Three keys to the 2012 season

by - Senior Writer -
Andre Ellington has to stay healthy.

CLEMSON – In just a little over two weeks, the media will assemble at Dabo SwinneyDabo Swinney
Head Coach
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’s house for a meal and a little 1-on-1, off-the-record time with Clemson’s head coach.

At last year’s get-together, another member of the media and I stood on Swinney’s deck and talked about the 2011 season, what we saw as keys and what we each thought the Tigers’ record would be. I remember both of us thought it could be anywhere from 8-4 to 9-3 or even 10-2 if everything broke right, but there were some keys we felt like had to happen in order for the Tigers to be successful.

We knew there were many little keys – the offense had to produce in the red zone, the linebackers had to play better, the team needed to develop depth on the offensive line – but there were three or four pivotal things that had to happen.

The first was that new quarterback Tajh BoydTajh Boyd
RS Jr. Quarterback
#10 6-1, 225
Hampton, VA

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had to slip out of his spring funk and produce. The second was that the offensive line needed to stay healthy. The third one was we knew that one of the young freshmen needed to step up, especially on offense and in the secondary. And fourth, we thought that the defense had to find a way to stop running quarterbacks.

Three out of those four got the Tigers a 9-3 regular season record, an ACC Atlantic Division title and later on an ACC Championship. However, the problems with the defense persisted and led to a late-season slide that saw losses to Georgia Tech, N.C. State, South Carolina and West Virginia mar an otherwise record-breaking season.

That led me to think about what the keys are for the 2012 season. Just like a year ago, there are a hundred things I can point out that will all mean the difference between winning and losing. We could come up with our own lists, and we would all probably be right.

For instance, Boyd has to protect the football better this season than he did last season. The team needs to find a playmaker behind Andre EllingtonAndre Ellington
RS Sr. Running Back
#23 5-10, 190
Moncks Corner, SC

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. Brandon FordBrandon Ford
RS Sr. Tight End
#80 6-4, 235
Wando, SC

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needs to replace at least some of Dwayne AllenDwayne Allen
RS Sr. Tight End
#83 6-3, 255
Fayetteville, NC

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’s production. Depth has to be found at defensive end. The secondary has to get better. The linebackers have to get better. I could go on, but you get the drift.

However, there are three big things I am looking at as THE keys for this season.

1. Andre Ellington has to stay healthy – Ellington returned for his senior season, and when healthy has the ability to be one of the best backs in the conference. I actually wrote about this last month…. Ellington has battled injuries in each of his three seasons, but when he is healthy there aren’t many running backs out there that are better. He was healthy for the majority of last season – he missed the loss at Georgia Tech –and he rushed for 1,178 yards with 11 touchdowns. He was on the field for 754 snaps a year ago averaging 5.3 yards on 223 carries. Ellington accounted for 22 “explosive” plays (12 yards or more) with five games in which he had over 100 yards rushing. Ellington ranks 10th in Clemson history in career rushing with 2,355 yards and need just 645 yards to become the fifth player in Clemson history with 3000 yards. He needs 1612 yards to break Raymond Priester’s career rushing record, so there are plenty of milestones he can reach this season if healthy. With the loss of Mike BellamyMike Bellamy
So. Running Back
#5 5-10, 175
Nocatee, FL

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to academic reasons, the Tigers have D.J. HowardD.J. Howard
RS So. Running Back
#22 5-11, 195
Lincoln, AL

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, Hot Rod McDowell and freshman Zac BrooksZac Brooks
Fr. Athlete
# 6-2, 180
Jonesboro, AR

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behind Ellington. McDowell has not played a lot during his tenure at Clemson – even though he is consistently a spring game standout – and Howard had issues with turning the ball over. I love the way Howard runs, low and physical, and I truly believe he can be a really good player in this system. But for Clemson to reach their goals this season, a healthy Ellington will need to be a big part.

2. The offensive and defensive lines have to produce – The offensive line has three new starters and the defensive line has a lack of depth at defensive end and lack of experience at the tackle spot. Losing so many good players to graduation over the past two seasons has almost decimated the ranks of the defensive line, and now younger players have to step to the forefront. The old adage says that games are won in the trenches, and right now, we have no idea what to expect out of either of those groups. There is no hiding the fact that the Tigers have a wealth of talent on the offensive side of the ball, and there might be just one or two teams in the country that can boast that they have the kind of talent on offense that Clemson has. However, all of those skill players can be negated if the line can't protect the quarterback or run block. The young line gets an early test against Auburn, but the real test comes in week four against FSU. By that time, the younger players will have had a chance to prove they can produce. Defensively, the Tigers have to find playmakers at the tackle spot – guys that can occupy blockers so that the linebackers can make plays, can stop the run when needed and can pass rush enough to take pressure off the defensive ends. You can almost bet that ends Malliciah GoodmanMalliciah Goodman
Sr. Defensive End
#97 6-4, 280
Florence, SC

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and Corey CrawfordCorey Crawford
So. Defensive End
#93 6-5, 280
Columbus, GA

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will see a lot of double teams until the tackles prove they can be disruptive.

3. The defense has to improve – Honestly, the defense almost has to improve, because at times it was downright dreadful in 2011 after surrendering almost 30 points per game. The team finished 10th in the ACC in scoring defense (29.3 ppg), 10th in rushing defense (176.96 ypg), and ninth in total defense (394.4 yards per game). However, perhaps the most damning stat was the fact that the defense allowed a whopping 182 plays of 10 yards or more, 59 of 20 yards or more, 34 of 30 yards or more (easily the worst in the conference), 19 plays of 40 or more yards (again, the worst), nine plays of 50 or more yards and two of over 60 yards. Included in those stats were 67 plays of 10 yards or more on the ground (10th in the ACC) and 115 passing plays of 10 yards or more (10th in the ACC). The defense allowed an astounding 14 pass plays of 40 yards or more. Those numbers have to improve this season, especially if the offensive line struggles. Clemson’s offense isn’t built for 14-play drives that take eight minutes off the clock, so the defense is on the field more than some other defenses. Last season, it seemed like the defense would play well on first or second down, but give up one of those “chunk” plays on third down. The end result last season was that the Tigers finished 71st nationally in total defense – cut that number in half and the Tigers might be in the thick of things in the Atlantic.

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