CLEMSON — As Clemson began “game week” preparations for Auburn in earnest Thursday, the Tigers’ depth chart continued to round into shape.
“We had a lot of good spirit, a lot of good energy,” coach Dabo Swinney said. “Yesterday we didn’t practice, had good meetings. You can see the spring in their leg now that they’ve got that first day, second day of school under their belt.”
Perhaps the biggest news came from right tackle, where sophomore Gifford Timothy got his first team work since returning from surgery for a torn meniscus. Timothy entered preseason as the projected starter, but his chances of playing in the opener are uncertain. Redshirt freshman Shaq Anthony is currently slotted as the starter.
“I’m really encouraged,” Swinney said. “I told you last week, check back with me on Friday, and he’s actually further along than I thought he would be at this point. I’m really encouraged we’ve got a chance to get him ready. Whether he starts or not, I’m really encouraged we’ve got a chance to have another hand on board going forward.”
Swinney said that senior Spencer Benton has won the starting job at punter, but highly-touted freshman Bradley Pinion “will play this year, no doubt.”
“That battle is going to continue to go,” he said. “Benton has been the more consistent guy. He’ s a senior, he’s worked really hard. Pinion has an incredible leg but he hasn’t been quite as consistent as Spencer. That’s how we’ll go into the season. We’ve got several positions, it’s a starting point. Now it’s about performance on gameday. We’ll evaluate and compete.”
While defensive coordinator Brent Venables said this week that a redshirt is “on the table” for sophomore linebacker Tony Steward, recovering from his second ACL tear in as many years, Swinney said Steward will play this fall. He’s currently working as the No.3 “Will” linebacker behind seniors Jonathan Willard and Corico Wright, but is starting on all the special teams and will see at least 25 plays there per game.
“Last time I checked, (special teams is) a third of the game,” Swinney said. “He’s a rolled ankle away from having to play a lot at linebacker. Look at some of the guys last year, (defensive tackles) Grady Jarrett and DeShawn Williams, they didn’t play a lot, but the experience they got was incredible for them this year.
“Here’s a guy that hasn’t played a lot because of the last two years. He looks great, feels great, and whatever he gets out of this year, this guy is going to be a great player. At some point he’s going to be something special. I think we need him big-time to win. You get someone hurt, and you got guys starting playing every snap, all the special teams. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t impact the season. Hopefully he’ll have a great year, stay healthy, grow mentally and set himself up for the next two seasons to be really special.”
Pinion, defensive tackles D.J. Reader and Carlos Watkins, defensive back Travis Blanks, offensive tackle Isaiah Battle, tailback Zac Brooks and defensive end Kevin Dodd are among the freshmen who’ll definitely play this fall, Swinney said.
He said wide receiver Germone Hopper, quarterback Chad Kelly and offensive linemen Patrick DeStefano and Jay Guillermo are expected to redshirt, but could play if injuries and situations warrant. He compared their situations to those of tailback Andre Ellington and guard Ryan Norton, both of whom traveled with the team early in their freshman seasons before redshirting.
“(Hopper) is still a guy we’ve got to get ready,” Swinney said. “We won’t make a final decision until we see what happens the first few games. We get a to certain point we’ll bit the bullet and hold him for sure, but if you have injuries, he’s definitely a candidate for us.”
Swinney said that junior cornerback Martin Jenkins is facing surgery to repair a sports hernia-like injury to his groin. Jenkins played through the injury last season, but it has been slow to heal. Clemson is getting several opinions before going forward with treatment, but Jenkins will redshirt.
“He’s a really talented player I hate we’re not going to have available this year,” Swinney said. “He’s one of my favorite guys. He plays a lot bigger than he is.”