By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
It may not be the first official day of spring and it may be 37 degrees outside, but spring is here – at least spring football anyway.
The Clemson Tigers, who finished the 2012 season with an 11-2 record, open up spring practice this afternoon at the brand new Indoor Practice Facility. Though the Tigers return 14 starters from last year’s squad, there are plenty of things they have to work on before the 15 practices the NCAA allows in the spring are over.
“It’s always exciting to get started up with spring ball,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “It is beginning anew. That’s basically what you are doing. You are starting over. It’s a new team with new chemistry and new leaders.
“There is a lot of competition at a lot of positions and the big emphasis for us is going back and focusing on the fundamentals and techniques of what we are trying to teach.”
Below are the five storylines you should keep an eye on this spring.
1. Running back: Andre Ellington rushed for 3,436 yards in his Clemson career, which ranks fourth all-time in Clemson history. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons, making defenses respect his ability to break off long runs. He also was a very skilled pass blocker that was not afraid to stick it to a blitzing linebacker or oncoming defensive end. Ellington also improved as a pass catcher, catching 14 passes for 232 yards in 2012. So replacing Ellington is the biggest challenge for the coaching staff in the spring. Roderick McDowell has improved, but can he be a difference maker in the backfield? What about Zac Brooks? He came into Clemson with all the tools and hype, but is he strong enough to pass block? I like D.J. Howard, but can he stay healthy?
2. Center: Dalton Freeman was a four-year starter who became an All-American on the field and in the classroom. Freeman was very important to setting the tempo in Chad Morris’ fast paced offense, rushing to the line to grab the ball and set the line assignments. He and quarterback Tajh Boyd were the two responsible for setting the pace for the offense the last two years. So who will be Boyd’s new partner? Ryan Norton (6-3,270) is the leader coming out of the clubhouse, but freshman Jay Guillermo (6-2, 285) will be pushing him for playing time. Remember, next to quarterback, the center is probably the next most important position in an offense.
3. Secondary: I don’t really know if new defensive backs coach Mike Reed will have an answer for the secondary until he gets all of the new signees in camp this coming August. But right now, he has some work to do. He must replace three starters from a unit that struggled most of the year. Travis Blanks is now the permanent starter at free safety—his natural position—so it will be interesting to see what he can do there fulltime. Garry Peters will miss the first couple of practices due to what Swinney says “is his attitude” towards being a better football player. Reed will get back Martin Jenkins, who missed all of last season with a hip injury, Bashaud Breeland and Darius Robinson—two guys that missed significant time because of injuries—and Robert Smith, who should get a shot to start at strong safety. Other guys to watch in the spring include freshman Ronald Geohaghen, who redshirt last year, and Jadar Johnson, and early enrollee this January.
4. The next Travis Blanks: It was apparent early in spring drills last year that Blanks was going to contribute in some way with the team. Blanks worked his way into the starting lineup for the Tigers and recorded 51 tackles while playing in all 13 games and starting eight. So which of the new enrollees will be like Travis Blanks this spring? Swinney has already sung the praises of tight end Jordan Leggett (6-6, 220) and Johnson. But the guy I say to watch is defensive end Shaq Lawson. Clemson needs a speed rusher on the edge to replace Malliciah Goodman and Lawson does have a year of prep football in his pocket that made him the No. 1 prospect in the country coming out of prep school.
5. Tajh Boyd’s backup: Boyd is the top quarterback in the ACC and perhaps one of the top three in the country. But who will be his backup this year will be an interesting storyline because the Tigers cannot afford to lose another one. Morgan Roberts has already left the team for Yale and Tony McNeal took a football hardship. That leaves Clemson with only three scholarship quarterbacks on the roster behind Boyd. It is obvious the battle for Boyd’s backup will come down to junior Cole Stoudt and freshman Chad Kelly. If Kelly were to win the battle this spring, what will that mean to Stoudt and his future at Clemson? If he falls to the No. 3 quarterback spot, why would he want to stay at Clemson if he is never going to play? The Tigers cannot afford to lose a backup of Stoudt’s caliber and experience and begin next year with a sophomore and true freshman battling it out for the starting job.