Spring Football: Clemson Looks to Repeat as ACC Champions

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Clemson loses some key pieces from last season, but plenty of major players return as well.

Standout quarterback Deshaun Watson will be among the frontrunners for the Heisman trophy again this year. that campaign will be aided by the return of receiver Mike Williams. The 6’4″ Williams is back after suffering a fractured neck last season. It came during a scary collision with a goalpost in the 2015 opener against Wofford.

He was cleared to practice in February, but coaches are still keeping him out of scrimmages and contact drills as a precaution. Deon Cain (582 yards, five touchdowns) is also out for the spring after he was suspended and sent home from the Orange Bowl for a violation of team rules. Redshirt sophomore Trevion Thompson has stepped in to take more reps and had a strong performance in the team’s first scrimmage with three catches for 114 yards and a touchdown. At this point he’s listed as Williams’ backup.

Artavis Scott, and Hunter Renfrow also return at receiver and Wayne Gallman has a lock on the starting tailback position.

Scott and fellow receiver Ray-Ray McCloud have also been fielding punts in an effort to jumpstart one of the team’s few weak points last season. The Tigers averaged just 2.3 yards per punt return and are looking to get the ball into the hands of their playmakers on special teams.

The offensive line will be a little green in spots, but they’re supremely talented. Tackles Mitch Hyatt and Jake Fruhmorgen are sophomores, while redshirt sophomores Taylor Hearn and Justin Falcinelli are battling to start at left guard. No matter the lineup, they should be more than capable of setting the table for all the playmakers on offense.

“They want to be a special group,” Dabo Swinney told the press recently.

“They understand that they have a great quarterback back there, a bunch of great backs and a bunch of frisbee-catching dogs on the outside that they’ve got a chance to run (and) chase them chains.”

On defense, the big mover this spring has been redshirt sophomore Kendall Joseph who has impressed enough to become the leading candidate to start at middle linebacker. He was a standout last spring as well, highlighted by six tackles and one tackle for loss in the 2015 spring game, but shoulder and knee injuries in fall practice held him back.

The 6′, 230-pound South Carolina native appears ready to take over in the middle after showing coaches a command of the playbook and strong natural instincts. He’ll have to beat out true freshman Tre Lamar and redshirt freshman Chad Smith, but he should be able to if he continues to play like he did in the team’s second spring scrimmage last week. He finished that outing with five tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery.

Senior safety Jadar Johnson has turned quite a few heads as well and he’ll need to step up for a secondary that lost three starters from last season. Johnson has only made two starts to this point in his career but has recorded four interceptions, hinting at the kind of big-play ability needed for a unit that gave up more big plays than they would have liked last season.

He still has to beat out inexperienced players like redshirt junior Ryan Carter and redshirt freshman Tanner Muse, plus redshirt junior Korrin Wiggins who is still recovering from a torn ACL and is limited this spring.

Defensive lineman Christian Wilkins has been experimenting at defensive end this spring as well as getting reps at his natural defensive tackle spot. The 6’4″, 330-pounder has shown the ability to play in space this spring and will provide the flexibility to create match up issues along the line this season if Brent Venables wants to get creative with personnel.

Clemson loses a lot from an outstanding defense, but Dabo Swinney’s staff has a myriad of talented options to plug holes left by kids who will be in NFL camps this summer. The potential for another strong defense coupled with an embarrassment of offensive riches means Clemson is likely to be the early favorite to win the Atlantic division.

The Clemson spring game is April 9 at 2:30 p.m.

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