CLEMSON — – For the Clemson football team, Wednesday marked an important point in the 2011 season.
Fall semester classes began. They had the day off from practice. Campus is alive with the full student body’s presence.
It’s starting to feel like fall. Well, at least it’s starting to feel like football season.
The season opener against Troy is less than 10 days away, and when the Tigers return to practice Thursday, they’ll seriously begin the process of preparing for the Trojans, forming scout teams and starting to identify which freshmen will play and which will sit this fall.
It’s the perfect time to examine how Dabo Swinney’s bunch has handled its most pressing issues entering preseason practice.
Let’s review, shall we?
1. Which of the freshmen will have the biggest impact? Clemson’s highly-touted recruiting class (ranked No.8 nationally by Rivals.com) will have a significant role this fall; the only question is how many of them we’ll see on the field. Swinney said last month that 10-13 true freshmen could play this season. Five-star receiver Sammy Watkins will lead them; he moved into the starting lineup three practices in and hasn’t looked back. Fellow wideouts Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant will also see time, with Peake slightly ahead of Bryant. Five-star tailback Mike Bellamy missed a week with a shoulder injury, but should see significant action behind Andre Ellington. Five-star linebackers Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward will play, and Anthony could push for a starting role eventually. Kevin Steele has said safety Robert Smith could play, although cornerback Cortez Davis’ redshirt status is uncertain. Defensive tackles Grady Jarrett and DeShawn Williams will likely both be plugged in immediately, as will end Corey Crawford.
2. Who’s the left tackle? Easy. Earlier this month, many expected sophomore Brandon Thomas to give Phillip Price a serious battle for All-ACC selection Chris Hairston’s old spot, but the fight never materialized. Price had as good a camp as any offensive lineman, while, when pressed, Swinney said he didn’t have anything good to say about Thomas. A converted tight end, Price is inexperienced but tough, nasty and determined. If he doesn’t work out, fellow senior David Smith could always slide over from left guard.
3. Where’s the beef on the defensive line? Good question. This remains a major concern. The front-liners – defensive ends Malliciah Goodman and Andre Branch and defensive tackles Rennie Moore and Brandon Thompson – have lived up to expectations; Goodman has been as highly-praised as anyone this month. But depth behind them is a serious issue, particularly at defensive tackle. Steele said backup end/linebacker Spencer Shuey “is the only one who’s bit the bullet” and Swinney said that beyond backup tackle Tyler Shatley, “it’s a mixed bag.” Coaches need Tavaris Barnes to emerge, as well as fellow redshirt freshman Josh Watson. True freshmen Jarrett and Williams should see time, too.
4. Who’ll replace Marcus Gilchrist and Bryon Maxwell at cornerback? Both Gilchrist and Maxwell are in NFL camps now, but Steele appears comfortable with their replacements. Senior Coty Sensabaugh started three games last fall, and is a tall, athletic prospect. Junior Xavier Brewer started 10 games in 2010 and improved significantly as the season wore on. Brewer fended off a challenge from sophomore Martin Jenkins, who should also see major snaps. Redshirt freshman Bashaud Breeland will float between corner and safety, like Gilchrist did. Overall, this group is less experienced, but Steele appears less worried about them than, say, the defensive line.
5. Who’ll be the kicker. Chandler Catanzaro won the starting kicking job last fall as a redshirt freshman but was, shall we say, up-and-down. He missed five field goals from inside 40 yards, including a potential game-tying try in overtime at Auburn and two from 34 and 38 yards in a 16-13 loss at Florida State (and misses from 36 and 44 in a 16-10 loss at Boston College). However, he finished the season strong, and received a scholarship earlier this month. Incoming freshman Ammon Lakip was rated the nation’s No.7 kicker by Rivals.com, but the Cat-man was steady in preseason, making 85 percent of his kicks. Still, the real challenge will come when the games start. There’s a big difference between kicking with your teammates screaming around you in a scrimmage and with 80,000 fans screaming in your ear. Catanzaro improved his mechanics and mental approach working with NFL legend Morten Andersen this summer. He’s established a beachhead; now the trick will be maintaining it.