For a college football program like Clemson’s, improvement is a year-round endeavor, with one season blending almost seamlessly into preparation for the next.
Clemson’s ‘off-season’ workouts will get underway shortly, minus a relatively small group of seniors, in addition to junior Dwayne Allen, who recently declared for the NFL draft.
On numerous ‘critical needs’ fronts, there are ways in which the Tigers can help themselves get off on the right foot for 2012, even before spring practice begins in March:
Grow up fast, part 2: The NFL has feasted on Clemson’s defensive line in recent years – a pair of second-round draft picks (Da’Quan Bowers and Jarvis Jenkins), plus a couple of free-agent signees (Miguel Chavis and Jamie Cumbie) last season, Ricky Sapp and Kevin Alexander the year before, with the likelihood that Brandon Thompson, Andre Branch and Rennie Moore will get their ‘next level’ chance this spring.
The high-volume talent turnover means that the heat is on for Clemson’s next wave of defensive linemen this spring.
During off-season workouts, the coaches will be looking for signs that young players like DeShawn Williams, Tavaris Barnes, Grady Jarrett, Josh Watson and Tra Thomas are ready, physically and mentally, to step up from the second-tier roles they played in 2011.
Of that group of players, only Williams – a first-year freshman – figured prominently into the Tigers’ regular backup rotation at defensive tackle. Barnes and Jarrett saw spot action, but mostly played in the Tigers’ handful of early-decided games. Watson played less than Barnes and Jarrett, and Thomas hardly played at all.
Rising sophomore Corey Crawford was a regular contributor at defensive end from the start of the season, and can be expected to slide into Branch’s spot. That’s it as far as defensive end experience is concerned. Vic Beasley got a handful snaps, and he, like the young players in the interior, needs to make the winter and spring a ‘let me show you what I can do’ time.
Play throw-and-catch-up: A year ago at this time, the Tigers were in the process of lining up a group of wide receiver signees ranked as the best in the nation; and, on paper, Martavis Bryant and Charone Peake looked to be on par with Sammy Watkins at the head of the Tigers’ class.
Watkins, of course, hit the ground running on his way to an unprecedented All-America season. Bryant and Peake played and contributed, but both ended up with fewer snaps than fellow freshman Adam Humphries, who finished with more receptions (15) than Bryant (9) and Peake (4) combined.
Bryant and Peake, in particular, need to play catch-up this winter and spring (as does Joe Craig). Wide receivers coach Jeff Scott would like to get to a place where he has six or seven wide-outs that he can rotate in and out of the game, almost without regard to who’s in the game at a particular time.
With Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins and Jaron Brown already established at the top of the depth chart, that’s a tall order. Peake, Bryant and Craig can help themselves by using the off-season to improve physically, as well as in their understanding of Chad Morris’ playbook, especially since he plans to install even more of his offense in the spring.
Film time for Tajh: Dabo Swinney often talks about gaining ‘valuable teaching tape’ whenever the Tigers are able to get their youngest players into game situations.
With an exceptional first season behind him, Tajh Boyd can give himself a jump start on his next big step by spending off-season time studying both what worked and what didn’t in the course of his 14-game, nearly 1000-snap season, in which he threw for nearly 4,000 yards, with 33 touchdowns and a dozen interceptions.
The sky’s truly the limit for Boyd once he learns how to better avoid putting the ball in peril in the passing game, and when to pull the football down and run.
No Clemson player in recent memory has taken his job any more seriously than Boyd; so expect for significant improvement to be made before the first snap of the spring.