Clemson’s football team, which will open the 2019 football season as the No. 1 ranked team in the country according to the Amway Coaches Poll, will begin fall camp Friday afternoon behind the Allen Reeves Football Complex in Clemson.
The Tigers return 12 starters and 48 lettermen from last year’s national championship team. And though Clemson is the preseason No. 1-ranked team and is the overwhelming favorite to win the ACC for a fifth straight year, it still has some questions that likely will not get answered until its season opener against Georgia Tech on Aug. 29 at Death Valley.
Here are five things you need to keep an eye on during fall camp.
Depth at tight end: Clemson knows what it has in J.C. Chalk. The redshirt junior is tough, physical and works his tail off. However, he isn’t a Jordan Leggett or Dwayne Allen type of tight end in the passing game.
Unfortunately for Clemson, no one on its roster is at tight end. The Tigers thought they had one in sophomore Braden Galloway, but the NCAA has suspended him for the entire season due to the Ostarine incident.
Freshmen tight ends Jaelyn Lay and Davis Allen are not ready and they likely will not be when the season starts in four weeks. That leaves the Tigers with Chalk, who enters fall camp as the starter, along with converted linebacker Luke Price and Georgia Southern transfer J.L. Banks to try and fill in the gaps.
“They’ve got to spend some extra time getting as brought up to speed in the playbook as they can,” tight ends coach Danny Pearman said of Lay and Allen. “On top of that, they’ve got lots of time in the evening to not only get film, volunteer themselves to get caught up. And they’ve both done a good job. I look forward to getting started with them in a couple weeks and see where they’re at, and then go meet them where they’re at and bring them to where they’ve got to get to.
“That’s going to be a fun challenge, and that’s what I look forward to.”
Who will step up at linebacker? Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brent Venables thinks this year’s linebacking group is being undervalued. He likes the instinct of this year’s group and he thinks they have a chance to be pretty good. However, there is a lot of inexperience at the position. Preseason All-ACC linebacker Isaiah Simmons is the lone starter back from last year’s unit. James Skalski, who will start in the middle, has some experience, as does senior Chad Smith, who will likely start at the weakside position. Venables is also high on redshirt freshmen Mike Jones and Jake Venables.
“I feel really good about their size, their athletic ability, speed, instincts, they are going to have to help us,” Brent Venables said. “A year from now, we are going to lose two-thirds of that starting group again, so between this year’s recruiting class and the 2020 recruiting class, it is going to be critical for us to build our defense for the future.”
Despite the fact the Tigers are having to replace two starters in Tre Lamar and Kendall Joseph, as well as key reserve backers in Jalen Williams, J.D. and Judah Davis and Shaq Smith, Venables likes where they are from an experience and a depth standpoint.
“This is a group of guys I feel really good about. I spend no time wondering if this is the best we have had or things like that,” he said. “You understand where your strengths are and try to play to those strengths and try to protect your weaknesses.”
How much of a drop off will there be at defensive tackle? There is going to be a drop off. You can’t lose two All-Americans in Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence and expect there not to be a little bit of a drop off. The good news for the Tigers is they get back defensive tackles Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams after both of them missed the spring due to injuries. Both of them are veteran players who played a lot last season.
But Clemson made the best of the situation in the spring, which meant throwing early enrollees like Tyler Davis, Ruke Orhorhoro and Etinosa Reuben into the fire a little earlier than originally expected.
Defensive tackles coach Todd Bates liked what he saw from Davis during spring practice and wants to see him take another step forward in fall camp.
“I’ve challenged him,” Bates said. “I was like, ‘Man, you came in and you worked your butt off.’ I challenged him to make another jump between the end of camp.”
Young running backs have to be ready to play: Clemson is very talented at running back. Travis Etienne is a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender. Lyn-J Dixon averaged more yards per carry a year ago than Etienne and Chez Mellusi is one of the top running backs in the country coming out of high school.
However, the Tigers lost veteran Adam Choice to graduation and Tavien Feaster has run off to South Carolina, meaning the Tigers will have to count on Dixon more, as well Mellusi and fellow true freshman Michel Dukes.
“Get themselves ready to play. That’s the overall expectation,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Tony Elliott said. “But you know what, that’s the expectation for all of them. Same thing with Travis – get yourself ready to play, and if you’re ready to play, you can contribute. Same thing with Lyn-J. So, it won’t be any different, and there’s not going to be any additional pressure put on those guys.
“Because the biggest thing for those guys, in order for them to do what they do at this position, is confidence. So, I have to do a great job of helping them manage their confidence. Let me handle all the pressure and all the expectation and take that off of them, and just let them go out and learn and develop, and then see where they are once we get halfway through fall camp.”
Consistency at kicker and punter. Will Spiers has started the last two years for the Tigers and has averaged 40.2 yards per punt. However, the redshirt junior has been inconsistent at times. Clemson brought in one of the nation’s best punters in Aidan Swanson to challenge Spiers for the starting job. Spiers came out of the spring with the job, but Swanson, who enrolled in January, showed more consistency near the of the spring and comes into camp pushing for the job.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney likes what he has in kicker B.T. Potter, especially with Potter’s leg. Potter is supposed to replace the departed Greg Huegel, who has graduated. The sophomore will again be the Tigers’ kickoff guy. But walk-on Steven Sawicki will be pushing for the job at placekicker, especially if Potter struggles and remains inconsistent with his accuracy.
—TCI writer Gavin Oliver contributed to this story