one for a touchdown against Maryland. His best game might have been at Auburn when he carried the ball 22 times for 140 yards.

In 2011, as important as the offensive line and the young wide receivers and quarterback Tajh BoydTajh Boyd
Quarterback
#10 6-1, 230
Hampton, VA

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are to the offense, Ellington might be the most important piece. Morris’ scheme fits right in with Ellington’s talent, and Morris has said he wants to get the 5-10, 190-pounder junior out in space. Ellington’s Berkeley High School team was a zone blocking team, so following the zone blocks is second nature to him.

Ellington reached the 1,000 yard plateau in his career in just 151 carries, the second-fewest in Clemson history. Only C.J. SpillerC.J. Spiller
Running Back
#28 5-11, 195
Lake Butler, FL

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(142 carries) reached the mark faster. He has also averaged 6.3 yards per carry in his career, tops among Clemson players with at least 1,000 rushing yards.
If Ellington is healthy, and can stay healthy, he can put up some monster numbers in 2011.

*S Rashard HallRashard Hall
Safety
#31 6-2, 200
St. Augustine, FL

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– I waffled on whether to put Hall on this list, simply because he has already been solid during his first two years on campus. But he has also toiled in the shadows of some pretty good secondary members in DeAndre McDanielDeAndre McDaniel
Wide Receiver
#2 6-1, 180
Tallahassee, FL

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, Crezdon ButlerCrezdon Butler
Defensive Back
# 6-0, 180
Asheville, NC

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, Marcus GilchristMarcus Gilchrist
Defensive Back
#12 5-11, 190
High Point, NC

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, etc. Hall burst onto the scene as a freshman when he reeled in six interceptions and earned first-team freshman All-American honors by CollegeFootballNews.com.


Last season, Hall had 65 tackles and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. He actually finished fifth on the team in tackles, and isn’t afraid to stick his nose in the middle of a pile or deliver a big hit. Phil Steele calls him the No. 11 draft-eligible free safety, and a solid junior campaign could make that number rise.

What sets Hall apart – and I’ve heard this from more than one coach and player – is that he is relentless in his film study. He is a two-time Academic All-ACC selection, and studies hard both on and off the field. McDaniel told me that Hall, even when he was a freshman – could break down offensive tendencies and diagram a defense just as well as the upperclassmen.

Hall will be counted on to be the leader in a secondary that is in transition this season, and even though secondary coach Charlie Harbison says he isn’t going to put the onus on just one player, Hall will be the mainstay and leader of that group.

*RG Antoine McClainAntoine McClain
Offensive Line
#74 6-5, 330
Anniston, AL

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and RT Landon WalkerLandon Walker
Offensive Line
#72 6-6, 310
North Wilkesboro, NC

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– I am going to incorporate two players into this slot, and both play on the right side of the Tigers’ offensive line. When the Tigers need one or two or three tough yards this season, they are going to go to the right side, just like last season.
Both players are seniors and have had solid careers, and Steele has Walker as a second-team All-ACC player and McClain as third-team in his ACC rankings, but both need to step into that elite category for a Tiger offense in transition.

Walker has played against some of the best during his career, including Jerry Hughes (TCU), Derrick Morgan (Ga. Tech), Ndamukong Suh (Nebraska) and his former teammate Bowers. Walker has played 2,098 snaps in his career and has started 35 games, and head coach Dabo Swinney said that Walker has turned into a vocal leader that the rest of the team looks to for leadership.

McClain came out of high school as the No. 9 offensive tackle in the nation, and has never missed a game in his three-year career. He has played 1,517 snaps during his career, and he led the team with 69 knockdown blocks in 2010.

At 6-5 and 330 pounds, McClain is a big man along the front, and Morris’ up-tempo offense will push the senior to his limits, but he showed no signs of slowing down in the spring game. This could be the year that McClain takes his game to another level.

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