After a brief respite, welcome back to football season – spring-style.
Here’s part of what we’ll be tracking here on OrangeandWhite.com for the practices that start Wednesday and go through March 13 for the first session, and resume after spring break on March 25 through April 13 for the spring game.
1) Running back – Is it Hot Rod’s job to lose? Senior tailback Rod McDowell was dynamite in spot duty last year, averaging 5.4 yards per in 6.4 carries a game. To close ACC play, McDowell had double-digit carries in each of the final three games, averaging six yards per carry. The question is if he can make the progression from 14 carries in ’11 to 83 in ’12 to 200+ in ’13. On the roster now, junior D.J. Howard and true sophomore Zac Brooks will compete for the spot. Howard, dealing with injuries, took a step back in carries (35 after 41 in his freshman season) with just 138 yards with two touchdowns. Brooks, four-star rated out of Jonesboro HS in Arkansas, avoided the redshirt last season, but didn’t play much, with carries in only four games. He could provide the receiver threat lost from Ellington, who racked up 16.6 yards per catch on 14 receptions in '12. Whoever emerges from the group will get some stiff competition from incoming four-star running backs Tyshon Dye (Elbert Co.) and Wayne Gallman (Grayson) in the fall.
2) Backup quarterback – Tajh Boyd doesn’t have anything to worry about after posting back-to-back school-record-shattering seasons, but that doesn’t mean less attention for this spot, especially with the confident redshirt freshman Chad Kelly in the mix. Kelly is a dual-threat who set New York state records in his senior season, passing for over 3,000 and rushing for over 1,000 yards at St Joseph’s in Buffalo. Even as a redshirt, Kelly traveled with the team and is in every bit the spot to gun for junior Cole Stoudt’s job. The Ohio product improved his completion percentage by 12 percent (67.2) from action in his freshman to sophomore seasons, passing for 212 yards, three touchdowns and a pick in 2012. In the break between spring practice sessions, Kelly said he's going to train with quarterback coach George Whitfield in California, where Boyd went last offseason as well.
3) Tight end – No pressure, next-man-up for this position. In year one of Chad Morris’ offense, Dwayne Allen won the Mackey Award for the nation’s top tight end, with 50 catches for 598 yards and eight touchdowns. Last season, Brandon Ford tied Allen’s school record for touchdown receptions for a TE with 40 catches. Redshirt junior Sam Cooper (6-5 250), a two-star prospect, is the leading returner, with 10 catches and two touchdowns in 2012. Off a redshirt, Jay Jay McCullough, a four-star prospect, figures to be in the fray, with a make-up similar to Allen (6’3 230). Early enrollee Jordan Leggett (6-6 220) will also get a crack at it, but may need some time in the weight room compared to his peers. Stanton Seckinger (6-4 210), as a receiver, and Darrell Smith (6-2 250), as a blocker, should also see time this fall and can state their case these next few weeks.
Others: DE, WLB, S, WR, C.
1) Who emerges at linebacker? – Didn’t include this spot in the position battles because really, where do you start?
Tig Willard and his team-leading 95 tackles are gone at weakside linebacker, but his spot isn’t the only that could change, with Oklahoma transfer Kellen Jones (sophomore) coming in and Justin Parker (junior) back from injury. Two highly-rated freshmen will hit the ground running in fall camp as well (Ben Boulware and Dorian O’Daniel).
After going into last season as the man in the middle, junior and former five-star prospect Stephone Anthony has to work his way back on the field (56.8 avg. snaps in the first six games; 16.9 in last seven in ‘12).
Taking his place midseason was rising seinor Spencer Shuey, who had just two less tackles than Willard (93) in 181 less snaps. He should have middle linebacker locked down.
On the edges, Quandon Christian has the inside track on one side, but he'll have to fight off whoever doesn’t take WLB this spring – possibly Anthony, along with Jones, Parker, Tony Steward and B.J. Goodson. Christian shared a starting role in the SAM/nickelback role with Travis Blanks last season, but posted a tackle only every 11.2 snaps (only Clemson linebacker in double-digits per with more than 100 snaps).
Jones is the wild card, with knowledge of Brent Venables' system as a former Sooner, and has already drawn rave reviews from coaches in a season on the scout team.
All in all, it’s an interesting position with some highly-hyped talent combined with other emerging players.
2) Who emerges as option No. 2 for Boyd? – Swapping spots at leading receiver over the last two seasons, DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins formed as formidable a duo in college football at receiver.
In that span, they made up 53 percent of the team receiving yards and 47 percent of the receptions.
But the offense did trend towards more diversity last year – the rest accounting for five percent more yards and six percent more of the receptions than in year one of Morris’ offense.
The candidates for the next top threat, outside of Watkins, are juniors Charone Peake, Martavis Bryant and Adam Humphries, with the longer shot of a major first-year impact from freshman Germone Hopper.
Bryant has shown the capacity for the big play, averaging 30.5 yards a catch on 10 of them last season, but has struggled to stay on the field consistently for a myriad of reasons.
Peake has been hailed as the fastest player on the team and caught 25 passes for 172 yards in 2012.
Humphries finished third on the team with 41 catches last season backing up Watkins, and Hopper was a four-star rated receiver who accounted for over 1,500 all-purpose yards and 26 touchdowns in his senior season at Berry Academy (N.C.).
Most likely, the Tigers won’t get another Hopkins out of the mix, but they do need somebody to step in consistently to take some of the defensive pressure off Watkins.
3) How does the o-line shake out? – Clemson returns four of its five starters here, but those spots aren’t necessarily etched in stone for those outside of the departing Dalton Freeman.
A lot of attention will be turn towards true sophomore Isaiah Battle (6-6 280), who stepped in and performed in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against LSU in rising junior Gifford Timothy’s place.
Timothy beat out sophomore Joe Gore for the job preseason ’12 and held on to it for 820 snaps, but Battle didn’t redshirt for a reason and has been lauded for his athleticism.
Rising senior Tyler Shatley and junior David Beasley should man the guard spots, while senior Brandon Thomas likely assumes one of the tackle spots again after leading the team in snaps (987) last season.
Sophomore Ryan Norton is expected to take over center, after earning rookie of the year honors from the Tigers’ staff. ESPN 150-rated center Jay Guillermo is also coming off a redshirt to compete there.
Also in the last year, both Jerome Maybank (senior) and Tra Thomas (junior) have transitioned over from d-line to o-line.
Per Clemson, the Tigers have won 76 percent of their games with four returning starters on the offensive line, but there should be an interesting mix of competition this spring.
A lot of spring ball is what could be described as a “silly season,” but taking a stab at some predictions…
1) D.J. Howard impresses and leaves spring towards top of depth chart – Howard just wasn’t able to put it all together with a couple stints on the injury report last season. If he can stay healthy, Howard is pretty strong runner with some explosiveness. In his two games with nine-plus carries, Howard averaged 6.9 yards per attempt. McDowell should be solid and Brooks still has to prove, but Howard has a chance to step into Ellington’s role.
2) Stoudt holds on to No. 2 spot into the fall – I know the Kelly crowd among Tiger fans is large and fervent, but Dabo Swinney has already put the brakes on the Kelly train before we even got started. I say the staff continues to slow-play the backup QB competition and turns it loose in the fall.
3) A lot of “or(s)” on the post-spring depth chart at d-line and linebacker – Personally, I can’t stand the “or” on a depth chart. One is the starter – one is the backup, but then again, I’ve never been a coach having to handle players dealing with their spots on said depth chart. The “or” was a fixture of the defensive tackle spot last season with the all-sophomore-now-junior cast of DeShawn Williams, Josh Watson, D.J. Reader and Grady Jarrett. Sophomore Carlos Watkins will look to join that mix. At defensive end, Corey Crawford should man one side, but two early enrollees (Ebenenezer Ogundeko and Shaq Lawson) join juniors Vic Beasley and Tavaris Barnes and underclassmen Kevin Dodd, Roderick Byers and Martin Aiken vying for playing time. It would be a mild shock with Spencer Shuey wasn’t by himself at middle linebacker, but WLB likely won’t have one post-spring winner and Christian may get some competition at SLB.