Clemson returns quarterback Deshaun Watson and seven other starters on offense, raising expectations even higher for a group that averaged more than 500 yards per game and came a few plays away from winning a national championship.
When spring practice opens Monday, the Tigers will start working on all the ways they can get better. Chief among the goals: cutting down on the turnovers and developing depth at just about every position on the field.
Quarterbacks are typically noncontact, so that is not going to change. But what will be different having Watson around for what the coaching staff hopes is his first complete spring since he arrived as an early enrollee in 2014. That first spring, Watson broke his clavicle and missed the spring game. Last spring, he sat out rehabbing a knee injury.
This spring, he is coming off a season in which he was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and accumulated more than 5,000 yards of offense. But coaches already have identified one area for him to work on – cutting back on interceptions. Watson had 13 last season.
“There is equal blame to go around,” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “It is not just on the quarterback, but also on the receivers running the correct routes and being sure we’re protecting the quarterback, and making sure he has time to make the right throws.”
But there might not be a more critical area for working on depth than running back, where Wayne Gallman and Watson shouldered the majority of the load – especially at the end of the season. Gallman ended up with 283 carries in 15 games; Watson had 207. The next closest running back? C.J. Fuller, with 42.
“We have the opportunity to get a guy like Adam Choice back, who redshirted last year coming off injury,” Scott said. “He’s a guy we have high hopes for. He had a good freshman year for us, and he’s a guy we think can really be a factor for us this year, along with C.J. Fuller and Tyshon Dye. That will definitely help Wayne No. 1, so he doesn’t have to play as many plays as he played.”
That leads to another question. Will more of a rotation at running back mean fewer carries for Watson? Clemson decided to run him more later in the season for a few reasons: His knee was much healthier and he became nearly impossible for defenses to defend.
“There are going to be certain games we feel like he needs to run a little bit more, but I definitely think the emergence of our running game with our running backs can allow us to pick and choose when and how often we run Deshaun,” Scott said.
As for the way last season ended, Scott said the disappointment will always be there, but the key for the staff and players is to look ahead without getting bogged down in the past.
“We’re going to have that in the back of our mind. It will always be there, but last year’s success or maybe adversity is not going to have an effect on next year,” Scott said. “It’s the old saying that last year’s touchdowns aren’t going to score next year’s points. That’s been our focus, learning from some opportunities last year -- the good and the bad -- but also realizing that 2016 is a new year. It’s a new offense, there’s different guys in that room, there’s guys on our team last year that are no longer here. We’re in that get-ready phase where we have to start from scratch. Deep down, all our coaches and players definitely have that desire to get back and finish.”