CLEMSON — Friday is a day Clemson players and coaches have anticipated for months. Following the drudgery of spring practice and sweltering summer workouts, the Tigers mark a major milepost towards defending their ACC championship with the first preseason practice.
At 5:45 p.m., players will march into the practice complex for the first of 28 preseason workouts in preparation for Sept. 1’s much-anticipated season opener against Auburn.
Despite the program’s first ACC title in 20 years, Clemson has numerous questions to answer before toe hits leather inside the Georgia Dome.
Here are five of the most important issues that Dabo Swinney and Co. must address in the next 30 days:
1. Can the offensive line protect Tajh Boyd? There are no questions about the firepower Clemson returns on offense. Despite losing John Mackey Award winner Dwayne Allen, the Tigers have the ACC preseason player of the year in sophomore wideout Sammy Watkins, a returning first-team All-ACC quarterback in Boyd, an excellent receiver in junior DeAndre Hopkins and one of the league’s top tailbacks in senior Andre Ellington.
But only two starters return from a line that had its share of issues in 2011 – senior center Dalton Freeman, a returning Rimington Award finalist, and junior left tackle Brandon Thomas. Sophomore left guard Kalon Davis, junior Tyler Shatley (a converted defensive tackle) and sophomore right tackle Gifford Timothy round out the starting five, and Swinney is confident in the young depth behind them. But if this group doesn’t give Boyd time to throw, it’ll be a long fall in Death Valley.
2. Who’ll emerge on the defensive line? Three starters from 2011’s salty D-line are in NFL camps, with senior defensive end Malliciah Goodman the lone holdover. Sophomore Corey Crawford will inherit Andre Branch’s starting spot, with the starting defensive tackles expected to come from the sophomore quartet of Tavaris Barnes, Grady Jarrett, DeShawn Williams and Josh Watson. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables appears far more comfortable with his depth inside; four-star freshman Carlos Watkins could get early playing time, with Barnes moving outside. Freshmen Shaq Lawson and Martin Aiken could also be counted upon for early depth at end.
3. Which freshmen will make a major impact? With a young roster, there is still room for incoming freshmen to make a big splash this fall. Who’s most likely to do so? Look no further than defensive back Travis Blanks, who impressed coaches with his versatility, athleticism and maturity this spring. He could see immediate time as the nickel back. Both Watkins and D.J. Reader could break into the defensive tackle rotation, with Aiken and Lawson having legit shots to do so at end. Wide receiver Germone Hopper will immediately be one of the quickest players on the roster, but how quick he contributes depends on how fast he learns the offense. Tailback Zac Brooks will almost certainly see the field in a thin backfield, and Isaiah Battle, Patrick DeStefano or Jay Guillermo could potentially see time after going through spring practice as early enrollees.
4. What’s Sammy’s situation? Watkins’ status has been a hot-button topic since his May arrest for possession of marijuana and pills used to treat ADHD. Swinney has said that Watkins will certainly miss playing time – it’s just a matter of when and how much. He said that Watkins has a “low end” and “high end” for punishment, and praised his response to the arrest. The punishment is expected to come down shortly after practice begins, giving the wide receivers and offense plenty of time to plan and adjust for his absence.
5. Who’s going to punt the ball? One of the least talked-about losses from 2011 was the graduation of steady punter Dawson Zimmerman. Incoming freshman Bradley Pinion impressed in spring, booting the ball with consistency. He’ll face off against senior Spencer Benton, who also serves as the kickoff specialist. If Pinion, considered one of the nation’s top high school punters when he signed with Clemson, can continue his solid run, don’t be surprised to see him lined up deep Sept. 1 against Auburn.