Football season is officially back at Clemson.
The Tigers will open preseason camp with their first practice late this afternoon, exactly one month ahead of their season opener against Georgia Tech on Labor Day night. There’s plenty of evaluating for Dabo Swinney and his staff to do before then, particularly with players who are returning from injury and positions that remain more fluid than others.
Here are five players who are worth monitoring closely over the next month:
Arguably the best all-around football player on Clemson’s roster, Bresee, who may also be the Tigers’ top NFL prospect, doesn’t have to worry about losing his spot atop the depth chart. That is, as long as he stays healthy.
Camp will be the first time Bresee has taken competitive reps since tearing his ACL against N.C. State last September. The Tigers’ star defensive tackle missed the spring recovering and rehabbing following surgery.
Simply put, Bresee is a handful to try to block when he’s right physically. That’s got to be Clemson’s primary objective for the 6-foot-4, 307-pounder ahead of Week 1.
With Justyn Ross having moved on to the NFL, Ngata is primed to take over as the Tigers’ No. 1 receiver heading into his senior season. But much like Bresee, keeping a clean bill of health is top priority.
It’s seemingly been that way for Ngata throughout his time at Clemson as the former blue-chip recruit has dealt with nagging injury after nagging injury over the last three years. He averaged a team-best 19 yards per reception last season, a good indication of his big-play ability, but Ngata also missed three games to a foot injury (and another because of COVID-19 protocols).
Ngata made it through the spring without any issues, something Swinney had no interest in jinxing when talking about his talented wideout.
“You’re just almost afraid to say anything,” Swinney said then.
It goes without saying getting Ngata to Week 1 injury-free will be imperative for the Tigers’ offense.
Jeremiah Trotter Jr.
For the first time in a long time, Clemson needs a new Mike linebacker now that veteran James Skalski has finally exhausted his eligibility. Ask first-year defensive coordinator Wesley Goodwin where the competition to be Skalski’s replacement stands, and he’ll tell you it’s still wide open.
Juniors Lavonta Bentley and Keith Maguire may have the slight edge going into camp, but watch out for Trotter here. The son of former NFL All-Pro linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, the younger Trotter may be the best pure athlete of the three primary contenders, and Swinney had high praise for his football IQ during the spring.
Bentley and Maguire have the decided advantage in experience over Trotter, who primarily contributed on special teams as a true freshman last season, so the fact that neither has won the job yet indicates Trotter performed well enough in the spring to make things interesting. A strong camp would only help Trotter’s case.
If Mike linebacker is the most intriguing position battle heading into camp, the competition on the interior of the offensive line isn’t far behind. With tackles Jordan McFadden and Walker Parks and center Will Putnam entrenched as starters, the guard spots remain the biggest question marks up front.
Marcus Tate may hold the edge on the left side while offensive line coach Thomas Austin revealed recently that Mitchell Mayes and Bryn Tucker are at the head of the line at right guard entering camp. But Pennington continues to be a player Clemson’s coaches are high on.
Swinney has said Pennington, a former four-star signee from the Memphis area, is talented enough that he might have started as a true freshman last season if not for a knee injury that cut Pennington’s season short. Pennington returned to action at full speed this spring, though he’ll need to find a good playing weight after tipping the scales at 360 pounds this week.
That may be the first step for Pennington to become a realistic factor in the competition.
D.J. Uiagalelei (and Cade Klubnik)
Was there any doubt Clemson’s quarterback(s) was going to end up on this list?
Between redefining his body composition, his work ethic and his accountability, Uiagalelei has drawn nothing but praise from his coaches this offseason as he looks for a bounceback year in Year 2 as the starter. But the time to talk about it is over.
Uiagalelei is going to have to perform better on the field, and a strong camp would help Swinney and Streeter feel better about where he’s at going into the opener. If not, Klubnik, Clemson’s latest five-star signal caller, is waiting in the wings with a headstart on his college career after going through spring practices.
Swinney made it clear back in the spring Uiagalelei is still the starter for now, but the quarterback situation will be one to keep an eye on all the way through the opener and beyond.
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