By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
The official start of the 2013 football season for the Clemson Tigers begins this evening when the Tigers take to the practice fields beside the Jervey Athletic Center in Clemson.
It goes without saying that expectations are at an all-time high in Clemson. With record-setting quarterback Tajh Boyd back for a third season as well as perhaps the best playcaller in the college game in offensive coordinator Chad Morris, plus a defense that should be significantly better in year two under Brent Venables, the Tigers are not only expected to win the Atlantic Coast Conference, but they are also considered as a serious contender in the national championship race.
Clemson will open the 2013 football season ranked No. 8 in the country, its highest preseason ranking since being No. 4 in 1988. Clemson kicks off the new season on Aug. 31 when it host No. 5 Georgia.
“The preseason stuff, that’s one area I think our guys have grown. They have learned what really matters,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “None of that stuff outside matters. It has nothing to do with what happens on game days. Our guys have bought into that.”
So what should Clemson fans be looking for as the Tigers begin the first of 21 practices between tonight and Aug. 20?
Who will take the lead at running back and be the go-to guy? The Tigers have been very fortunate the last eight seasons. In that time frame Clemson has had three running backs—James Davis, C.J. Spiller and Andre Ellington—rush for 10,864 yards and 112 touchdowns. That’s a lot of production and you can see why whoever will be the Tigers’ running back this fall is my No. 1 question. Morris has some pretty good candidates to take the lead and for all we know, there might be a Davis, Spiller or Ellington in the group. But, right now, we have no idea. Running backs coach Tony Elliott said a few weeks back that Roderick McDowell separated himself from the pack just a little in the spring, but not enough to say he is the group’s clear-cut No. 1 tailback. Zack Brooks and D.J. Howard are right on his heels and don’t think freshman Tyshon Dye doesn’t have a shot. Elliott and Morris really like the Elberton, Ga., natives 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame. The way I see it, Brooks and Dye—the two heralded recruits coming in—will get their chance to take the job from McDowell in camp. The question is, will they be able to do so?
What’s the situation at tight end? Let’s be honest here, no one really knows what to expect here. Sam Cooper was clearly the top choice until a torn ACL in the spring game ended his season prematurely. Tight ends coach Danny Pearman said Cooper was where he needed to be in order to be a good tight end in Morris’ system, a position they had groomed him for the last two years. Now, Morris and Pearman start back over with a motley crew that has potential, but very little experience to draw from. Tight end / H-back Darrell Smith will be the starter with guys like Stanton Seckinger, Jordan Leggett and Jay Jay McCullough not too far behind. Seckinger reported to camp Thursday weighing 235 pounds after weighing 210 following the spring. Leggett upped his weight from 235 to 244, while McCullough went from 230 to 235. So the size and weight is where it needs to be, but are they strong enough to take on defensive ends and linebackers as well as running routes and catching passes? There is also a concern that training camp could cause the three to lose some of the weight they put on this summer. I believe this question will not be answered until moments before kickoff against Georgia on Aug. 31.
How good is the competition at center? Until a few weeks ago, everyone just assumed Ryan Norton would be the starting center for the Georgia game. I know this writer did. And though the redshirt sophomore was clearly the leader coming out of the spring, offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell told us a few weeks back that Jay Guillermo is really pushing for playing time. This should make for a good competition throughout training camp and should keep both players on their toes. No matter who wins the job, look for both guys to play numerous snaps at center and maybe guard as well this fall.
Will the secondary be any better this fall? Well, it really can’t get much worse than last year. With that said, it will be interesting to see if talented freshmen like Mackensie Alexander (corner) and Jayron Kearse (safety) come in and take positions away from potential starters like Garry Peters, Bashaud Breeland, Darius Robinson, Martin Jenkins or Robert Smith. With the influx of eight new players coming in, plus former starters Breeland, Jenkins and Robinson back, competition should be fierce the next 18 days which will only make them all better in the end.
Will Sammy Watkins be Sammy Watkins in 2013 or will he be just Sammy? This intrigues me more than any of the other four question marks this fall. Watkins admitted in the spring that he did not take things as serious as he needed to in 2012, which he says allowed defenses to get the better of him on game days. Watkins, who weighed in at 205 pounds Thursday, is at the healthiest he has ever been and is also more determined than ever before to prove what he is capable of doing. This could be a good be a good sign for the Clemson offense. If Watkins is better than he was in 2011, or as good, then he is sure to draw double teams at his new boundary position, which will only open up things underneath for the tight ends and running backs, as well as the other receivers on the field side.