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Inside the Numbers: The Rise of Clemson

Mackensie Alexander
The Tigers lost nine of 11 starters to graduation after the 2014 season, including first-round draft picks Vic Beasley and Stephone Anthony. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables had to develop a front four that had a combined six starts between them coming into the season. The front seven only had a combined 10 defensive starts a year ago, six of those coming from linebacker B.J. Goodson.
Clemson did return experience in the defensive backfield with sophomore Mackensie Alexander and junior Jayron Kearse in their second seasons as full-time starters. The majority of Clemson's defensive starters -- six of 11 -- however, had two or fewer starts in their career. Linebacker Travis Blanks came into the season with the most career starts (18), but he missed the entire 2014 season with an injury.
Clemson starters in their fourth or fifth years with the program
Charone Peake
Second-year starting quarterback Deshaun Watson is the Heisman Trophy contender and gets many of the big headlines, but half of Clemson's starters came from the recruiting classes of 2011 and 2012 and are well-tenured within the program. Talent is certainly one key to a championship football team, but experience is another and the Tigers are flush with both.
Many of those veterans, though, were also highly rated prospects. Both starting offensive guard Eric MacLain and starting wide receiver Charone Peake were Rivals100 prospects in 2011, the same class in which Clemson brought in five-stars and first-round NFL Draft picks Sammy Watkins and Stephone Anthony. Starting linebacker Travis Blanks, meanwhile, was a Rivals100 prospect and the top-ranked recruit in Clemson's 2012 class.
Average Clemson class ranking over the last five years
Dabo Swinney
The last five classes were bookended by Clemson's two best recruiting efforts in the era, signing the No. 8 class in 2011 and the No. 4 class in 2015. Many of the top names from the 2011 class have graduated and gone to the NFL or otherwise departed from the program, but key contributors MacLain, Peake, Goodson and starting offensive tackle Joe Gore remain to form a solid core of fifth-year seniors.
Last February, head coach Dabo Swinney signed the program's best recruiting class of the era, which has already seen offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt ascend to a starting role with the team. Several more true freshmen are key contributors this fall. Only USC, Alabama and Florida State pulled in higher-ranked classes than the Tigers did in 2015.
Rivals100 prospects starting for Clemson this weekend
Deon Cain
Among Clemson's 22 offensive and defensive starters for this upcoming weekend's game against Syracuse, 12 were rated four- or five-stars coming out of high school, including the eight ranked in the Rivals100. Despite that high number, though, Watson is the only current starter rated as a five-star and in the three classes from 2012-14, the Heisman Trophy candidate was Clemson's only five-star signing.
Clemson added an infusion of five-star talent to the roster in the 2015 class, however, and it has four more Rivals100 members who are sitting in their two-deep, including class of 2015 five-stars Christian Wilkins and Deon Cain. A 6-foot-4, 315-pound defensive tackle, Wilkins ranks top 10 on the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks. Wide receiver Cain, meanwhile, is second on the team with 378 receiving yards and he caught a 38-yard touchdown against Florida State to give the Tigers the lead in the third quarter. Fellow class of 2015 five-star wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud is not in the two-deep this weekend after suffering a knee injury last weekend, but he is fourth on the team in all-purpose yards for the year.
Josh Helmholdt
Midwest Recruiting Analyst
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