Clemson’s football team concluded spring drills on Saturday afternoon with the annual Orange & White Game at Death Valley. The Orange won the game 19-14 over the White, but don’t be fooled by what you saw in the spring game as a true evaluation of the whole spring.
The Clemson Insider, going off what we saw in the spring game as well as what the coaches told us after every practice, break down the spring with our series Making the Grade. Here is how the Tigers graded in our minds after their 15 spring practices over the last five weeks.
Granted the quarterbacks as a whole did not look all that great in the spring game as they completed just 33 of 63 passes for 266 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. However, there were some good things we saw that make us feel better about the situation. Both Kelly Bryant and Zerrick Cooper looked very comfortable in the pocket and it seemed liked they had good command of the offense. Both of them also looked good running the ball against live competition. Though freshman Hunter Johnson did not have a good game overall, he did throw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Diondre Overton and showed some of his playmaking ability. The freshman also came on the second half of the spring and showed a lot more consistency running the offense and making plays. Cooper also got better as the spring went along and really came on towards the end. According to the Clemson coaches Bryant was consistent all spring and right now he is still their No. 1 guy. Though it is doubtful Tucker Israel will be the starting quarterback, the redshirt sophomore is pushing the other three and his consistency and knowledge of the offense will force the other three to stay sharp. He, without a doubt, had the best performance of all the quarterbacks on Saturday.
Running backs: B
The number one thing we heard from Tony Elliott all spring was how good the competition was and how close all three guys are in the pecking order. The spring game did not really tell us much about the running back position, as far who will be starting come Sept. 2, but we know C.J. Fuller had a solid spring and from what we understand he was the best at everything they were asked to do – running, catching and pass blocking. Adam Choice bounced back from a lackluster campaign in 2016 to have a very good spring, one in which the coaches said he looked like his old-self again. Tavien Feaster had a couple of big runs in the spring, and from a running standpoint probably had the best spring of all. However, Elliott said after one of the scrimmages that he really needs to work with Feaster on his pass protection.
Wide receivers: C
We heard a lot from Jeff Scott and Dabo Swinney during spring drills that the wide receivers were dropping too many passes. We saw that in the Orange & White Game. Three of Johnson’s 13 passes were dropped as were two of Cooper’s. Scott has said all spring that Ray-Ray McCloud had his best spring since coming to Clemson and that was what we saw in the spring game as he totaled 110 all-purpose yards. Deon Cain, who had an up and down spring from what we heard, had four catches for just five yards in the spring game. Overton was also inconsistent over the spring, while Cornell Powell, who had four receptions for 45 yards in the spring game, made perhaps the biggest jump over the 15 practices. Overton did make a great catch on Johnson’s 24-yard touchdown pass, however. Hunter Renfrow was Hunter Renfrow. Mr. consistent made a huge 34-yard catch on Israel’s first pass of the game that got the Orange offense going. We were told T.J. Chase also had a very good spring. As for the tight end position, Swinney says Milan Richard has separated himself in the competition. However, he did not catch a pass in the game, while Cannon Smith dropped one. In all, the tight ends combined to catch three passes as Smith had one for 11 yards, D.J. Greenlee had one for 3 yards and J.C. Chalk did the same.
Offensive line: C
The offensive line gave up two sacks in the spring game, which was good. However, the running game averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, which is not good. Granted, they have to go up against one of the best defensive lines in the country, but it was an up and down spring for a line that has four starters back as well as experienced depth. All spring we heard about how the line struggled with procedure penalties and we saw a little bit of that as well in the spring game. Centers Justin Falcinelli and Gabe Cervenka both had trouble with their snaps, too, which has to be a cause for alarm as the Tigers head into the summer. We had not heard there was an issue with the snaps prior to the spring game.
Defensive line: A
We have heard all spring how dominate they were and the only way Swinney could keep them from being dominant in the spring game was to put Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant on the White team and Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell on the Orange. Even with that the offenses averaged just 3.5 yards per carry and there were 12 tackles for loss.
Are we surprised to see Clemson’s linebackers show out? After all, they are coached by defensive coordinator Brent Venables. He crossed trained a lot of those guys all spring and in the spring game they were all over the place. Shaq Smith, who quietly had a good spring, continued to stay consistent with a 10-tackle effort, while J.D. Davis had nine tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. Chad Smith also had a good day as he recorded seven tackles from his middle linebacker position. Tre Lamar had six tackles from his middle backer position as well, while Kendall Joseph, who played a lot at weakside backer this spring, had four tackles.
Competition is everywhere in the secondary and that was obvious in the spring game where guys like Van Smith, Trayvon Mullen, Tanner Muse, Isaiah Simmons, Denzel Johnson, Nolan Turner and Korrin Wiggins were all making plays. From what we understand, it was like that all spring in the secondary. Mullen had two passes broken up in the spring game while Van Smith and Simmons each had one as well. Turner, Wiggins and Johnson all three had an interception. Ryan Carter also broke up a pass.
Special Teams: B
Swinney said in the week leading up to the spring game that Will Spiers was the most consistent of the three guys in competition for the starting job at punter. That remained the case after Saturday’s Orange & White Game. In fact Spiers might have separated himself a little from the other two. He netted 40.0 yards per punt on nine attempts. Greg Huegel was again solid, making kicks of 40 and 47 yards. However an extra point was blocked and McCloud had a 48-yard kickoff return and Feaster had a 35-yard return. We were told that the kicks during the spring were short at times and did not have enough hang time and that was some of the same issues we saw in the spring game as far as covering kicks. On the flip side, McCloud and Feaster showed promise on kick returns, while nothing really stood out from either on punt returns, an area the Tigers have not been good at in several years.