With Clemson’s fall camp in the rearview mirror, it’s time to take inventory of what’s happened over the last two and a half weeks in terms of personnel.
Dabo Swinney and his coaching staff will be doing the same as they work to fill out the depth chart ahead of the Tigers’ Sept. 4 opener against Georgia, so here are five players who’ve improved their stock during camp based on practice observations and interviews with coaches and players. Only players who have been with the program for at least one year were considered.
TCI also compiled a list of true freshmen who’ve put themselves in position to be immediate contributors, which you can check out here.
Andrew Booth Jr.
Talent has never been the issue with Booth, who arrived on Clemson’s campus three years ago as a five-star signee. As Swinney mentioned throughout camp, being available is the only thing that’s held back the Tigers’ junior cornerback.
Booth has played in 24 games for the Tigers but has only started four mainly because of nagging injuries. But he’s practicing with a clean bill of health this month and had one of his best fall camps since he’s been at Clemson.
Booth’s athleticism has always been apparent — go check out YouTube videos of any of his one-handed interceptions if you haven’t seen them — and the 6-foot, 200-pounder brings a blend of length and physicality to the position. He’s routinely drawn assignments against some of Clemson’s top wideouts during practice and has held his own, which isn’t all that surprising for a player expecting to be the Tigers’ shutdown corner as long as he can stay on the field.
“He’s been consistently here and feels good, so I’m really proud of him,” Swinney said. “He’s got a good look in his eye.”
There was a time recently when Swinney thought he might have to move Ajou to tight end, something Swinney attributed to the Canadian receiver eating a bunch of good food after arriving in the United States.
But Ajou, who had gotten up to 240 pounds on his 6-3 frame, has worked to get down closer to the 220-pound range and is undoubtedly one of the Tigers’ most improved offensive players, Swinney said. Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott referred to Ajou as “a freak of nature” and has likened some of his movements to former Clemson great Deandre Hopkins.
“He’s balling,” quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei said. “Making great plays. Going up and grabbing the ball. Moving. Looking light on his feet. He looks really good.”
So after taking a year to get up to speed in Clemson’s offense and working himself into better shape, the sophomore wideout is primed for a bigger role this fall, one that could be even bigger than anticipated should Joseph Ngata have to miss much more time. Ngata missed a chunk of camp with a hamstring injury, including both of the Tigers’ scrimmages, though Swinney said he’s “getting closer” to a return.
Regardless, Ajou’s workload figures to go up significantly after catching just two passes a year ago.
“It’s incredible where he is,” Swinney said. “He’s going to help us in a big way.”
Yes, Thomas has been around a while as a senior, but it’s how far he’s come in the last eight months that has Swinney and his coaching staff excited about Thomas’ last season in a Tiger uniform.
Dealing with complications from COVID-19 and strep throat, Thomas only intended to play four games last season but ended up appearing in seven once the NCAA gave all players a free year of eligibility. The veteran defensive end wasn’t himself, though, and ballooned to 294 pounds at the start of the offseason, Swinney said.
But Thomas dropped 30 pounds — cutting sweets out of his diet was a big help, he said — and has shown the kind of explosiveness and physicality that helped him earn freshman All-America honors in 2018.
“He’s been incredibly focused since January,” Swinney said. “We sat down, we talked, we met and we kind of laid out where he is and what he needs to do, and he’s exceeded all of those things. He’s got a great look in his eye.”
Thomas has played in 34 games with nine starts at Clemson, one of the five defensive ends for the Tigers that have started at least one game. A new-and-improved Thomas has been just as impressive as any of them during camp.
“He’s in a group of guys where we’ve got multiple starters there, but he’s made the most of his snaps for sure,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.
On the interior of the defensive line, Clemson is going to need a handful of players to spell Bryan Bresee and Tyler Davis from time to time. Orhorhoro may be at the top of that list.
A third-year sophomore, Orhorhoro was listed as a backup at defensive tacke going into last season, but a knee injury limited him to just four games. He also missed some time in the spring, but the 6-4, 300-pounder went through camp with a clean bill of health and was back with the second-team defense looking like “a million bucks,” Venables said.
Tre Williams, Darnell Jefferies, Etinosa Reuben, DeMonte Capehart and true freshman Payton Page could also help on the inside, though Capehart missed all of camp after having his knee scoped and will need some time to get caught up. But Orhorhoro, whom Venables said has reached another level in his physical and mental maturation, has made a strong case to be the Tigers’ third defensive tackle.
“He’s still got an incredible ceiling, and I expect him, the more he plays, to continue to get better and really help us at that position when we need some help,” Venables said.
There still hasn’t been much separation in the competition to replace the ACC’s all-time leading rusher, Travis Etienne. Considering the edge senior Lyn-J Dixon has on the rest of the running backs in terms of experience — he’s been Etienne’s primary backup for the last couple of seasons — that may be good news for Pace, a sophomore the coaching staff is high on.
Pace got his feet wet last season behind Etienne and Dixon, playing 50 snaps over nine games, but the 5-10, 210-pounder has put himself squarely in the mix for the top spot on the depth chart. Clemson spent camp divvying up first-team reps among Pace, Dixon and freshman Will Shipley.
“I think we saw a ton of flashes there (last season),” Elliott said. “He still needed to learn the entire package to be able to function in all the situations, particularly from a protection standpoint. But we knew it was there, and we anticipated that he was going to be a guy that was really going to push for that spot or whoever was in that lead spot.”
Pace said he feels like his pass protection has improved, and learning from Etienne last season, he said, has helped him become a more patient runner. Whether Clemson settles on a No. 1 back in the next two weeks or takes more of a committee approach this season, Pace is in line to be a bigger part of the backfield equation.