From now until the season starts (WHICH IS TODAY!) I will be previewing the prospects from Big-12, ACC and Big East teams for the upcoming season. My colleague at NFL Draft Monsters Justin Higdon (follow him on Twitter @afc2nfc) will be covering the SEC, Pac-12 and Big-10 and you will be able to read those posts on NFL Draft Monsters. Check them all out to get ready for the 2013 NFL Draft by identifying the prospects you need to learn about!
Today I am previewing the Clemson Tigers. Clemson shocked everyone last year when they started 8-0, but their late season collapse was not quite as surprising, and it ended with an absolute beat-down against West Virginia. Clemson’s offense is poised for another explosive season even if they will be without star receiver Sammy Watkins for a couple games. Tajh Boyd is returning for his second season as a starter and has plenty of weapons to throw to, but the question is how will his protection be. Brandon Thomas has established himself as the left tackle, and Dalton Freeman is one of the top centers in the nation, but the rest of the offensive line is unproven. If they are going to compete for an ACC title in the same division as the exceedingly talented Florida State Seminoles they are going to need Boyd to be at the top of his game, and for that to happen the offensive line will have to step up. I don’t think Clemson will beat FSU this year, and that’s why I don’t have them repeating as ACC champs.
Defense was the major problem with Clemson last year, and they return without their top pass rusher Andre Branch and their stud defensive tackle Brandon Thompson. They have a very young group of defensive tackles, but defensive end should continue to be a strength. I’m a big fan of Malliciah Goodman, and sophomore defensive end Corey Crawford will be looking to do his best Andre Branch impression this season. They have a star middle linebacker in the making in Stephone Anthony, a stud corner in the making in Baushaud Breeland, and plenty of talent and depth at safety. I know Clemson fans are hoping that the additional experience in the secondary will help eliminate some of the big plays that plagued the team last year. They have to improve at all levels of the defense, and how good they get will determine how competitive they will be with FSU. With that, here are Clemson’s prospects to keep an eye on:
Tajh Boyd, QB*- Boyd is an intriguing quarterback who is still very young and likely will leave Clemson with three full years of starting experience if he stays healthy. He started all 14 games last year and really helped put Clemson on the map by starting his season with 24 touchdowns and 3 interceptions over the first 8 games en route to Clemson starting 8-0. They faltered down the stretch however, and over that same span Boyd threw just 9 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. He passed 499 times last season and completed 298 of them (59.7%) and threw for 3,828 yards, 33 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Boyd is listed at just 6’1”, 225 pounds but he does have a strong arm and plenty of athleticism to compensate for his relative lack of size. He’s a late round prospect right now, but if he works hard to improve his ability to read defenses, learns to make better decisions (and throw the ball away, something I haven’t seen him do much) and embraces his role as a leader he could improve that stock. He reportedly weighed around 235 pounds towards the end of last season which he and his offensive coordinator think made him less effective and more prone to mistakes. I think it was a mix of his increased weight and the fact that teams had film on him to figure out what his tendencies were and what he struggled with. That appeared to be zone coverage more than anything else, because I don’t think he had the anticipation to throw his receivers open and was therefore trying to put throws into tight windows when defenses dropped into zone. Hopefully he has been watching film and studying that, because good and great quarterbacks can dissect zone coverage when teams drop into it. Boyd isn’t there yet, but he’s got plenty of ability and if he starts off anything like he did last season he will be firmly in the early season Heisman contention.
Andre Ellington, RB- Ellington is returning for his final season as a Clemson Tiger after his best season statistically last season. He rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns (5.3 ypc) which matches his rushing total from his first two seasons with the team (1,175 yards as a freshman and sophomore combined) and fell just three touchdowns short of matching his previous career total for touchdowns. Now he is trying to follow it up with an even better season, and thanks to his explosive speed and burst he will have a chance to do so. That hinges on how well the offensive line will be able to block for him though, as they lose three of five starters from 2011 and there will be some growing pains associated with that. Ellington is listed at 5’10”, 190 pounds and has never struck me as a feature back at the next level, but rather as a good or very good 3rd down and complementary back. He doesn’t run through contact well and struggles to gain tough yards after contact is initiated. He’s very explosive though and has 4.4 speed, tons of quickness and is very dangerous in the open field. He catches the ball pretty well out of the backfield too, having caught 45 passes over his career including 22 last year for 109 yards. He’s not going to be a 1st round pick like his teammate CJ Spiller was in my opinion, but he has a great shot to go in the first 3 rounds because of his game-changing speed and athleticism.
Sammy Watkins, WR**- Watkins burst onto the scene last season as a true freshman and proved to be one of the most dynamic players in the country despite his age. He is listed at 6’1”, 200 pounds and has fantastic speed, burst and elusiveness. He caught 82 passes for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns last year as well as rushing for 231 yards on just 32 carries. He was also a dynamic kick returner, returning 33 kickoffs for 826 yards (25.0 avg) and 1 touchdown. Even more impressive was that he did this in just 10 games as a result of injury, so his statistics shouldn’t suffer much even in spite of his early season suspension. He probably was ready to go to the NFL as a slot receiver and return man, but for the next two years we will have the privilege of seeing him polish his route running and if he stays healthy he should be a 1st round draft pick when he comes out after his junior season. He’s so pro-ready that I don’t expect him to stay beyond his junior year, but I hope that he doesn’t get in any more off-field trouble. He’s a special talent and if he keeps working and doesn’t get in any more trouble he will likely be a top 20 NFL Draft pick.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR*- Hopkins is often overshadowed by Watkins’ greatness, but he is a very good NFL Draft prospect in his own right. He’s listed at 6’1”, 210 pounds and while he isn’t quite as explosive as Watkins is he still has plenty of speed and quickness. Like Watkins he needs to improve as a route runner, but he has all the tools necessary to do so, he just has to work at it. Hopkins has pretty long arms, big hands and catches the ball well outside of his frame which makes it easier for Boyd to get him the ball. He knows Hopkins can catch passes that aren’t thrown right on the numbers, and that’s why Hopkins had 52 catches as a true freshman and 72 more as a sophomore. He had 978 yards and 5 touchdowns last season, but look for him to exceed 1,000 yards this year. He and Boyd will likely be in sync during Watkins’ suspension and that should continue the rest of the season.
Martavis Bryant, WR**- Bryant is a freak athlete who is listed at 6’5”, 205 pounds but was the 2nd fastest player on the entire roster in 40 yard dash competitions. The only player faster? Watkins. But at 6’5”, Bryant has immense upside, perhaps even more than Watkins given his height and length. Bryant is very inconsistent at this point, however, showing flashes of brilliance at times but not quite getting it at others. That was reflected by his stat line: he only had 9 receptions, but he averaged 24.6 yards per reception on the way to totaling 221 yards and 2 touchdowns on those 9 catches. He’s an explosive athlete with immense potential, he just has to work to get there. I hope that Hopkins and other receivers help mentor him so that he can start to reach his unbelievable potential this season, because with Bryant and Hopkins on the outside and Watkins on the inside this Clemson offense could be borderline unstoppable as long as the ball comes out on time. The light may not come on for Bryant this year (though I hope it does) but if it comes on in the next two years LOOK! OUT! He’s got the talent to be a top 5-10 pick because of his size and pure speed.
Charone Peake, WR**- Peake is another rising sophomore who got some playing time as a true freshman last season. He’s listed at 6’3”, 205 pounds and only caught 4 passes for 71 yards last year, good for a 17.1 average per reception. It’s unclear exactly how Clemson plans to get the ball to all of these talented receivers, but with Watkins out for the first couple games one of these young guys could emerge opposite Hopkins to help take the pressure off of him. Peake was inconsistent last year, much like Bryant, but also dealt with injuries that helped hold him back. He’s got a ton of potential in his own right, and if the light comes on this year and he stays healthy he could break out as well.
Jaron Brown, WR- Clemson has one of the deepest and most talented groups of receivers in the country, and Jaron Brown is a significant part of that. He’s got good hands and is a reliable target, standing at 6’2”, 200 pounds. He’s certainly not the most explosive receiver on the roster, that distinction belongs to Watkins, but his reliability complements the explosiveness of some of the other Clemson Tiger receivers. Brown has a 40 time in the 4.6 range, and likely won’t be drafted, but if he can show quality route running and reliable hands he could earn a shot at a NFL camp.
Brandon Ford, TE- Ford came to Clemson as a 6’4”, 200 pound wide receiver but in 2010 he moved to tight end and was Dwayne Allen’s primary back-up during his Mackey Award winning (award given to the best tight end in the nation) season for the Tigers last year. It was the best statistical season a Clemson Tiger tight end has ever had, and it will be a hard, but not impossible, act to follow. Ford has plenty of experience, especially since he played in all 14 games last season, but has never been relied upon as the primary security blanket in the offense. He is listed at 6’4”, 235 pounds now but was supposedly a lean 240 pounds in the spring and had hoped to add more good weight before the season started. I don’t know much about him from a blocking standpoint, and that will be interesting to see, but he had 14 receptions, 166 yards and 2 touchdowns last season and with all the talent at receiver Ford will be flying under the radar most of the season. He should be good for 40-50 receptions, 500-600 yards and 5-7 touchdowns, which would be perfect for replacing Allen. Despite his Mackey award, he only had 50 receptions, 598 yards and 8 touchdowns last year. Those aren’t unattainable numbers at all, and I think Ford has a great shot at replicating them this year. He probably won’t be a top 64 draft pick, but I think he has the potential to be a top 100 pick especially if he shows some ability as an inline blocker.
Brandon Thomas, OT*- Thomas was the starting left guard for Clemson last season and did a pretty good job, but then the starting left tackle Phillip Price suffered a sprained knee against Wake Forest and wasn’t the same the rest of the season. Thomas was therefore forced out to left tackle for only one start but played there for considerable game time over the final four games. He wasn’t great as it was a complete position change (even though he was recruited to Clemson as an offensive tackle) and the play of the offensive line in addition to an antsy, less mobile Tajh Boyd was not a good combination for the Clemson offense. Thomas enters this season, however, with at least some experience at the position and made progress at the position in the spring. His versatility to play left tackle as well as slide inside to left guard is valuable, but the 6’3”, 300 pound lineman will be asked to protect Boyd’s blind-side first and foremost. Because of his size and length he doesn’t really project to offensive tackle in the NFL, but his time spent at guard will help him when he is asked to slide back inside in the future. Until then, his adequate foot speed and lateral agility will have to be enough for him to keep Boyd upright at left tackle. His match-ups against Florida State, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and South Carolina, teams with great defensive ends or pass rushers, might not be pretty though. That’s one of the reasons why I think Florida State will win the Atlantic division of the ACC. I should also mention that when Thomas was 19 years old and back home from school he was arrested for disorderly conduct, charged with a misdemeanor and fined $262 as a result. Honestly, it’s barely even worth mentioning because I haven’t been able to find any instances of him getting in trouble off the field in the years since that occurred, but knowledge is power so now you’re all a little more powerful. Also, for what it’s worth, there is a true freshman named Isaiah Battle who is listed at 6’7”, 265 pounds but has apparently held his own in fall camp and “hasn’t been out-athleted by anyone” according to Head Coach Dabo Swinney. He needs to fill out, but if he does and he maintains his impressive athleticism Thomas could be sliding inside to guard as a senior before he even makes it to the NFL Draft.
Dalton Freeman, C- Freeman is one of the top centers in the nation and he enters his senior year with an impressive 36 career starts at the position for the Tigers. Freeman is listed at 6’5”, 285 pounds and is a good athlete, showing that he can get to the second level and move well for his size. His problem is that despite his starting experience he hasn’t filled out his frame yet, and even if he is only truly 6’4” he has the frame to weigh 300-310 pounds quite easily, and will be asked to gain weight once he is auditioning for and gets to the NFL. The additional strength, especially in the lower body, will help him generate more push in the run game and anchor better versus defensive tackles 1 on 1 in pass protection. The reason he is one of the top centers in the country already is his football IQ (his father was a high school football coach) and his leadership capability, and those intangible qualities will be music to the ears of talent evaluators. Add that in to his starting experience, which could be 49-50 career starts depending on if he is healthy all year (he has proven to be quite durable) and if Clemson goes to a bowl game and the ACC title game. Freeman has the potential to be big and strong enough to be a “3rd guard” in the run game, which is part of what makes Wisconsin’s running game so dangerous. Having a center who can block interior defensive linemen one on one in the run and pass game makes the entire offensive line better, and while Freeman isn’t quite there yet he has the frame and pedigree to get there. Add that to his football IQ, leadership and experience and you have one of the top center prospects in the country.
Malliciah Goodman, DE- Goodman was a bit under the radar as a first year starter at defensive end for Clemson and it will likely remain that way until he breaks out. He is listed at 6’4”, 280 pounds and didn’t blow anyone away last year with his statistics (59 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 pass deflection and 1 forced fumble). He might not have a ton of sacks in his career (5 in his 3 years at Clemson) but Goodman has a penchant for forcing fumbles having forced four over the past two seasons. He played as many snaps last year as he had played the previous 2 seasons combined, and started all 14 games for Clemson. He’s not an overly explosive pass rusher and his numbers evidence that, but he has a great frame, is strong, has long arms and surprisingly good hip flexibility to dip his shoulder and get the edge. He’s not going to break the NFL sack record, but the ability to bull rush, use his long arms effectively to keep blockers off of him and to get them up in passing lanes is really intriguing. He’s quite inconsistent off the ball when it is snapped which is often the only reason he gets pushed off the ball by 1 on 1 blocks, otherwise he is very reliable against the run and seems to see the field well and read run or pass quickly. He’s assignment reliable and has shown that he will keep contain and not get sucked in by play-action and give up an easy boot-leg to his side, and collapses well down the line of scrimmage. He’s flashed violent hands at times, but really needs to improve his hand usage and develop a rip and swim move to improve his pass rush repertoire. Right now it is a speed rush with a dip off the edge, a bull rush (which he doesn’t disengage from that well right now) or he comes free on an inside move or a stunt. That said, he has a lot of upside and projects well to the 4-3 left end position because he has the size and strength to hold up versus the run, particularly as he continues to improve his pad level, his timing off the ball, and as he works on his hand usage and pass rush moves he should provide more of a pass rush than he does now. He seems to read plays well and react to them quickly, which is great to see from a defensive end, particularly versus the run. I still don’t know what I think of his motor, it looks solid to me right now, but I don’t know much beyond that. He’s an intriguing player, and in a draft class with an abundance of pass rush upside Goodman will likely be overlooked thanks to his modest 2011 statistics, but his run defense, awareness and experience will not go unnoticed by NFL teams. I think he has a great shot at the top 75 and could go even higher if he has a better statistical year now that Andre Branch has moved on to the NFL.
Corey Crawford, DE**- Crawford is listed at 6’5”, 280 pounds and at that listing you’d think “he’s got to be another Goodman or Bowers right?” You’d be wrong, at least according to him. Crawford defines himself as a speed rusher, and to get back to that he has reportedly dropped about 15 pounds to get down to 265 pounds. That should help his get-off and his burst to beat tackles off the edge, which is something his predecessor Andre Branch had a penchant for doing. Crawford actually graduated in 2010 but had to enroll in a military school for a year because his grades weren’t in good enough shape to get into Clemson. That’s a bit of a red flag for me, but he came in and produced 29 tackles, 2 TFL and 2 pass deflections as a true freshman last year. He’s projected to be the starter opposite Goodman this year, and if he has more speed and burst then he could be in for a 6-8 sack season. He’s got a lot of upside, but I’m not sure if this will be his year to reach it. Clemson defensive ends usually don’t usually seem to turn it on until their second full season as a starter. Gaines Adams broke out as a junior in what I believe was his second full season as a starter. Bowers didn’t have a break-out season until he was a junior, and Andre Branch broke out in his second full season as a starter as a senior. That means Crawford likely won’t have a true break-out campaign as a sophomore, but he could very well have a good season and blow up as a junior as is the Clemson trend.
Stephone Anthony, MLB**- Anthony may have only started 3 games last year but he played in 13 of Clemson’s 14 games and totaled 32 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks and 1 pass deflection as a true freshman. Now he is the expected starter at middle linebacker despite suffering a torn ligament in his finger that required surgery in the spring. He should be good to go for the opener though, and the 6’3”, 235 pound linebacker should be ready for an impressive statistical season. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables named him the starting middle linebacker and is entrusting him with being the “quarterback of the defense” despite only being a true sophomore. It will be interesting to see how he does in his starting role, but he has a lot of potential.
Corico Hawkins, OLB- Hawkins previously started at middle linebacker but has moved outside to the weakside spot in favor of Anthony starting in the middle. Anthony has a superior combination of size and athletic ability to Hawkins who is just 5’11”, 230 pounds. Still, he has been very productive for the Tigers, and he has 25 career starts for Clemson. He’s playing a new position, but his productivity should improve since it is better suited to his skill set. He had 80 tackles, 5 TFL and 2 pass break-ups last year, but keeping him away from big interior offensive linemen should help, and if he can use his athleticism to avoid blockers it should help him get in on more stops at or near the line of scrimmage. I’m not sure he’s much more than a UDFA at this point thanks to his size and lack of great playmaking ability, but his wealth of experience won’t be ignored.
Bashaud Breeland, CB**- Breeland made a name for himself as a playmaking corner last year despite being a redshirt freshman. He played in all 14 games, started 7, and had 53 tackles, 1 TFL, 4 pass break-ups and 2 interceptions (including a 1 handed beauty against Maryland) and appears to have fantastic hands and ball skills. Add that to his 6’0”, 185 pound frame and his 4.4 speed and you can’t help but wonder how good this kid is going to get. I can’t wait to see him match up with some of the wide receiver talent in the ACC, particularly against Florida State. He’s got a lot of upside and a bright NFL future if he continues to improve.
Xavier Brewer, FS- Brewer is the most versatile defender in Clemson’s secondary and will be asked to play both corner and safety during the year. He will likely play nickel corner and free safety, and his 23 career starts will prove valuable this season. He’s not a great corner, but the versatility to play there will be valuable for Clemson this year and when he attempts to make it to the next level. He’s got good size for a corner at 5’11”, 190 pounds but isn’t as well built for safety as you might like. However, his listed 4.42 speed will help him cover a lot of ground in the secondary, and that should make him valuable when he is playing deep centerfield for the Tigers.
Jonathan Meeks, SS- Meeks is a player that I actually like, but plenty of people don’t seem to. He’s inconsistent and I wasn’t impressed with his tackling, but he has good ball skills and that’s something I value over almost everything else at defensive back. He’s listed at 6’1”, 210 pounds and has a listed 40 time of 4.52 but looks a bit faster than that when I watch him. He’s got the ball skills, but I’m not sure how good his instincts and awareness are, and he doesn’t take very good angles and tackle that well. He’s got upside, and I think he has a shot to be a late round draft pick right now, but if he’s ever going to stick in the NFL he’s going to have to improve those aspects of his game. That said, I like him as a bit of an under the radar prospect.
Rashard Hall, SS- Hall is the veteran of the Clemson secondary and is considered the best draft eligible prospect of the group. I wasn’t a big fan of him last year, as I saw him miss some tackles, but he was playing through a knee injury that he had surgery for after the season, and he was still the leading tackler on Clemson’s defense last season. As I often say, it’s not ideal to have one of your safeties leading the team in tackling, and it showed as Clemson’s defense gave up 29.3 points per game (a 10.5 ppg jump from 2010), 394 yards per game including 177 on the ground, which is likely where Hall got a number of his tackles as he filled from the safety position. Opposing defenses averaged 4.4 yards per carry against the Tigers, but also completed 58.3% of all attempted passes. That means the front 7 needs to step up, but so does the secondary. Hall will play a big role in that, and if he is healthy, more instinctual and is able to break down better I could warm up to him more as a prospect. At 6’1”, 210 he has solid size for a strong safety and he had 89 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack, 1 pass break-up, 2 interceptions as well as one forced and recovered fumble. He’s got upside, and is one of the better senior safeties in the country, but I want to see some improvement from him before I label him as a potential top 75-100 pick.