By Gray Gardner.
Football is in the air once again at Clemson. With two practices in the books TheClemsonInsider.com takes a look at five things to watch this spring.
1. Chad Morris’ new offense.
Clemson nation will be exposed to a new offense for the first time since 2005 when Rob Spence debuted as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator.
The torch has since been passed from Spence to his protégé Billy Napier. But Napier spent his two seasons functioning from the foundation Spence laid years before. With the exception of play calling and a few wrinkles here and there, Clemson’s offensive game plan had yet to change in over 5 years.
Now, with the hire of Chad Morris from Tulsa, Clemson players and fans alike can be assured that changes are coming for the Tigers’ offense.
Morris will function from a spread mentality with an offense similar to that of Auburn and Oregon. But with these changes come several questions.
Will the offensive line be in shape for such a fast-paced offense? How will the team respond to the new learning curve? Will head coach Dabo Swinney play any role in offensive game planning?
These questions (and more) will be answered the next few weeks in what should be an exciting spring for the Clemson offense.
2. Tajh Boyd.
It goes without saying – anytime a team loses its starting quarterback, the next guy in line is immediately placed under a magnifying glass.
For Tajh Boyd, this started on New Years Eve when he played the entire second half of the Tigers’ bowl game against South Florida. In that half, Boyd threw for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns and led a late comeback attempt.
Boyd showed signs of great potential in limited action all year in 2010, but some concerns still remain.
Is Boyd ready to lead the offense as the team’s starting quarterback? How will he adapt to Morris’ new offense? Is he capable of passing at the high level Morris’ offense demands?
Tajh Boyd isn’t the only one you should be watching this spring. He will be competing with new enrollees Cole Stoudt and Tony McNeal, who are more than capable of providing a push for playing time.
3. The interior defensive line.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele recently said that the staff’s biggest concern this spring is setting the depth chart at defensive tackle and nose guard.
Jarvis Jenkins’ graduation is a huge loss to this group after he demanded double-teams all last season. The graduation of Miguel Chavis also hurts the depth at these positions, as Chavis played a considerable amount of snaps during his tenure at Clemson.
Nose guard Brandon Thompson returns as the other starter inside from a season ago, providing the only bit stability in the line up.
This spring will primarily focus on the development of Tyler Shatley, Josh Watson, and Trey Thomas as the future of the Tigers’ interior line. But none of these players are proven or experienced, which begs the question,
Will any of the three younger players be ready to contribute in the fall?
If not, Steele and his staff will have four incoming freshmen to prepare before the Tigers’ first game in September.
4. Andre Branch.
Andre Branch is more than capable of becoming the team’s sack-leader after the departure of DaQuan Bowers.
A year ago, Bowers led the team with 15.5 sacks and 26 tackles for loss, while Branch totaled 5 sacks a season ago with 7.5 tackles for loss. Although Bowers stole the spotlight, Branch ended the season with 55 tackles and several big plays under his belt.
With Bowers gone, Branch should be the premier rusher off the line in 2011. Watch for him to have a big spring both rushing the quarterback and dropping into coverage from the bandit position. Also watch as freshman Corey Crawford competes for playing time as the second team bandit.
5. The running back position.
Tony Elliot will begin his reign over the Clemson running backs without the team’s two starters from the 2010 season.
Andre Ellington was the league’s leading rusher for the majority of last season before going down with a toe injury. Ellington just started running again and will miss spring practice entirely.
Jamie Harper finished last season as the team’s starting running back after Ellington was injured. However, Harper opted for the NFL draft in January, choosing to forgo his final year of eligibility.
Only Rod McDowell, D.J. Howard, and Demont Buice remain for practice this spring. This will help in developing the young running backs and preparing them for the season.
But how will the offense function with only three backs this spring? How will Andre Ellington fair learning the offense from the sidelines? Will one of the young backs prove themselves as a reliable option at the position?
One thing is certain – with only three guys in rotation, McDowell, Howard, and Buice are going to be in great shape by the end of the spring.