By Gray Gardner.
The heat is rising this summer in Clemson, but not solely from the scorching temperatures. Competition on the Tiger football team is heating up in the days before fall camp, as players battle for both respect and playing time.
Among those engaged in the battle are defensive ends Corey Crawford – a true freshman – and Andre Branch – a redshirt senior.
One would think that a experienced playmaker like Branch would be tabbed as the starter without much second thought. But position coach Marion Hobby said he expects more out of seniors than he does anyone else, and that Branch will have to prove himself over the next several weeks in order to stay atop the depth chart.
“Seniors need to play like seniors,” Hobby said. “A senior who is not a leader can be just a great freshman.”
The great freshman in this case could be Corey Crawford, a guy who a year ago was esteemed as the number one prep-school player in the country. Today, he is battling head-to-head with Branch for a starting position on Clemson’s defense.
“It’s going to be interesting this fall on how that works out. There are no set starters,” Hobby said. “The advantage they have is they have a new coach, so I don’t care what they did last year. I want to see what they can do this year.”
That could be good or bad for Branch, who recorded 7.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks a year ago. But Hobby bragged that Branch has not stopped working this off-season and has continued to improve as a leader.
“I think the 6-7 season hurt him a lot,” Hobby said, “he’s a prideful guy. Just hearing from over the summer, he’s become more vocal, more of a leader, and those things are going to make a big difference for him.”
Branch’s senior leadership could be the point that separates him from his freshman counterpart who, physically, is very similar. Hobby said both players are “rangier, speed guys.” But Hobby said he hates to compare Corey Crawford to anyone.
“What can I say? He’s like a beautiful flower,” Hobby said. “All you need is a little water. He has all the ability in the world, just add a little water and he’ll grow.”
“A lot of things that he does he does naturally,” Hobby continued. “You hear a lot of people say, ‘He’s a natural player.’ That guy is a natural football player.”
Hobby said that Defensive Coordinator Kevin Steele joked that “you could put a ball in the ocean and it would float to him.”
“He gets his hands on a lot of balls,” Hobby said, “and that just comes from him really understanding the game.”
Crawford’s advanced understanding will certainly help his chances for playing time this fall, but only time will tell if he’s far enough along to surpass Branch as the starter.
“I think through the fall camp and equal number of reps, they’ll work it out,” Hobby said. “As a staff we just have to sit down and decide who’s going to be the best for Clemson, who’s going to be the best for our defense. It’s a team first attitude around here now. If Corey is the best for the team and the best for the defense, then Corey is going to get the most of those reps.”
Regardless of who wins the job at starter and who plays as the backup, Hobby has more than enough reason to be confident in his stable of athletes.
“If you have guys that are that equal, that makes it really good. As a coach, you like to be in a situation when one’s not playing well and say, ‘Get him out,’ and not worry that you sent another guy in the game and you’re not losing anything. That’s the confidence level in having good football players.”
The talent levels of Andre Branch and Corey Crawford will make that confidence a reality for Hobby and the Clemson defense this fall.