By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
While Sammy Watkins was doing his thing as a true freshman, DeAndre Hopkins was emerging as one of the best sophomores in the country.
The Daniel High School product, who was drafted in the first-round of the NFL Draft by the Houston Texans this past April, improved greatly in Chad Morris’ first season as offensive coordinator in 2011. For one thing, he got stronger and became a little more physical. He also improved in his ability to run routes, and his hands, well his hands have always been good.
In 2011, Hopkins made his hard work pay off when he caught 20 more passes and gained 300 more yards than he did in his freshman season at Clemson. As a sophomore, Hopkins finished second on the team with 72 receptions for 978 yards and five touchdowns.
Which sophomores this season will make the most impact for Clemson? Which ones have taken the next step and have turned the corner as they go from being good players to great players? We have the top five sophomores to watch out for this fall.
- Travis Blanks, safety: Blanks makes the move to safety this year after playing much of last season as a nickel back and linebacker. Playing safety is more of the Tallahassee, Fla., native’s natural position. He had a good spring and he should be able to improve on his one interception and seven passes broken up. At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, he also gives Clemson a more physical player on the back end of the defense.
- D.J. Reader, defensive tackle: The 6-foot-3, 335-pound defensive tackle might be one of the best athletes on the team. How many guys do you know that are his size that can play baseball and football, while running with pretty good speed around the base pads? Not many, I’m sure. Though he did not start a game last season, Reader made his presence felt on the field with 40 tackles, including a season-high seven against Virginia Tech in only 27 snaps. This guy is only going to get better.
- Bradley Pinion, punter: With Spencer Benton gone, Pinion becomes the Tigers’ punter and kickoff specialist. He has the power to boom both. He averaged 39.2 yards in nine punts last season, including a net of 38.8. The net is the most important number of the two because it shows the quality of his hang time. Pinion is also a good field goal kicker and will play the role of being the long kicker should Clemson need to kick something longer than 50-plus yards. On kickoffs, he has the leg to kick it out of the end zone every time, though he needs to be more consistent.
- Ryan Norton, center: The Simpsonville, S.C., native was the top reserve on the offensive line in 2012 as he saw significant action at both guard and center. His task of taking over for the departed Dalton Freeman will not be an easy one. Freeman started virtually every game since his freshman season and set a new Clemson record in games started and snaps. Norton will be the trend setter when it comes to the pace of the offense. Like Tajh Boyd at quarterback, it is up to him to set the linemen, get the calls from the sideline, while calling out the assignments. Remember, Morris likes to snap the football anywhere from 22 to 19 seconds once the ball is set for play.
- Kellen Jones, linebacker: The Oklahoma transfer isn’t listed as a starter, yet, but I can’t see it taking too long for him to be out there as a starter. Jones is a football player first and has a nasty style of play that has been missing on the Clemson defense the last couple of years. He has great instincts. He is listed to play at both weakside backer (third team) and middle linebacker (second team), which tells me the coaches want to get him on the field in some way. He has a tendency to freelance from time-to-time, which can be a good thing or a bad thing. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables spent a good bit of the spring teach Jones to be more disciplined and less reckless, though he does not want to totally take that away because that is also Jones’ strength as a linebacker.
Also check out who we think are the top 5 freshmen for 2013