Just six weeks removed from losing to LSU in the national championship game, the Clemson Tigers get ready for their first official practice of the 2020 football season this afternoon when they take to the field inside the Poe Indoor Practice Facility.
The Tigers will welcome a roster of 120 players to today’s first practice, a roster head coach Dabo Swinney expects will basically be the roster this fall with the exception of a few players from the 2020 signing class that have not enrolled in school just yet.
In all, 15 early enrollees are expected to participate in spring drills for Clemson.
Those early enrollees will be some of the storylines for this spring’s 15 practice in Tigertown, as the Tigers begin what they hope is another run to the College Football Playoff.
Replacing four starters on the offensive line
Getting running back Travis Etienne to return for his senior season is a big deal, there is no getting around it. It’s also good the Tigers return Trevor Lawrence at quarterback and Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers at wide receiver. When it comes to skill players, Clemson will be just fine. However, as we all know, if the offensive line is no good, none of that matters.
That is the dilemma the 2020 Tigers could face. Clemson has to replace four starters on the offensive line, the most in a single year for the program since 2008. Gone is All-American left guard John Simpson. Gone is All-ACC center Sean Pollard. Gone is All-ACC guard Gage Cervenka and gone is All-ACC right tackle Tremayne Anchrum. The lone starter back from last year is left tackle Jackson Carman.
Last year, Clemson finished 11th nationally in sacks allowed with an average of 1.20 per game and were 13th in rushing yards per game at 240.4. The Tigers also led the country in rushing yards per carry at 6.4.
Going into spring, offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell feels good about Matt Bockhorst and Will Putnam at the guard positions and Jordan McFadden at right tackle. However, the biggest question mark is at center. Who will step up and be the guy?
Will it be senior Cade Stewart? Will it be redshirt freshman Hunter Rayburn? Or will it be redshirt freshman Mason Trotter?
How much of an impact can Bresee and Capehart make at DT?
With 5-star guys like Brian Bresee (6-5, 290) and Demonte Capehart (6-5, 290) now on campus, competition at defensive tackle just went up a few notches. Both players are expected to compete for not just playing time but starting status this spring.
All-ACC defensive tackle Tyler Davis will likely come out of the spring with his job, but there is no guarantee for senior Nyles Pinckney, who is already trying to hold off junior Jordan Williams. Defensive tackles coach Todd Bates says Bresee is more physically and mentally ready coming out of high school than any player he has coached. Swinney thinks he has the potential to be better than Christian Wilkins was as a freshman.
However, Clemson also has other young promising players at defensive tackle such as Ruke Orhorhoro, Tayquon Johnson and Etinosa Reuben, not to mention redshirt sophomore Darnell Jefferies. As for Capehart, he has a fast first step and plays with strong hands. He can beat opposing offensive linemen with his power and push. His progress this spring will be interesting to watch and see where he lands on the depth chart when the spring is over.
Secondary is a big concern
Like on the offensive line, Clemson has talent in the secondary. But also like the offensive line, it’s very inexperienced talent.
The Tigers have to replace both of it starting safeties, as well as one of its cornerbacks from a unit that led the ACC in just about every passing defensive category and was one of the best in the nation, as well. Gone is K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse at the safety positions. Wallace was a three-year starter and Muse started in each of the last two seasons. A.J. Terrell left his cornerback spot a year early so he could try his hand in the NFL.
That leaves Derion Kendrick, who is about to start his second year ever at cornerback, as the Tigers’ lone returning starter in the defensive backfield. This time last year, Kendrick opened the spring as a wide receiver before moving to corner halfway through the spring.
Last year, Clemson brought in Lannden Zanders (6-1, 195), Joseph Charleston (6-0, 190) and Ray Thornton (6-1, 205) to help with depth at the safety positions, while this year they signed four-star safety RJ Mickens and Tyler Venables. Mickens and Venables are both early enrollees.
Nolan Turner, who has spent the last two seasons as a backup to Muse at free safety, will likely start the spring as the starter. Turner did start four games this season and played in all 15. He brings a ton of experience from his time the last two seasons.
Turner ranked sixth on the team with 66 tackles last year, including two tackles for a loss and tied Simmons with a team-best 10 passes broken up. Turner also had two interceptions, including the game-clinching interception to beat Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
The starting cornerback spot opposite Derion Kendrick is up for grabs. Mario Goodrich and Andrew Booth were listed as Terrell’s backups on Clemson’s final depth chart entering the national championship game, while Sheridan Jones and LeAnthony Williams are slotted behind Kendrick.
Early enrollee Fred Davis will also be in the mix this spring. He has nice size for a corner at 6-foot-1 to go with plenty of length, speed and athleticism.
It’s now Tyler Grisham’s show at wide receiver
There was a time when Tyler Grisham was being coach by Swinney, now he is Swinney’s new wide receivers’ coach. The former Clemson wideout, who played for Swinney from 2005-’08, takes over for Jeff Scott, who left the Clemson program to be the head coach at South Florida.
Grisham is a perfect fit to coach the receivers. He has learned under Scott the last six years, plus he understands what Swinney expects out of his wide receivers.
He inherits a group of receivers that are considered one of the best groups in the country. The Tigers return Ross and Rodgers, along with veteran Cornell Powell. Rising sophomore Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson progressed nicely as freshmen last year and will take on more prominent roles this coming season.
It will be interesting to see how Grisham coaches up redshirt freshman Brannon Spector, as well. Spector is the latest to wear the famous No. 13 jersey at wide receiver, a tradition Grisham started in 2005. Former Clemson greats Adam Humphries and Hunter Renfrow have since worn the No. 13 jersey.
Grisham will also get to work with freshman E.J. Williams, who is expected to compete at both the boundary and on the field side in the spring. Williams will fit right in as another big, long and athletic playmaker. He was one of two receivers the Tigers signed in their 2020 class, along with Ajou Ajou. Ajou will enroll in June.
Linebacker is a concern, too
Everyone knows Clemson lost all-everything linebacker Isaiah Simmons, but the Tigers must also replace Chad Smith at weakside linebacker. That means Clemson’s back seven on defense has just two starters back. That can be a concern.
Mike Jones is slated to replace Simmons at strongside backer, but who will be the starter at weakside backer is a little more of a mystery. Baylon Spector will likely be rolled out first on the weakside by Brent Venables. He has the most experience of the candidates, but it’s not by much. Redshirt freshmen Keith Maguire and LaVonta Bentley will also get their opportunities to show what they can do, as will early enrollee Sergio Allen. He will also see some practice time on the strongside.
Maguire will also practice at strongside as well.