CLEMSON — College football coaches like to refer to the first day of preseason practice as “Christmas morning.” They get to open all their presents.
Instead of Red Ryder BB guns, PlayStation3s and IPhones, coaches get fleet wide receivers, tailbacks that can cut on a dime and defensive tackles who strike fear into the hearts of the steeliest-eyed of quarterbacks.
Today, Dabo Swinney gets Christmas in August.
When Clemson opens preseason practice, Swinney and his staff will get their first chance to look over the recruits who signed with CU in February; seven players enrolled in January and went through spring practice with their new teammates.
Here’s a look at the five freshmen most likely to contribute this fall.
5. WR Germone Hopper: Immediately one of the quickest players on the roster, Hopper was rated as the nation’s No.11 WR and No.75 overall prospect by Rivals.com, the No.20 WR by Scout.com and No.13 wideout by ESPN.com. At six-foot, 170 pounds, he has a slight frame, but can contribute in many ways, including wide receiver jet sweeps (he ran for 4,000 yards in high school), kick returns and, of course, catching passes. Maturity is an issue for him: offensive coordinator Chad Morris said that his playing time would be determined by how quickly he picks up the offense. With a stacked group ahead of him, he’ll have to impress to get on the field this fall.
4. P Bradley Pinion: Pinion was rated as the nation’s top punting prospect by 247sports.com, the No.3 kicker by ESPN.com and No.4 kicker by Rivals.com. He didn’t disappoint, enrolling in January and enjoying a very good spring. He averaged 44.8 yards on eight punts in the spring game, and Swinney suggested he could push senior kicker Spencer Benton for the starting punting role. With graduated senior Dawson Zimmerman gone, the job is wide open, and Pinion could grab it with a good August.
3. DT Carlos Watkins: The 6-foot-4, 275-pound mauler was a gem of Clemson’s Class of 2012. He is rated as the nation’s No.7 defensive lineman by 247sports.com, the nation’s No.8 defensive tackle by Rivals.com and No.8 DT by Scout.com. With Clemson’s top three defensive tackles from 2011 in NFL camps and a fourth, junior Tyler Shatley, learning right offensive guard, opportunity exists in the trenches. A quartet of sophomores will fight for first-team roles, but Watkins should be able to earn some snaps, just like 2011 true freshmen Grady Jarrett and DeShawn Williams, with consistent effort.
2. RB Zac Brooks: Even before Mike Bellamy’s departure due to academics, this was a thin position. Now, only D.J. Howard and Rod McDowell back up senior Andre Ellington, who has yet to make it through a full season injury-free. Brooks is almost assured playing time; how much he gets and how quickly he gets it depends on how quickly he picks up the offense. He is a hybrid back who is just as comfortable lining up in the slot as he is behind the quarterback. He was rated the nation’s No.15 tailback by Rivals.com, the No.22 athlete by 247sports.com and the No.42 wideout by Scout.com. Enrolling in January gave him a jump-start, but he’ll have to keep rolling up the learning curve to see real snaps this fall.
1. DB Travis Blanks: As reporters walked into Clemson’s first spring practice, one of the first things they saw was new defensive coordinator Brent Venables working a first-team defense – with Blanks as the nickel back. That’s all you need to know about how highly coaches think of the Tallahassee native, who seems primed for significant playing time this fall. Blanks was rated as the nation’s No.2 safety and No.15 overall player by ESPN.com, the No.4 DB and No.60 overall player by Rivals.com and the nation’s No.13 safety by Scout.com. He can slide between safety and cornerback and is currently listed as a backup at the hybrid Will linebacker/nickel back position. It would surprise no one if he took a role like current NFL player Marcus Gilchrist, playing as the X-factor of the secondary. Unless Blanks falls off a proverbial cliff this month, he should be the star of Clemson’s Class of 2012.