Spring practice officially began on Wednesday. Every spring brings a ton of new questions and very few answers, and this spring is no different for Clemson.
I always cringe during the spring because narratives can get blown out of proportion. Comments from coaches should always be taken with a grain of salt. Any improvement can be reset in the months between the spring game and the start of August camp. By the same token, any disappointment can easily be forgotten in that same time span.
Still, we can speculate, right? After all, what’s spring practice good for if we can’t do a little guesswork? In this feature, I’ll answer a few questions from Twitter concerning the next month-plus in the Clemson football program.
This question is a little bit simpler than the answer is. There really isn’t one player that will be, to quote the questioner, “our RB” in 2017. In all likelihood, that position will be filled through a timeshare that probably won’t manifest itself fully until after spring ball has concluded.
C.J. Fuller is the leader in the clubhouse, and for good reason. He held down the reserve role behind Wayne Gallman last season. He caught some big touchdown passes late in the year. He was consistent as a runner and a blocker, albeit behind Gallman in both areas. He will be the workhorse back, if there even is one.
Fuller doesn’t seem like a 20-carry tailback, though. In this backfield it seems likely he will receive somewhere between 12 and 15 touches per game. This leaves an opening for Tavien Feaster and Adam Choice. Feaster brings an all-purpose dimension with his versatility, while Choice seems like a more traditional player. Both of them should get time, but how much time probably won’t become clear until fall scrimmages start happening.
This is an interesting question. Human nature (and recent college football history) would suggest that any team outside of Alabama might struggle to respond well the year after winning a national title. With massive personnel losses and its status as a relative newcomer to the national stage, many onlookers expect Clemson to slink back into the darkness.
But Dabo Swinney’s program looks more like Alabama’s than it does the rest of the college football landscape. Even on Wednesday, Swinney discussed leaving last year’s national title in the past, refusing to use the word “defending” and instead using the word “chasing”. Seems like they’re off to a good start.
Jay Guillermo is another unique player who poured a lot into the Tigers during his time on campus. His stamp was all over last year’s national title team, so there won’t be any individual candidates replacing him in full, either.
Justin Falcinelli gets the first crack at the gig. He has worked extensively at center over the past year or so in order to refine the technical aspects of the position that distinguish it from the two guard spots. The staff likes his intelligence and his ability to retain information. Unlike Guillermo, however, he has a tendency to be an over-thinker, which can hinder his ability to play instinctive football.
Zach Giella is another candidate to play center in 2017, but the wild card is Gage Cervenka. The Emerald High product has moved from the incredibly deep defensive tackle rotation to the interior offensive line. Cervenka has toughness and a low center of gravity that can make him a force. He is raw, but he saw some action at center during Wednesday’s opening day of spring practice. Falcinelli is way ahead at this point, but Cervenka’s learning curve will be something to watch moving forward.
The first two questions are unique, so we’ll stick to those. First, Tanner Muse will get the first look at a safety slot. I don’t see him pushing 700 snaps this season because of the glut of young players that will likely earn time, but he should be behind only Van Smith in terms of safety snap count once the season ends.
As far as the emotional question, the simple answer is “nobody” because Ben Boulware is that unique as a person. His presence is too uncommon to just be immediately replaced. However, there are a few candidates to provide the kind of energy and stability he did.
The first one that comes to mind is Christian Wilkins. He is light-hearted yet intense, a different version of Boulware’s emotional balance that allowed him to toe the line so neatly during his Clemson career. Kendall Joseph brings toughness and tenacity to the linebacker position, so he could be a candidate. Van Smith could provide a little bit of that, as well, as a second-year starter.
Much like many of these other replacement conversations, the answer is multiple rather than singular. Boulware’s uniqueness makes him impossible to replace without a committee.
It might seem obvious to put quarterback at the top of this list, but I’m not so sure. (More on this in a moment.) I’d say losing Mitch Hyatt at left tackle would be the biggest loss for the Tigers. Everywhere else on the field, there is at least a potential answer should catastrophe strike. In this case, however, replacing Hyatt would require moving either Sean Pollard or Tremayne Anchrum to the left side, leaving Clemson with two sophomores and no one else at either tackle spot.
In my opinion, there is a massive drop-off from left tackle to the rest of the roster in this context. That includes quarterback. By the way, speaking of quarterback…
Everyone always asks about quarterback, so instead of addressing an individual question, I’ll just stick with my predictions for how the race plays out until September.
Start of spring: Bryant, Cooper, Johnson
Post-spring: Bryant, Cooper (“nipping at his heels” or some other Dabo-ism), Johnson
Start of August camp: Bryant, Cooper, Johnson
End of camp: Cooper, Johnson, Bryant
Best chance to win the job: Cooper, Bryant, Johnson (no chance a freshman starts the opener)
Happy spring practice, everyone!