Football is closer – fall camp is here, Clemson fans.
As the countdown clock ticks towards Aug. 31 and Georgia, the work put in over the summer spills over into some key position battles in TigerTown this August.
Here’s what to watch for:
1. Is Alexander the next Sammy Watkins?: Stepping on campus in 2011, it only took Sammy Watkins three practices to crack first-team as a receiver that August. Wearing his same number on the defensive side (No. 2), expectations aren’t quite that lofty for fellow southwest Florida product Mackensie Alexander, but in a position of need, the young DB is expected to compete for a starting role come Aug. 31st. ESPN rated the 5-11 185 Immokalee (Fla.) corner as the No. 4 overall player in the nation, bringing both speed and a physical nature to the table. He is one of eight freshman signees in the secondary – and all but one will get their first taste of Clemson practice this week (safety Jadar Johnson was an early enrollee for spring ball). The Tigers are green at safety with two new starters, but corner figures to be one of the more hotly-contested spots with veterans, veterans coming back from injury and talents like Alexander coming in.
2. Finding the right five: Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris has made it pretty clear what his ideal offensive line is, but players not quite reaching their potential has thrown a wrench into that plan. Standing 6-6 280, true sophomore Isaiah Battle has the size and athleticism for an ideal left tackle, and even proved his worth in the Chick-fil-A Bowl as a stand-in when right tackle Gifford Timothy went down. Current and All-ACC left tackle Brandon Thomas has a versatility Morris would like to take advantage of. “We hope that after him going through spring through the summer into fall camp that Isaiah steps up and takes over,” Morris said, “and now you have the capability to move Brandon Thomas into a guard position and challenge some of these other guys up front. If you say, ‘Give me your most athletic group of guys.’ That would be it. Brandon allows us that flexibility. I’m expecting great things out of Brandon Thomas this year.” Also in the mix is a new center for the first time in four years – replacing Dalton Freeman – in either sophomore Ryan Norton or redshirt freshman Jay Guillermo. Morris says neither one is where he wants them going into camp, but that will leadership at the crucial spot will come with experience.
Clemson offense at its height vs. LSU
3. Is Hot Rod the clear No. 1 RB?: In the shadows behind talents from C.J. Spiller to Andre Ellington, Rod McDowell – rated a four-star prospect out of high school by Rivals – never really got a chance, until last season. He led the RB corps in yards per carry (5.4) with 20 of his 83 carries going for 10 or more yards. “Hot Rod” capped the season playing a career-high 44 snaps in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Running back isn’t a spot lacking with talent though as Ellington moves on to the next level, as three of the four tailbacks behind McDowell were also four-stars. Two are incoming big-bodied freshmen (Tyshon Dye, 6-1 205; Wayne Gallman 6-1 195) and sophomore Zac Brooks, while junior D.J. Howard rounds out the scholarship backs. McDowell could use a strong fall camp to cement his role and to try to reach a school-first of three consecutive 1,000-yard rushers.
4. LB rotation: Brent Venables coaches linebackers in addition to his defensive coordinator duties – and he’s not bashful about the bunch he has now. Leadership, chemistry and toughness are all descriptions that have rolled off his tongue of late to go with depth, quality depth. In the middle, junior Stephone Anthony assumes the role again after losing it midseason 2012. Will he be able to hang on to it? Oklahoma transfer Kellen Jones has made a name for himself in every practice regiment so far – will he break through to take a starting spot? Are the highly-rated freshmen, Dorian O’Daniel (Good Counsel) and Ben Boulware (T.L. Hanna) ready to step in immediately? These are all questions that will find some answers soon, but no matter what, Venables will take these predicaments over the transition period last fall.
5. Will Bryant breakthrough?: Clemson coach Dabo Swinney had nothing but praise for the former T.L. Hanna product and wide receiver Martavis Bryant out of spring ball. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd is feeling the same way out of summer workouts. “Martavis has probably been the most consistent player we’ve had all summer,” Boyd said. “Just a total transformation. Just an unbelievable player, I don’t think you’re going to see a guy as physically ready as him. And mentally he’s grown up, he’s where he needs to be.” Right now, the 6-5 200 junior sits behind Sammy Watkins in the boundary receiver role, but with the big-play potential (led the nation on 10 catches with a 30.5 yards per average last season), a big August could have him on the field on the first snap somewhere else.