Fall camp is close. Really close. One thing that I really enjoy about both spring ball and fall camp is the optimism that generally surrounds both the team and individual players. It's always always gonna be his breakout year, or so-and-so's time to step up. With that being said, we have a few of those questions percolating with our Tigers. I think it's time to start looking at some of the biggest questions heading into fall camp. And what better way to do that than to form a list. I love lists. You'd think I work for ESPN with my list obsession. That's just the way my brain works.
These are the top 5 questions that I'm looking to have answered heading into fall camp. Feel free to let me know if there is something else that you are anxious to see.
1. How quickly can the new OL gel? And will any of the young guys step up and really impress?
This is the biggest question that everyone is talking about. We have the skill position players needed to win a national championship, but we need the big uglies to step up and dominate in the trenches. Last year's OL was okay at times and really bad at others. Now we replace 3 seniors with 3 younger guys that are going to have to step up fast or this season will be an uphill battle starting on Sept 1. Tyler Shatley showed the most in spring ball and seems to have cemented himself as a starter at guard. Nobody stepped up and took the LT job, so it looks like Brandon Thomas will slide back outside and play the position that he struggled most with last year. That leaves an opening at the other guard and tackle spots. I don't want someone to win it by default because we need 5 guys to fill out the line. It'd be nice to see two guys with nasty streaks and knowledge of their assignments to come out and win both competitions. You're looking at Joe Gore and Gifford Timothy for the RT spot and Kalon Davis and David Beasley for the RG spot. Sounds like we might be running left a lot.
I don't expect this group to dominate this year, but it'd be nice to see them impose their will on inferior competition and hold their own against the big boys.
2. Will Tony Steward's knee be fully healed and will he be ready to run next to classmate Stephone Anthony? Or will the coaching staff decide to redshirt him for what should be a very good 2013 Clemson team.
When Anthony and Steward signed in 2011 they were expected to come in and compete immediately for a position in a poor linebacking corps. Anthony's athleticism was evident last year, though he did struggle playing his assignments at times. He'll take over the starting MLB role and is expected to excel. Steward is a different story. He tried to give it a go last year on a knee that was less than 100% from his senior year of high school. Current players have proven over and over again that ACL injuries don't take nearly as long as they used to to recover from. But an 80% Tony Steward does not help this team. If he's 100%, obviously he'll avoid a redshirt. I'm hopeful that he comes out and shows no signs of being hampered by his surgically repaired knee. I'd love to have two beasts like Anthony and Steward running side by side.
3. Can Jaron Brown hold off Charone Peake at WR?
Brown showed an innate ability to come down with clutch catches last year. He was very solid all year, while not necessarily spectacular. His numbers last year were almost identical to his sophomore year, but part of the reason is that Watkins and Hopkins are so good that they take balls away from him. Charone Peake possesses spectacular ability. A lot of people wondered why he didn't see more time last year, and the only real explanation I have is that Brown is a pretty darn good WR. If Peake has full understanding of the playbook, his route tree, and can get in sync with Tajh Boyd, he may have a chance. He'll have a tough fight on his hand to knock off the incumbent though.
4. Who's gonna make the 2-deep at DT?
Brandon Thompson was good. Really good. And the fact that we don't have him anymore keeps me up at night. But one of the problems with last year was the lack of depth behind Thompson and Moore. Last year we learned that it's not enough to have 1 great player and 1 good player at DT. It's important to have sufficient depth because when you're battling against 300 lb guys for 80 plays a game your body wears down. We need to have 4 capable guys this year so that we don't completely wear down at the end of games and also at the end of the year. DeShawn Williams has shown the most to date at the position, which still isn't very much. Guys like Barnes, Watson, and Jarrett need to come into their own this year. If not, expect uber-talented freshman Carlos Watkins to take a spot on the 2-deep.
5. Who's gonna return kickoffs and punts for us?
Sammy dabbled in both last year, but after his muffed punt against Maryland he was replaced by Nuk in that role. And then after his shoulder injury he was rarely used on kickoff returns. Nuk took over the punt return duties and did not show signs of being the long term solution. It seemed like he fair caught everything, and even struggled with that at times (@ NC State). Can we please find someone else to put back there that has the potential to take one to the house? Nuk isn't that guy and it seems like we have a lot of quick, speedy guys to burn. Field position is huge. We already have a stud punter. If we put an above average punt returner out there we should expect to win the field position battle every game. Maybe Watkins gets another shot?
Will Hopper and Watkins be used on kickoff returns? That could potentially be a game breaking duo back there. I'm not sure if they'll want to use Watkins because of the injury potential on kickoffs. Martavis Bryant was used some last year as well. I don't know about you, but I prefer to have my kickoff returners under 6'4.
So those are the 5 things that I'm most anxious to see with fall camp just around the corner. Is there anything I'm missing?