The Clemson Tigers stepped back on the pitch last Monday to open up what they hope to be another amazing football season. While yes the Tigers are back on the iron, for coach Dabo Swinney it is quite a different look then last year’s team. For the Tigers though their opening practice was sunny and 75 (reminds me of a country song), oh yeah and two and a half hours of hard work and preparation. With only 15 days of training and a spring game set for April 11 in Death Valley, Swinney definitely has his work cut out for him.
For a team that was ranked number one in 11 categories on defense last year and an offsense that produced some amazing results, replacing those bodies and finding that leadership is going to be a tough task. I will say though, despite losing nine starters on th defense and four more potential NFL draft picks, there are some positives things that Swinney has to look forward too. Lets take a look at a few shall we?
1. Offensive Line: While yes the defensive may be on the rebuild, the Tigers are returning an established and well oiled front line. The Tigers primary weapons such as quarterback Deshaun Watson and running back Wayne Gallman and receiver Artavis Scott are all returning and make the loss on defense sting a little less. But the major hit on the offensive side is the loss of offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who averaged about 30 points and 400 yard per game. He is now the head coach at Southern Methodist University and is replaced by co-coordinators Tony Elliott, Jeff Scott and Brandon Streeter. I think Clemson fans can rest assure that the expectation to be great on the offensive end is still the same. With Watson still recovering from a knee surgery in December, it will be up to other guys to fill in while he is away. Hopefully when Watson returns he will be able to up his performance from last year, which included six touchdown passes in the win over North Carolina and a huge win over ACC rivals Florida State. While Watson is an asset, Swinney can be reassured that redshirt junior Nick Schuessler will bring his A-game as well as signees Kelley Bryant and Tucker Israel. Swinney is looking for a particular pecking order when it comes to his back-ups. I mean look at Ohio State, their back up to the back up quarterback filled in and they were still able to win. They need guys who will be able to do that without any hesitation or missteps. To round out the offensive end Scott returns as well as Germone Hopper, Charone Peake, Jordan Legget and Stanton Secklinger. They have also been able to recruit four of the top offensive linemen in the country, which will make having to fill in the empty holes a little easier. Finally Clemson will be looking to improve on their net rushing yards, sack count and efficiency in the red zone; and with freshman like Mitch Hyatt, he will be transformative and have an impact to improve upon those areas.
2. Young Roster: While many teams find such a young roster a liability during spring ball, for Clemson this is a good thing. We have already mentioned the fact they have lost some key starters but this group of freshmen bring a youthfulness and hunger for the game that makes everyone work harder. I think when most people hear the word young they assume we only mean freshman, while yes that is true I would like to group in the redshirt players. They are just as young as the freshman, considering most of them never suited up a day in their lives the last year or two. I mentioned earlier Schuessler, stepping up in that quarterback role during Watson’s absence, so I hope Swinney is impressed. Do the young guys need to improve their Clemson football IQ a little bit… absolutely, but hey it is only the spring I think we can let it slide.
3. Defense: I know, I know I said that losing nine starters on the defensive end was quite a one-two punch to the stomach, but Swinney can handle the challenge of reworking. Clemson returns three starters from a defense like I said led in 11 different categories and ranked in the top 25 in 20. During the last season they lost four of their top tacklers and seven of the nine to graduation. But have no fear Tiger fans there are some excellent returning players that will hopefully keep the Clemson defense reputation up to par. Players like defensive end Shaq Lawson, tackle D.J. Reader, linebacker Ben Boulware and defensive backs Mackenzie Alexander and Jayron Kearse. Swinney will definitely turn to Lawson and Reader as leaders of the Clemson defensive front, both having impressive seasons last year. There are also a few players who will be co-holders on the defensive end, each with a strength that will fair better then having to just have one player. Carlos Watkins and Kevin Dodd will be one duo on the defensive line, with B.J. Goodson and Korrin Wiggins at the linebacker position. Looking back to last year, we saw Goodson play more of when the opposition was a running game and Wiggins play against teams that played more of the passing game. My only worry is that the bar is set too high for this Clemson defense and with such a loss will they be able to hold the reputation of a top tiered defensive team?
Overall the practice is still young… or is the saying the night is still young? Either way this is just spring ball for Clemson. Swinney is just taking it all in, seeing where the leaders are, where his playmakers are and most importantly what he has to work with. It will be a long process but this is why they play spring ball. At this point it is just laying out all the pieces to the puzzle and seeing where each player fits in that puzzle. It will definitely take some time and shuffling around the get the combination just right, but Swinney and his staff are professionals, they can handle all the movement. Finally this new cream of the crop freshman class they just signed will bring energy, hunger and drive to an already hungry tiger team. So for any fans really worried about them continuing their dominance…don’t worry they will.