CLEMSON – For the first time Clemson coach Dabo Swinney can remember, he went old school in their first spring scrimmage – making the quarterbacks fair game in a “live” situation.
Back in his playing days at Alabama, Swinney - under Crimson Tide coach Gene Stallings – never saw a practice where the quarterbacks didn’t have their head on a swivel. No individual stats were made available after the closed session in Death Valley Monday night, but the vibe from the experiment was overwhelmingly positive – and they are set to do the same in next Monday’s scrimmage.
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“Today was one of those days we felt we needed (to go live),” Swinney said. “From an evaluation standpoint, we needed it. We got exactly what we wanted. You hold your breath, but I told the coaches, ‘Heck I’ve lost two quarterbacks two years in a row non-contact.’
“It is what it is. It’s a contact game. They protect themselves well, but it really gave us a good chance at a good evaluation for not only them but the other side. That’s something that you can take for granted on the defensive side.”
The focal point of the spring has been on the three-way quarterback race among senior Cole Stoudt, redshirt sophomore Chad Kelly and mid-year freshman enrollee Deshaun Watson.
The “live” test gave Clemson’s fourth-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris plenty he’s pleased with.
“All three of them are doing really well,” Morris said. “All three of them are motivating each other. All three are competing against each other. They are all making plays. We are one of the more fortunate teams in the country to have the opportunity of the selection of guys we have to really push each other.”
The trio was a combined 27-of-48 passing for 379 yards and four touchdowns, an efficiency of 151.0.
Held out of interviews as a freshman, Watson’s evaluation came from his two competitors, but the reviews were positive.
“Deshaun did really good,” Stoudt said, working his fourth spring in TigerTown. “It was his first live situation in college. At first he was a little skittish, but he settled down. He made a bunch of great runs and plays. He made some good reads scrambling out of the pocket and we were all cheering him on. I like that he’s gradually getting better and better and better.”
Kelly, who saw action in five games last season after a torn ACL last spring, says he was as confident as ever on his knee – but didn’t have to test it much in the pocket.
“I thought I did well,” said Kelly. “There’s always room for improvement. All of the quarterbacks did well. The line did amazing. This is by far the best job the line has done all spring. We’re just coming together and coming together and everybody did a great job today.
“The line did an excellent job. I can’t give them guys any more praise. That line is going to be very good. I don’t think we had any sacks the whole scrimmage. I don’t think I went out of the pocket to scramble.”
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Indeed the count was zero sacks and also no turnovers per the Tiger coaches. Clemson’s o-line was missing junior linemen Eric Mac Lain (turf toe) and Ryan Norton (shoulder). Swinney is holding out hope to have Mac Lain back next week,
“This may have been the best we’ve looked in a first scrimmage since I’ve been here,” said Morris. “A lot of encouraging things. I was very apprehensive because there are so many moving parts upfront. Our offensive line did a very good job today with I can’t tell you how many different scenarios.”
With a veteran makeup to the defensive front-seven, the secondary likely holds to the key any overall improvement defensively.
Swinney is pretty confident that’s going come through nine spring practices. He said redshirt and former five-star cornerback Mackensie Alexander has been a particular standout.
“Mackensie is separating,” said Swinney. “He’s going to be a special player. If we played today, he would start. Not even close. He’s as good as we’ve got.
“This will be the most complete defense we’ve had in a long time.”