NCF Nation: Dalton Freeman

Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd is away from his Tigers teammates right now, serving as a counselor at the Elite 11 camp in Beaverton, Ore.

Boyd jumped at the opportunity to help out the next generation of quarterbacks. After all, he was among the Elite 11 group back in 2008. His selection there should come as no surprise. Trent Dilfer, the man in charge of the program, says the counselors are there to "share their life stories, to be examples in the way they engage the kids, with how they compete."

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Joshua S. Kelly/US Presswire"It's all about getting the chemistry in place on my team," Tajh Boyd said, "making sure that we don't have any division out there."
The Heisman Trophy hopeful fits the bill. He has set an example for his teammates back home, as well, as an unquestioned leader. To that end, Boyd has placed a priority on building chemistry this summer, knowing full well his team has an opportunity to achieve something special.

While in Oregon, he told ESPN Recruiting Nation reporter Mitch Sherman, "It’s all about getting the chemistry in place on my team, making sure that we don’t have any division out there. It’s been good. I know the biggest thing with me right now is chemistry with my O-linemen and with my receivers. So any time I get the chance, I’ll take the guys bowling. They break my pockets when we go out to eat, so I stopped that.”

Boyd, never afraid to crack a joke, hits the mark. Chemistry is one of those intangible aspects that is critical to the success of any team. Good chemistry helps teams thrive; bad chemistry, and teams fall apart. Secondly, chemistry between a quarterback and his line, and a quarterback and his receivers is critically important.

Going into this season, Boyd has to develop that chemistry with a new starting center, and a new outside receiver. We all saw last season how Boyd and DeAndre Hopkins were always on the same page. Sammy Watkins enters that role this year. Will their chemistry match the Boyd-Hopkins connection? How will Charone Peake, Adam Humphries and Martavis Bryant develop their chemistry with Boyd?

"Those guys have to step up in their role and take advantage of it," Boyd told Sherman. "It’s exciting. They’re excited about it. Right now, it’s all about putting the work in. What you put in is what you get out of it. I know it’s cliché, but it’s true."

And how will Boyd do with veteran Dalton Freeman gone and sophomore Ryan Norton taking over at center?

Boyd is smart enough to know that he needs the answers to those questions before the season begins.

Clemson has returned to the national picture thanks to back-to-back 10-win seasons, a plucky coach, a headstrong quarterback and some pretty eye-popping records (both good and bad).

Indeed, the Tigers have accomplished feats over the last several seasons that have not been touched for 20-plus years. Yet there is one big goal out there, reached just once in the 117-year history of Clemson football.

Ask coach Dabo Swinney about where he has the Tigers headed, and inevitably he circles back to 1981, the lone national championship season in Clemson history. The one time the program has been ranked No. 1 in a season.

You know what Swinney wants? He wants that. And he is not going to tip-toe around the subject, either. Swinney is a tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy, so it should come as no surprise that he has embraced the heightened expectations surrounding this program headed into the 2013 season.

And his players have embraced the heightened expectations surrounding this program, too.

Swinney says, "We’ve done some great things. But our goal is to compete for the national championship. We want to be in the mix for the BCS bowl every year. We want to finish in the top 10 multiple times. That’s what we’re trying to do and I think the guys understand the margin for error is very small when you’re trying to be one of those great elite teams."

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsTajh Boyd returns for his senior season and aims to take a shot at the national title.
The small group of 10 seniors certainly understand, with quarterback Tajh Boyd leading the way. Boyd returned to Clemson for his final season because he understands what is at stake, not only for him, but for his team as well.

The Tigers have a shot at starting the season ranked in the preseason Top 10 for the first time since 2008, and only the third time since 1991. Boyd, of course, is a huge reason why, as he led a Clemson offense that set 101 different records during the course of 2012. His performance against LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl was one of his best, as he showed grit, determination and an unceasing will to win in leading the Tigers' jaw-dropping fourth-quarter comeback win.

That victory has only increased expectations headed into this season, not only from outsiders but from insiders, too. Boyd said what he saw during the first spring practice last week only encourages him to believe 2013 could be something special.

"We have a lot of capabilities as a program," Boyd said. "So I’m very excited, very encouraged about what the team is going to look like this year and we just have to keep building off it."

There is plenty to build off, as Clemson has posted 10 or more wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the 1987-90 era. Mark consecutive top 25 finishes for the first time since that era as well, along with an ACC title in 2011 for the first time in 20 years. All wonderful steps, but Clemson has yet to take that final one.

This season provides the best opportunity to do so in years, as seven starters return on offense. This includes Boyd and Sammy Watkins, a more mature, grown-up receiver ready to take on a leadership role. The Tigers have some key players to replace on offense, including All-ACC running back Andre Ellington and All-ACC center Dalton Freeman, who started 49 games in his career.

But the biggest questions about this team surround the defense. Again. The Tigers were better last season under first-year coordinator Brent Venables, but they were not exactly at the top of the ACC class. Despite the improvements, Clemson ranked No. 7 in the ACC in total defense. And you can still hear the bad jokes about the Orange Bowl debacle against West Virginia.

Now the Tigers have to replace five starters, including the majority of their secondary. They also have to replace defensive end Malliciah Goodman. Only two of their top six tacklers return.

Two more potential roadblocks. First: the nonconference schedule is tough. Clemson has to open the regular season against Georgia -- also trying to get back to No. 1 -- and close it against in-state rival South Carolina. There are plenty who will say the Tigers should focus on being No. 1 in their own state before setting their sights on being No. 1 in the country.

Indeed, Clemson has not beaten South Carolina since 2008. Last season, in the game in Death Valley, the Tigers simply had no answer for Jadeveon Clowney. Nobody needs to tell Boyd that Mr. Clowney is back.

One more potential roadblock: the Tigers themselves. Clemson has had a history of falling flat in big games, or when expectations become supersized. How will this team handle the pressure as the season grows closer?

"They know how to win but more important they know how to prepare to win," Swinney said. "That’s the process they understand because of what they’ve been through for the last couple years. This is a group that wants to be great. Our job as coaches is to help them get there and correct them and discipline them and encourage them and teach them. That’s what we do, and it goes to your leadership on your team. There can’t be any satisfaction. I don’t think anybody here is satisfied with what we’ve accomplished."

Boyd echoes those sentiments, saying, "We want to be the No. 1 team."

How do the Tigers get there?

"We just have to continue to build, trying to focus on one game at a time," Boyd said. "Of course we believe we have the opportunity to put ourselves in that situation but it can’t happen if we don’t win the first game. We have to take it from the beginning to the end and continue to focus on every aspect of the game. We just have to continue to work."

When you start talking spring football every year, you start talking change.

New coaches.

New players.

New starting quarterbacks.

New teams.

Wait, what?

Yes indeed, life is about to change for the soon-to-be supersized ACC, as Pitt and Syracuse begin spring practice this year with an eye toward Year 1 as new league members. While changes come in many forms, there is no denying that this year more than most, the ACC will see radical changes across the board.

Not only will the league grow to 14 teams, three new coaching staffs are taking charge (Boston College, NC State, Syracuse); nine teams have either a new offensive or defensive coordinator; and 13 teams have at least one new assistant on staff. You know it is an offseason of change when two of the two most stable programs in the league -- Florida State and Virginia Tech -- have undergone staff overhauls.

Jimbo Fisher lost assistants for the first time under his watch, having to replace six in all, including a yet-to-be-hired offensive coordinator and new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Perhaps the most galling loss of all came at the hands of longtime rival Miami, which hired away James Coley to serve as offensive coordinator.

As if that wasn't enough, Florida State must also begin the process of replacing departed stars EJ Manuel, Bjoern Werner, Xavier Rhodes and Tank Carradine this spring.

The Noles, however, are in a better spot than the Hokies, coming off their worst season in two decades.

After offensive ineptitude hampered his team for a majority of the season, Frank Beamer changed out his offensive coaching staff, hiring Scot Loeffler as offensive coordinator in place of Bryan Stinespring. This all adds to the prevailing theme in Blacksburg this spring: How will Loeffler get the most out of quarterback Logan Thomas?

Virginia also has made major staff changes. Coach Mike London made the boldest moves in the league this offseason following a 4-8 season, hiring former Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild as offensive coordinator, former NC State coach Tom O'Brien as associate head coach/tight ends, and Jon Tenuta as defensive coordinator. Fairchild, O'Brien and Tenuta bring 115 years of coaching experience to the staff, so you have to believe the pressure is on to turn things around immediately.

Pressure is there for the new faces in the league, too. Boston College coach Steve Addazio has to find a way to turn around a 2-10 team in a hurry. NC State coach Dave Doeren has to know that 7-5 seasons with upsets over Florida State are not good enough in Raleigh, so he's got to find a way to improve with only 11 starters returning. And Syracuse coach Scott Shafer has to find a way to build upon the momentum Syracuse created in its final Big East season, in a division with Florida State and Clemson.

Doeren and Shafer have to meet their goals with a new starting quarterback. Each lost excellent leaders in Mike Glennon and Ryan Nassib, both expected to be drafted in April. Both competitions are wide-open going into the spring, as are the competitions at Florida State, Pittsburgh, Duke and Virginia.

Of these schools, there is perhaps most excitement at Pitt over a new starter, now that the Panthers have said goodbye to the streaky and often-maddening Tino Sunseri. Former Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage and redshirt freshman Chad Voytik figure to be the top two candidates.

But even a school such as Clemson has to deal with change. Yes, the Tigers do return their All-American quarterback Tajh Boyd, coach Dabo Swinney and both coordinators -- holding onto hot commodity Chad Morris for one more season. But they also lose leading receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who declared himself eligible for the NFL draft. And just as important, they have to replace center Dalton Freeman, who made 49 starts in his Tigers career.

So you see, change is everywhere, both big and small. Spring is our first introduction to a new-look ACC come the fall.

ACC's 2012 All-Bowl team

January, 10, 2013
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The ACC went 4-2 this bowl season, its first winning record since 2005. There were plenty of top performers to highlight, but these are the players who were most deserving of the ACC’s 2012 All-Bowl team:

Offense first team

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Tajh Boyd had a record-setting game in Clemson's victory against LSU.
QB -- Tajh Boyd, Clemson: He had 368 yards of total offense against LSU on 79 total offensive plays. He set a Clemson record for plays in a game by a quarterback.

RB -- Lonnie Pryor, Florida State: He had a career-long 60 yard touchdown in the first half of the Orange Bowl, which was the second-longest touchdown run in FSU bowl history. In his final game as a Seminole, he also had a 37-yard run in the fourth quarter for his second touchdown in the game.

RB -- David Sims, Georgia Tech: He rushed for a game-high and career-best 99 yards on 17 carries, and caught a touchdown pass in the 21-7 win against USC.

WR -- DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson: He finished the game with 13 receptions for 191 yards and finished the season with 82 receptions for 1405 yards. Hopkins tied his own Clemson record for receptions in a game with 13. He also had 13 in the opener against Auburn.

WR -- Conner Vernon, Duke: He caught 10 passes for 119 yards and one touchdown against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. He helped Duke to 34 points against a Bearcats defense that entered the game ranked 12th nationally, allowing just 17.2 points per game.

TE -- Brandon Ford, Clemson: His nine receptions against LSU tied the overall Clemson single-game record for receptions by a tight end. He finished with 69 receiving yards, including one reception for 20 yards.

T -- Cameron Erving, Florida State: It was the sixth game this season with over 500 yards of total offense for the Seminoles. All three touchdown runs came between center and left tackle, and quarterback EJ Manuel had all day to throw.

T -- Perry Simmons, Duke: He led an offensive line performance that yielded zero sacks and allowed quarterback Sean Renfree to establish Belk Bowl records for pass completions (37), pass attempts (49) and passing yardage (358). Simmons also aided a running game that gained 200 net yards on 39 attempts as running back Josh Snead picked up a career-high 107 yards on just 17 attempts.

G -- Josue Matias, Florida State: The Noles racked up 243 rushing yards, 23 first downs and 534 yards of total offense. He was part of an offensive line that didn’t allow Manuel to be sacked once by Northern Illinois. Two of Pryor’s runs came between Erving and Matias.

G -- Omoregie Uzzi, Georgia Tech: He helped pave the way for 294 rushing yards in the win against USC, and 369 total yards. He made his 39th career start, the second-most on the team.

C -- Dalton Freeman, Clemson: The Tigers had 100 plays and 32 first downs, and his blocking was a major factor.

Defense first team

DE -- Malliciah Goodman, Clemson: He set a bowl record with three sacks as Clemson held LSU to 219 yards of total offense.

DE -- Bjoern Werner, Florida State: In his last game with the Noles, the dominating end knocked down his eighth pass of the season, which is the second-most in the FBS by a defensive lineman. He finished with two tackles.

DT -- Derrick Hopkins, Virginia Tech: He had four tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and a sack. The sack was on Rutgers' first play of overtime, forcing them into long yardage which led to a long (and missed) field goal.

DT -- Grady Jarrett, Clemson: He had four tackles, including two tackles for loss, and one was a sack. He was a big reason Clemson held LSU to just 99 yards rushing.

LB -- Christian Jones, Florida State: Jones tied for the team lead with 10 tackles in the 31-10 Discover Orange Bowl win against Northern Illinois.

LB -- Vince Williams, Florida State: He tied Jones for the team lead with 10 tackles, and finished with one tackle for loss and a sack.

LB -- Bruce Taylor, Virginia Tech: He led the Hokies with 11 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and had a pass breakup. Virginia Tech’s defense held Rutgers to 196 yards and three offensive points, none in the last three quarters.

CB -- Rod Sweeting, Georgia Tech: Even though his statistics were modest -- three tackles, two pass breakups and an interception returned for 21 yards -- Sweeting was voted the game’s MVP. He fared well in a tough assignment, matching up with Biletnikoff Trophy winner Marqise Lee.

CB -- Antone Exum, Virginia Tech: The Russell Athletic Bowl’s MVP led a stifling pass defense that allowed just 129 yards. He made the play of the game with an interception of Gary Nova to set up the game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter. Virginia Tech’s defense allowed just 196 yards total, and just 17 completions from Nova on 40 attempts.

S -- Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State: He finished third on the team with six tackles, including one tackle for loss. The Northern Illinois receivers were no match for the FSU secondary and were rendered ineffective.

S -- Rashard Hall, Clemson: He led the team with nine tackles, including eight solo, in the win against LSU.

Specialists

PK -- Chandler Catanzaro, Clemson: He kicked the 37-yard game-winning field goal as time expired to give Clemson and the ACC a monumental 25-24 win against LSU. It was the fourth walk-off field goal in Clemson history, and Catanzaro has two of the four.

P -- A.J. Hughes, Virginia Tech: He tied the record under coach Frank Beamer for punts in a game with 11. He finished with an average of 42.2 with four punts inside the 20-yard line, and a long of 57.

SP -- Tobais Palmer, NC State: He returned a second-quarter kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown in the loss to Vandy, and became the first Pack player since Greg Golden in 2001 to return a kickoff for a score in a bowl game. He finished with 173 kickoff return yards, setting a new NC State season record with 1,130 KOR yards. Palmer and T.J. Graham (1,028 in 2008) are the only two Wolfpack players to go over 1,000 yards in kickoff returns in a single season. Palmer also went over 100 yards receiving for the third time in 2012, as he finished with eight catches for 111 yards.
Last year, Clemson contributed to the ACC’s ongoing BCS bowl woes with one of the most embarrassing performances in the history of the Discover Orange Bowl.

The Chick-fil-A Bowl is not a BCS bowl game, but this year’s matchup between No. 14 Clemson and No. 8 LSU has the feel of one and will present the ACC with a similar opportunity to make a national statement. This will be the highest-ranked team Clemson has faced in a bowl game since the 2003 season, when the Tigers upset No. 6 Tennessee in the Peach Bowl.

[+] EnlargeAndre Ellington
Joshua S. Kelly/US PresswireAndre Ellington and Clemson can give the ACC a lift by knocking off SEC power LSU.
This season, Clemson has a chance not only to redeem itself and help fans forget last year’s loss to West Virginia, but also to give the ACC a much-needed boost after one of the worst regular seasons in league history. The ACC hasn’t had a winning record against the SEC since 2003, and it hasn’t had a winning bowl record since 2005.

Clemson has a chance to help right the ship, but those within the program are far more concerned about their own program than they are carrying the banner for the entire conference

“We’re just trying to win an 11th game,” coach Dabo Swinney said. “We have a chance to finish in the top 10. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to do anything other than do something special at Clemson and be the best we can be. To win 11 games at Clemson, that’s only happened a handful of times in the history of our program so that’s really all we’re focused on. All the rest of that stuff is pretty irrelevant to be honest with you.”

Center Dalton Freeman agreed.

“We have a lot of respect for LSU because they’re a consistent team and that’s what we’re trying to become, is consistent,” he said. “The past couple of years, we’ve showcased that but to take our program to the next level and to be in the national spotlight, such as LSU the way they’ve done it year in and year out, we have to win games like this.”

Clemson squandered a similar opportunity in its regular-season finale, a fourth straight loss to rival South Carolina. The ACC enters the Chick-fil-A Bowl with a 1-5 record against its SEC opponents this year with a win over Auburn and losses to Florida, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and South Carolina.

LSU will present similar challenges to Clemson, especially up front. Clemson allowed the Gamecocks 4.5 sacks, and LSU’s defense is averaging 2.5 per game. Despite the loss to South Carolina, Clemson is still in the midst of a successful run under Swinney.

Clemson recorded its 10th victory of the year, including its seventh in a row, in a 62-48 win over NC State on November 17. It is the first time since the 1987-90 era that Clemson has had consecutive 10-win seasons. Last year, Clemson was 10-4 and won the ACC championship.

A win over LSU would prove Clemson is ready to take the next step and contend for the national title, but it would also be a major win for the struggling ACC.

“It’s a big challenge,” running back Andre Ellington said. “We’re ready for it. It’s just a great opportunity to take our program to the next level, that’s what we’re shooting for here at Clemson.”

2012 ESPN.com ACC all-conference team

December, 10, 2012
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Despite the abundance of hype surrounding the quarterback position heading into this season, there was one player who quickly distanced himself from the rest. Clemson’s Tajh Boyd had a record-setting season and he was surrounded by several all-conference-caliber teammates. With five Tigers on the first-team offense, it’s no wonder Clemson was No. 6 in the country in scoring offense at 42.33 points per game. There was no running back in the ACC more electrifying than UNC’s Giovani Bernard, though, and to leave off his lead blockers in James Hurst and Jonathan Cooper would be unjust. Surprisingly, not one player from Florida State’s two-deep made the cut for first-team offense. There’s no question, though, the ACC champs dominated the defensive lineup with four first-team selections. Imagine a dream team made up of Clemson’s offense and Florida State’s defense.

Actually, the ACC’s dream team would look more like this, your 2012 ESPN.com ACC All-Conference team:

Offense First Team

QB -- Tajh Boyd, Clemson

RB -- Giovani Bernard, North Carolina

RB -- Andre Ellington, Clemson

WR -- DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson

WR -- Conner Vernon, Duke

TE -- Brandon Ford, Clemson

T -- James Hurst, North Carolina

T -- Oday Aboushi, Virginia

G -- Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina

G -- Omoregie Uzzi, Georgia Tech

C -- Dalton Freeman, Clemson

Defense first team

DE--Cornellius Carradine, Florida State

DE--Bjoern Werner, Florida State

DT--Joe Vellano, Maryland

DT--Sylvester Williams, North Carolina

LB--Nick Clancy, Boston College

LB--Steve Greer, Virginia

LB--Kevin Reddick, North Carolina

CB--Ross Cockrell, Duke

CB--Xavier Rhodes, Florida State

S--Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State

S--Earl Wolff, NC State

Specialists

PK--Dustin Hopkins, Florida State

P--Will Monday, Duke

SP--Giovani Bernard, North Carolina

Tajh Boyd makes AFCA All-America team

November, 28, 2012
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This one is for all those Clemson fans wondering why quarterback Tajh Boyd has not received more national recognition.

How is this: AFCA first-team All-American.

Boyd was voted the best quarterback in the nation by the American Football Coaches Association, beating out Heisman front-runners Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Collin Klein of Kansas State for the first-team spot. Dalton Freeman also made the AFCA first team at center, beating out favorite Barrett Jones of Alabama.

Boyd and Freeman are the first players to make a first-team All-America squad at their respective positions in Clemson history. This also is just the third time since the AFCA began selecting an All-America team in 1945 that the quarterback and center were from the same team.

Two other ACC players made the team: North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper and Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner, who seem to be locks to make just about every All-America team that comes out in the next month. I think the only miss was Florida State kicker Dustin Hopkins, who did not make the team. Coaches selected Quinn Sharp of Oklahoma State instead.

In all, the ACC ranks third among all conferences with four selections, better than the Big 12 and Big Ten.

The biggest shocker, of course, was seeing Boyd make the first team. This honor has to feel especially good considering the coaches are the ones who vote for this All-America team. He clearly has their respect; now maybe other observers will start giving Boyd the credit he deserves.

"This is a landmark accomplishment,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said in a statement. "You don’t see your program getting two first-team All-Americans very often [although Clemson did do it last year as well]. Both young men have been great leaders for our program for more than just this year. We really have a young team with just 11 scholarship seniors.

"Dalton in particular with his 48 consecutive starts, has been the cornerstone of the offensive line as the only senior. And Tajh has been a great example of leadership to the entire team. We have had a record-breaking season on offense that has led to a second straight 10-win season and these two young men have played a big part in it."

Boyd leads the ACC and ranks fourth in the nation in passing efficiency with a 168.5 rating, on pace for a Clemson record. He has gone 251-of-377 for 3,550 yards and 34 touchdowns, and added nine scores on the ground. His 43 overall touchdowns are tied for first in the nation.

Boyd also leads the ACC and ranks eighth in the nation with 336.8 yards per game. Earlier this week, I did a little comparison showing how Boyd compared to Manziel and Klein. Not too shabby, right?

As for the other players honored, Freeman has started 48 straight games, and has played more snaps than any other player in Clemson history (3,267). Cooper won The Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the best blocker in the ACC, while Werner has had a monster year, leading the ACC with 13 sacks and ranking second with 18 tackles for loss.

Tajh Boyd headlines All-ACC team

November, 26, 2012
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Clemson had the best offense in the ACC this season, so it comes as no surprise that the Tigers dominated the All-ACC first team released Monday.

Quarterback Tajh Boyd and five teammates won first-team honors on offense, the first time Clemson has ever place six players on the All-ACC first-team offense and the first time any team has done it since Florida State in 1995.

Florida State and North Carolina each placed five players on the all-conference team, determined by a vote of 46 members of the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association.

Boyd is joined on the first team by running back Andre Ellington, receiver DeAndre Hopkins, tackle Brandon Thomas, center Dalton Freeman and tight end Brandon Ford. Boyd led the ACC with 34 touchdown passes while Hopkins had league-bests of 16 total touchdown catches and an average of 104 yards receiving.

Nine teams had at least one first-team selection. There were no unanimous picks to the first team, but North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard was chosen as a first-teamer on 45 ballots. Bernard, who had an ACC-leading 1,228 yards rushing and 12 rushing touchdowns, joins Boyd as repeat first-team selections.

Bernard, a punt returner who also was picked as the first-team specialist, was joined by guard Jonathan Cooper, linebacker Kevin Reddick and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams.

Four Florida State defensive players -- ends Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Lamarcus Joyner -- join kicker Dustin Hopkins on the first team.

Boston College (receiver Alex Amidon and linebacker Nick Clancy), Virginia (offensive tackle Oday Aboushi and linebacker Steve Greer) and Duke (cornerback Ross Cockrell and punter Will Monday) were the only other schools with multiple first-team picks.

You also should note that Virginia Tech and Miami did not have a first-team selection for the first time since they joined the ACC in 2004. Defensive end James Gayle, linebacker Jack Tyler and cornerback Antone Exum made the second team for Virginia Tech; Miami's Duke Johnson made the second team as a running back and specialist.

The league coaches will announce their all-conference team next week.

FIRST-TEAM OFFENSE
  • QB-Tajh Boyd, Clemson
  • RB-Giovani Bernard, North Carolina
  • RB-Andre Ellington, Clemson
  • WR-DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson
  • WR-Alex Amidon, Boston College
  • OT-Oday Aboushi, Virginia
  • OT-Brandon Thomas, Clemson
  • OG-Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina
  • OG-Omoregie Uzzi, Georgia Tech
  • C-Dalton Freeman, Clemson
  • TE-Brandon Ford, Clemson
  • K-Dustin Hopkins, Florida State
  • Specialist- Giovani Bernard, North Carolina
FIRST-TEAM DEFENSE
  • DE-Bjoern Werner, Florida State
  • DE-Cornellius Carradine, Florida State
  • DT-Joe Vellano, Maryland
  • DT-Sylvester Williams, North Carolina
  • LB-Nick Clancy, Boston College
  • LB-Kevin Reddick, North Carolina
  • LB-Steve Greer, Virginia
  • CB-Xavier Rhodes, Florida State
  • CB-Ross Cockrell, Duke
  • S-Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State
  • S-Earl Wolff, NC State
  • P-Will Monday, Duke

For the second-team and honorable mention selections, you can click here.
Over the past three and a half years, Clemson has been given a makeover -- so much so that if you’re just tuning in, you might not recognize the 13th-ranked Tigers.

The offense looks unstoppable. The defense is much better than the disaster it was in the infamous Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia. And the coaching staff is earning its money.

The biggest difference?

[+] EnlargeDabo Swinney
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesCoach Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers host Maryland on Saturday in their Week 11 game.
This Clemson team is not “pulling a Clemson.”

It’s a phrase Clemson fans have grown to both despise and fear because for so many years it has held true. Clemson has been a program notorious for losing games it shouldn’t (2011: vs. NC State; 2010: vs. Boston College; 2009: at Maryland; 2008: vs. Maryland). You get the idea.

Not this year.

"We hate that term so much as a team," said quarterback Tajh Boyd. "Coming into last season, we heard it so much going into the next game. Last year it was a matter of, 'When is Clemson going to pull a Clemson?' For us, we look at that as kind of demeaning. We take credit as a program for everything that happens in the past and will happen in the future. But at the same time, we don't want to leave that as the legacy, something that's ongoing and will be continuing. We really want to end that now. The culture is starting to change a little bit. We're just trying to create something that will last forever. We're trying to get rid of that stigma of pulling a Clemson, and when we play to a standard, that when I think that doesn't happen anymore."

It certainly hasn't happened this season.

Coach Dabo Swinney has done a remarkable job, and he's surrounded himself with good coaches in coordinators Chad Morris and Brent Venables. Both have made a difference, and while the Tigers aren't flawless, they're certainly better than they have been. Clemson’s lone loss was to a Florida State team that should go on to win the ACC title this year, a legitimate road loss to a top-10 opponent. Since that loss, the Tigers (8-1) have won five straight and remain in contention for an at-large BCS bowl bid. They will finish their season with back-to-back games against downtrodden Atlantic Division opponents Maryland and NC State before hosting rival South Carolina. Last year, NC State shocked then-ranked No. 7 Clemson with a stunning 37-13 upset. Last week, the Wolfpack played its worst game of the year in a 33-6 loss to Virginia.

While it would be just like NC State -- which already beat then-No. 3 Florida State -- to pull off another monumental upset, this time in Death Valley, it’s looking less and less likely each week.

“The difference between last year’s team and this year’s team is definitely maturity,” said center Dalton Freeman. “Last year we had a lot of youth, very inexperienced guys at key positions. The way our schedule was set up, we didn’t have an open week until very late in the season. The grind got too much for some of our guys. With a year under their belt and having an open week right in the middle of the season ... it really allowed everybody to stay fresh and focused.”

Freeman said nobody within the program is even whispering about a BCS bowl. They learned their lesson, he said, after an 8-0 start came to a screeching halt with a loss to Georgia Tech. Clemson went on to lose four of their final six games.

“Last year we had never really been in that position where we were winning in and out every week,” Freeman said. “We started looking ahead at the big picture and getting excited about the big picture. This year we’ve really focused on win the day, whatever that day is, whether it’s film, practice, a game, whatever it is, just focus on that day, and if we do that, the cumulative effect will be positive.”

So far, it has added up to one of the best one-loss teams in the country.
Heading into this season, the offensive lines at both Florida State and Clemson were two of the biggest question marks in the ACC. The Tigers had to replace three starters up front, and the Seminoles were coming off a Champs Sports Bowl win against Notre Dame in which four true freshmen were in the starting lineup.

You’d never know it by looking at the stats so far this season, as deceptive as some could be.

As No. 10 Clemson and No. 4 Florida State prepare to face each other in Tallahassee on Saturday, both offensive lines have shown significant improvement through the first three games of the season. Florida State is No. 2 in the country in scoring offense, racking up its stats against two FCS opponents and an overmatched Wake Forest team. Clemson is No. 23 in the country in scoring offense, with its most impressive win coming against Auburn. Both Clemson and Florida State are allowing fewer than two sacks per game.

[+] EnlargeGifford Timothy
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesGifford Timothy and Clemson's offensive line could hold the key to victory against Florida State.
Both groups, though, still have something to prove -- particularly at Clemson. The Tigers’ offensive line will arguably get its biggest test of the season Saturday when it faces Florida State’s defensive line. The Noles are tied for No. 10 in the country with 3.67 sacks per game. How Clemson fares up front could be the key to the entire game.

“It’s going to be a tough challenge, no doubt about it,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. “But we’re going to find out Saturday night one way or another.”

Clemson’s starting lineup against Auburn was Dalton Freeman, David Beasley, Gifford Timothy, Brandon Thomas and Tyler Shatley. Timothy was injured on the last offensive play of the game and missed the Ball State game. That opened the door for redshirt freshman Shaq Anthony to start and also play the first half against Furman.

Beasley was injured against Ball State, allowing Kalon Davis to play most of that game and all of the Furman game. Shatley was injured against Furman and missed the second half. Redshirt freshman Ryan Norton played the second half of that game.

Swinney said his offensive line was “pretty average” in last week’s 41-7 win against Furman.

“Nothing great,” he said, “just OK.”

“They are a question mark; they’re still a question mark,” Swinney said. “I don’t think that’s changed. … We’re a long ways away from being a great offensive line right now.”

The good news for Clemson fans is that the starting lineup used against Auburn should be healthy and ready to play at Florida State. And the backups have now had some significant experience. Entering the FSU game, Clemson has eight different offensive linemen who have played at least 98 snaps.

Florida State’s improved pass protection has been measurable. So far, the line has allowed three sacks in 194 snaps and 84 pass attempts. All three sacks, though, came against the best competition they’ve played -- a Wake Forest team that was missing one of its top defensive linemen in injured nose guard Nikita Whitlock.

It’s still a foreshadowing of improvement since last season, when the Noles allowed 41 sacks in 820 offensive snaps, which amounts to one every 20 plays. Only eight teams in the nation yielded more sacks than FSU in 2011.

There’s no question that FSU is also running the ball better. In 2011, the Seminoles produced just 112.2 rushing yards per game -- their lowest average since 2006 -- and managed 1,458 yards on the ground. Through three games the Noles are averaging 279 rushing yards.

The numbers are skewed because they’ve been racked up against unheralded FCS competition in Murray State and Savannah State, but FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said he likes what he has seen so far.

“I think they’re very good players,” Fisher said. “They’re all very talented. It took a little bit of time to learn, and that’s a position that’s very hard to adapt to, and we loved them because of their size and athleticism. I think that’s where you’ve got to control both lines of scrimmage -- that’s where it’s got to start.

“I’ve been very pleased with them, but I don’t think we are close to where we can be,” Fisher said. “I think each challenge is bigger and bigger each week.”

This one, of course, might be the biggest of the season.

Clemson's offensive line grows up

September, 4, 2012
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Andre EllingtonScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesClemson's offensive line performed well against Auburn, allowing Andre Ellington to run for 231 yards.
When Clemson opened its game against Auburn, some of the major concerns about a revamped offensive line were played out.

Missed assignments. Pre-snap penalties -- one that cost the Tigers a fourth-and-goal attempt at the 1. Way too many Auburn defenders coming free, forcing Tajh Boyd to avoid the pressure on numerous occasions. At the end of the first half, Clemson had given up four sacks -- that only happened twice all of last season.

But a funny thing happened on the way toward writing off the offensive line. All five guys started playing much better, together. And their superior conditioning in the spread hurry-up started paying off. Center Dalton Freeman, tackles Brandon Thomas and Gifford Timothy, and guards David Beasley and Tyler Shatley had their way with the Auburn defensive front, which was clearly exhausted and having a hard time keeping up.

The end result? No second-half sacks allowed, no more procedure penalties and a hard-fought victory.

"We knew coming in that we were inexperienced but we weren’t going to let that be an excuse for us," Freeman said after the game. "I was impressed with our poise. We did a good job of handling adversity. We’re very happy with where we were … Early on, we were beating ourselves, probably trying to do a little too much. Once we calmed down, we played pretty well.”

Freeman and Thomas are the only two starters returning from a year ago. Beasley, Timothy and Shatley had a combined 75 plays on the offensive line entering the Auburn game. (Shatley played 317 snaps in 2011, but all were on defense.)

After the rough start, the offensive line helped Andre Ellington run for 228 yards, and a 320 total yards on the ground. That was the highest rushing total for Clemson since gaining 323 against Georgia Tech in the 2009 ACC Championship game. Clemson is now 107-4-1 when it gains at least 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in the same game.

What's more, all five starters played every single snap but the final one -- only because Timothy got banged up and had to leave the game. Freeman was so good, he was selected as one of the ACC Players of the Week on Tuesday. Coach Dabo Swinney said during his news conference Tuesday he expects Timothy to play Saturday against Ball State, and he also hopes to get some of his reserves more involved.

Still, it was an impressive performance after a shaky start. Despite the result, both Swinney and Morris cautioned there is plenty more work to do.

“I think we all saw same thing, they’ve still got a lot of room for improvement,” Morris told reporters in Clemson on Monday. “We’re not ready to name them the ‘Seven Blocks Of Granite’ or ‘Four Horsemen’ yet. Those guys have earned some respect on this football team.”

Clemson rolls without Sammy Watkins

September, 2, 2012
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video

ATLANTA -- The talk outside the Clemson locker room focused on the absence of one dynamic Sammy Watkins, filling radio talk shows and newspapers, blogs and online reports.

The talk inside the Clemson locker room?

Well, leave it to receivers coach Jeff Scott to draw a little diagram for his players, without X's and O's.

On this diagram: every receiver on the team, with his receptions and receiving yards from 2011.

“It was amazing,” DeAndre Hopkins said. “Like we had Sammy out there. So we knew coming into the game that we were prepared and we could do work with the guys we have.”

The storyline was a convenient and simple one: How would Clemson do without Watkins in the opener against Auburn? But it inconveniently missed a major point.

The Tigers have playmakers in spades on this team. You saw it Saturday night in a 26-19 victory over Auburn in the Georgia Dome, a win that gave the ACC a temporary reprieve on the national credibility front and hopefully closes the chapter on the Meltdown in Miami.

Tajh Boyd ran for a career-high 58 yards -- 38 of them on the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter -- looking much sleeker and faster without the 20 pounds he gained last season.

Andre Ellington, healthy for the first time in two years, ran for a career-high 231 yards on what was a decent Auburn defensive front. Two of those runs sent jaws dropping, as he slithered away from would-be tacklers, busted a few spin moves and kept a balance that ought to make Olympic gymnasts blush.

Hopkins set a single-game school record with 13 receptions for 119 yards and the game-winning touchdown, a play that featured an acrobatic leap in the corner of the end zone with a defender draped on his back.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireClemson quarterback Tajh Boyd strikes a pose after the victory over SEC foe Auburn.
These three players, all known quantities from last season, proved to be even better in Week 1 of a new year. When the Tigers needed them most, trailing 19-16 in the fourth quarter, each responded. Combined, they accounted for 19 of the 21 plays on the final two drives of the game -- drives that resulted in 10 points and the Clemson victory.

“We knew that the guys were going to come to the upperclassmen and look for us when were down in a hole, and we were going to step up and set the tone for the whole season,” Hopkins said. “And we did that.”

Offensive coordinator Chad Morris preached all summer about playing faster, faster, faster this season. You saw the big reason in this game. Clemson, struggling early in the game with its rebuilt offensive line, started to see Auburn get tired.

Not just hands-on-your-hips tired. Players started asking to be taken out of the game in the second quarter. Center Dalton Freeman noticed, and so did the entire Clemson offensive line and offensive staff. Morris went up to Ellington and asked a simple question.

“What do you want to do?”

Ellington went up to his offensive line.

“Do y’all want to pass or do y’all want to run?” he asked.

“They said, ‘Let’s run the ball,'” Ellington recalled. “They felt those guys were getting tired and we could push them around real well, so we did that. Coach kept feeding me the ball, and we had success with it.”

Success to the tune of 320 yards rushing and 87 total plays.

“Our guys could have played all night,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “They were strong.”

They were physical, too, and grew up as the game went on. The starting offensive line played every single snap save one, when right tackle Gifford Timothy got hurt at the end of the game.

While the offensive line was blossoming, the defense started playing with more conviction. There were missed assignments, blown tackles and many open running lanes early on. But when the game was on the line, this group came up with some pretty huge stops.

Auburn made it inside the Clemson 30 three times in the second half. Two of those drives made it into the red zone. On each of the three drives, Auburn had to settle for a field goal -- crucial plays that ended up having a direct effect on the score.

Seeing 19 up there surely feels better than the big 7-0 that gnawed at this team -- and this conference -- for eight long months. Seeing this team win without Watkins, well, that was pretty special, too.

“We just have to keep building off it,” Boyd said. “People after the game asked me, ‘Did this do anything for the ACC/SEC?' It has nothing to do with that. This is all about Clemson. We’re doing everything we can for Clemson. I feel like we’ve got a special team in the making. We’ve just got to keep going, keep persevering.”

ESPN.com's preseason All-ACC team

August, 29, 2012
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ESPN.com is announcing its all-conference teams today. Offensively, there was only one difference from what the media chose in July at the ACC football kickoff in Greensboro, N.C., but it was a big difference -- at quarterback. Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas got the nod over Clemson’s Tajh Boyd. Defensively, there also were a few tweaks, as Florida State swept the defensive end position and Georgia Tech’s Jeremiah Attaochu earned his spot at linebacker. With the dismissal of former FSU cornerback Greg Reid, though, Clemson’s Sammy Watkins was promoted to the top return man.

Here’s a look at ESPN.com’s preseason All-ACC team:

OFFENSE

WR Conner Vernon, Duke

WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson

TE Matt Furstenburg, Maryland

T James Hurst, North Carolina

T Oday Aboushi, Virginia

G Omoregie Uzzi, Georgia Tech

G Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina

C Dalton Freeman, Clemson

QB Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech

RB Giovani Bernard, North Carolina

RB Andre Ellington, Clemson

DEFENSE

DE Brandon Jenkins, Florida State

DE Bjoern Werner, Florida State

DT Joe Vellano, Maryland

DT Nikita Whitlock, Wake Forest

LB Bruce Taylor, Virginia Tech

LB Kevin Reddick, North Carolina

LB Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech

CB David Amerson, NC State

CB Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech

S Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State

S Earl Wolff, NC State

SPECIALISTS

PK Dustin Hopkins, Florida State

P Dalton Botts, Miami

SP Sammy Watkins, Clemson
1. Auburn will have two new starters on its offensive line and will start two freshmen and two sophomores up front when it plays No. 14 Clemson in Saturday night's Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Atlanta's Georgia Dome. And Auburn won't even have the youngest offensive line on the field.

After setting a school record with 440.8 yards of offense per game in offensive coordinator Chad Morris' first season in 2011, the Clemson Tigers are undergoing a facelift up front. Senior center Dalton Freeman (36 career starts) and left tackle Brandon Thomas (10 career starts) are the only returning offensive linemen with any starting experience. Left guard David Beasley, a sophomore, played 30 snaps in five games last season, and right tackle Gifford Timothy played 45 snaps, mostly blocking on placekicks. Junior right guard Tyler Shatley is a converted defensive tackle, who signed with Clemson as a fullback.

Auburn is expected to start redshirt freshman Greg Robinson at left tackle, and freshman Avery Young is a top candidate to start at right tackle. Sophomore Tunde Fariyike will probably start at center after expected starter Reese Dismukes was suspended following his arrest on public intoxication charges.

2. Remember that frustration you felt when the scoreboard operator refused to show you the replay of a controversial play in a game? Well, if you're the fan of an SEC team, you might get to see those plays over and over again this season.

The SEC announced Monday that its member schools are no longer limited in use of replays, except when a stoppage occurs for an official review. The new SEC rule allows a replay to be shown on the video board from the end of a play until the beginning of the next play. During an official review, replays from TV network video feeds can be shown between the referee's announcement to stop play and when he announces the replay outcome. In the past, SEC schools were only allowed to show a replay once.

“The change in policy will allow our fans to see more of the action, including great plays and close calls,” SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said in a statement. “Fans in the stadium now can see many of the same views of a play seen by fans watching on television. This should add to the overall game experience for fans inside our stadiums.”

The SEC changed the rule in part because it didn't want fans staying at home, where they could watch replays time and time again on TV.

3. Some college football coaches, like Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, have banned their players from using Twitter during the season.

But USC's Lane Kiffin seems to be embracing social media. The Trojans have included players' Twitter handles on their respective bios on the school's website and even next to their names on the depth chart released on Monday. Right guard John Martinez was the only offensive starter who didn't use Twitter, and all but three defensive starters also had Twitter handles.
The ACC today announced its preseason all-conference team, which was chosen by media members this week at the ACC Football Kickoff on Sunday and Monday at the Grandover Resort in Greensboro, N.C. Florida State, Clemson and North Carolina led all schools with four players each.

Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who was named by the media as the ACC preseason Player of the Year on Monday, was the only unanimous selection on the team, being named on all 68 ballots.

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