With Clemson’s Sept. 4 opener against Georgia just two weeks away, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and his staff will soon start honing in on depth chart decisions, which includes which true freshmen they believe will be able to help immediately.
With spring practices and fall camp in the books, the Tigers have gotten good feedback on which newcomers will be able to be season-long contributors and which may play four games and keep their redshirts. Swinney said that’s subject to change based on circumstances surrounding the season, but, for now, some freshmen are ahead of others.
With that said, here are five true freshmen who are primed to be significant contributors this season based on practice observations and interviews with coaches and players over the last two weeks.
Simply put, Shipley is too special of a talent to keep watching from the sideline for long.
Shipley has created all sorts of buzz since arriving on campus in January as an early enrollee, and it’s only grown louder during camp. The thing that has his coaches and teammates talking the most? Speed.
The youngster has more of it than any other running back on the roster. In fact, there’s a debate between some of his teammates as to whether or not Shipley is already the fastest player on the team (offensive lineman Jordan McFadden thinks so, but fellow running back Lyn-J Dixon isn’t so sure).
“Shipley can fly,” senior safety Nolan Turner said. “That’s obvious.”
But that’s not the only impressive quality Shipley possesses. Swinney has often discussed Shipley’s advanced level of maturity for his age and his natural leadership skills. He’s already been mentioned as one of the Tigers’ leaders, and he hasn’t even played a down of college football.
Like many young running backs, pass protection could go a long way in determining how big Shipley’s role is in his first year, but it’s clear the five-star recruit is going to have one. It didn’t take long for Shipley to start getting first-team reps in practice. He’s been used out of the backfield as a receiver, and he’s also taken some reps as a punt returner.
“He’s not like a typical freshman,” Swinney said. “It’s pretty easy to see.”
Another one of Clemson’s five-star signees, Carter has flashed his athleticism on several occasions, including once early in camp during a portion of practice open to the media.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder snagged a one-handed interception along the sideline and got a foot down inbounds to make the pick official. Carter was listed as an athlete coming out of North Gwinnett (Georgia) High but has been repping at both mike and sam/nickelback linebacker. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables also isn’t ruling out lining Carter up at safety at some point, though that’s not a priority.
“I think he’s pretty smooth,” Venables said. “We haven’t lined him up (at safety). Some guys, you say, ‘No, definitely not.’ I wouldn’t be able to say that right now. But he’s been good. He’s been very comfortable with where he’s at.”
Carter is not only versatile but has elite speed to go with it. Coaches have also been impressed with his coverage ability and the mental capacity to quickly pick up Venables’ defense, which could get Carter on the field sooner rather than later, particularly in certain packages.
“Barrett is what we thought he was,” Swinney said. “Smooth. Fast. Going to be a really good player.”
It’s typically hard for first-year offensive linemen to find playing time given the physical and mental demands of the position, but Tate went through spring practice as a mid-year enrollee and has continued to progress to the point where he’ll likely see the field this fall.
And it could be a lot.
Tate was one of three high school offensive linemen to sign with Clemson this past year, and while five-star tackle Tristan Leigh was the headliner, it’s Tate who got the most significant work during camp. Tate could also play tackle but has been getting first- and second-team reps inside.
“As far as just prospects and what you’d hope they’d look like walking in out of high school, they’re two great-looking young players,” Swinney said in reference to Tate and Leigh.
Specifically, Tate has gotten many of the first-team reps at left guard when Matt Bockhorst has worked at center. If the Tigers feel like Bockhorst sliding over to center gets their best five offensive linemen on the field, Swinney has said that’s a move they won’t hesitate to make.
And based on the kind of reps the 6-5, 290-pounder has gotten during camp, Tate is one of the leading candidates to plug in beside him if that’s the direction Clemson decides to go.
Mukuba, another early enrollee, was limited by an arm injury this spring, but the first-year defensive back was back healthy during fall camp and hard to miss.
“He’s a guy you just notice all the time,” Swinney said.
Venables said Mukuba is rarely out of position thanks in large part to his anticipation skills and closing speed. Perhaps most importantly for the Tigers, the 6-0, 185-pounder has the ability to use that at different positions.
Mukuba is listed as a safety on the team’s official roster but has also gotten some reps at corner. With just six corners on scholarship, Clemson could look to Mukuba to play more on the outside in his first year with the program.
Regardless of where it is, though, Mukuba he has the versatility and smarts to contribute somewhere.
“He’s got plenty of things that he’s got to get better at, but playing outside and inside, I’ve been super pleased with where he’s at, especially mentally so far with what he’s seeing,” Venables said.
Wiggins certainly has some physical tools as a cornerback, but this is more of a depth pick.
As previously mentioned, Clemson only has six scholarship players for its three corner spots — nickel included — and Wiggins is one of them. And depending on whether or not Fred Davis’ punishment for his reckless driving charge includes missing any game time, Wiggins could become a more significant part of the rotation sooner rather than later.
As for those physical attributes, Wiggins is the tallest corner on the roster at 6-2, which makes it harder for receivers to get separation and easier for Wiggins to recover when they do. And he has Dixon’s vote as the fastest player on the team.
Booth said he’s also seen improvement from Wiggins in terms of understanding the defensive concepts since Wiggins arrived on campus in January.
“Athletically he’s fast. Quick,” Booth said. “He just needs to get that technical side down.”
Receiver is one of the deeper positions on Clemson’s roster, so it’s hard to envision any newcomers becoming a significant piece of the rotation if the Tigers can stay healthy there. But that’s a big if.
Joseph Ngata, who missed most of last season with an abdominal injury, was slowed by a hamstring injury in camp and didn’t participate in either of Clemson’s two scrimmages. Swinney said Ngata is getting closer to a return, but should the injury bug persist with Ngata or any other wideouts (fellow freshmen Troy Stellato and Beaux Collins were also banged up some during camp), keep an eye out for Dacari Collins, a four-star signee.
Dacari is the tallest in a room full of tall, big-bodied wideouts at 6-5, and Swinney said Dacari has taken advantage of other receivers being held out of the scrimmages. Swinney noted a “big play” Dacari made in the most recent one.
Ngata, Justyn Ross, Frank Ladson Jr., E.J. Williams and Ajou Ajou may be ahead of Dacari in the pecking order, but his height and physicality may be a combination Clemson tries to utilize in certain parts of the field, the red zone being one.