Preseason camp began yesterday in Clemson and several position battles will end up deciding how far we actually can go in 2013. I'm optimistic about the season as a whole, but my expectations are not that we will win a national title, merely contend for one and be mentioned during the season as a contender. I do, however, expect Clemson to win the ACC Championship. We'll expound on those ideas later, but there are some battles that will factor into exactly what those expectations are going to be in a few weeks' time. Here are the main things that concern us going into the season:
1. Pass protection/blocking from positions not on the offensive line.
You may not realize it, but Andre Ellington was a pretty damn good pass protector for his size. He essentially had to play every snap in 2011 because no one else could pick up blitzes consistently. In 2012 that slacked off a bit as McDowell improved, but now McDowell is the only one I find trustworthy as a protector. Hot Rod is at 200lbs now, and he will need it.
Pass protection at RB is underestimated across the board in football, but in our system its keenly important. We generally block with 5 and the 6th man on a blitz is often the RB assigned to pick up a blitzer up the A/B gap or off the edge. Generally I'd point to the QB as having to see a guy off the edge and put blame on him if he gets sacked, because he should read blitz numbers pre-snap and call a hot route, but the RB might give that extra second to dump the ball off, and without AE we may lose that second. Tajh won't be contending for a Heisman if no one can pick up those guys.
McDowell won't get all of AEs 200ish carries in 2013. He's not a primetime RB and runs too upright, but no one is going to take the top spot if they can't pick up blitzes, and that will hold back guys like Howard, Zac Brooks or Tyshon Dye from making the impacts we all hope they can make. Howard fell off the map last year with injuries. Brooks was nonexistent from scrimmage last year because he A) couldn't take the beating with his light weight (now 197lbs), and B) had no idea how to block properly. Dye, as a freshman, will have a difficult time in this area.
I do believe Dye will be the better true RB in this system, but I don't believe that will happen this year because of this particular area.
Another big concern is at TE, where we have no true on-the-line guy now that Sam Cooper is out. Stanton Seckinger and Jordan Leggett are both flex TEs and aren't going to be able to block a DE if the defensive front shifts over to them. Both have put on much-needed weight (235 and 242 respectively), but we're taking a step back from Palmer, Allen, and Ford. Jay Jay McCullough is in the FB/H-back mold, and I don't think he's ready for fulltime POA duty. In critical situations, I am hoping we go heavy and put MacLain (now at 304) in, or possibly try Darrell Smith as a line TE.
2. Defensive back is still going to be a worry.
We have a new DB coach, but all it takes is one look at the depth chart to see that we're still going to get torched at times this season. Cornerback is probably one of the prime positions for a true freshman to come in and make an impact, but we'll be playing several freshman all over the backfield, and they will cause fans some headaches this year.
Going into camp, the starters are Robinson, Blanks, Smith, and Breeland. Two of those have shown enough talent to deserve starting spots, the other two have been wildly inconsistent. Mackenzie Alexander will come in and will make the 2-deep immediately, barring injury. By the end of the season I expect him to start somewhere. Nickel will be a mix of Martin Jenkins and Jayron Kearse, depending on whether we need to go big or small. Everything else is up in the air. I think we'd be alright if one other freshman comes in and presses a starter heavily.
I am hoping for a Top 30 pass defense in 2013, but I wouldn't put my money on it.
3. Consistent pass rush.
Pass defense and pressures/sacks go together, so it might make sense to call this 2B instead of #3. Last year, after midseason, the DT rotation firmed up and LBs approached a "decent" level of play on blitzes so that we actually did pretty well in terms of sack numbers, but if you threw out Auburn and LSU I don't think you'd be too happy with them. It helps to show the ability in primetime but we should be more consistent here, and if the DL can put pressure on, then we can drop all the LBs into coverage where we need them.
I will note that Coach Hobby appeared to be restricting the number of pass rush moves he allowed guys to use until around midseason. He wanted them to work on one move in a game and get better with that move rather than let them use the full arsenal of moves in every game.
Vic Beasley weighed in yesterday at 232, about 13lbs less than hoped, and not enough for every-down play at WDE. I don't see his snap total decreasing at all, and still expect 7-10 sacks, but Crawford and Barnes will probably end up being the main guys. Crawford has shown flashes but for most of 2012 he really didn't have a good pass rush move. Barnes has simply never been a solid pass rusher, but has been in his gap more consistently than any returning player at DE. Who else will step up and press them? Lawson? Aiken? Byers?
4. OL play
I put this as a lower priority because I do think we'll be alright up front as a whole, which is nice to say after years of complaining about it not being that way. We do now have some depth up front, and I'm hopeful that the best 5 do start with at least 2 swing players who can get consistent snap totals.
Isaiah Battle stepping up to LT would be the real lynchpin towards making that happen. He's 280lbs and can move, he showed us that he can handle the best college DEs in the Peach Bowl, and it allowed us to move Brandon Thomas to RT and hold the LSU pass rush in check. Hopefully that is how it shakes out in Camp, though the staff has repeatedly called Battle out since his inconsistent Spring.
Consistency at Guard is another thing to look for this month. David Beasley has the talent, but has had struggles with weight and overall intensity at LG. His HS film showed how mean he can play, but we've only seen flashes of it here. Kalon Davis is only a slightly-less-consistent version of David. Thomas would probably play Guard in the NFL and is the best puller of all Guards on this roster, and we pull all the time, so in an ideal world we'd be able to put Thomas at LG and Beasley at RG, but then we're left with the question of how will pass block the better DEs on the right side. Gore has the talent but coaches call him out almost as much as Battle, and Shaq Anthony has yet to show he can drive block well on rushes.
At least we're not totally screwed if we lose someone up front, because I think guys mentioned above along with Guillermo, MacLain, and Timothy can be servicable if we needed them.
Here are the weights from the official weigh-in that one could gather from the video:
David Beasley 315
Tyrone Crowder 345 - at least 30 over.
Patrick DeStefano 291
Joe Gore 295
Eric Mac Lain 304 - very good but is all that good weight? I doubt it.
Ryan Norton 295
Spencer Region 355 - cut his ass. He should be 300 right now.
Tyler Shatley 300
Brandon Thomas 313
Giff Timothy 314
Reid Webster 298
Sam Cooper 246
D.J. Greenlee 224
Jordan Leggett 244 - very good
Jay Jay McCullough 234 -good
Stanton Seckinger 235 -good
Darrell Smith 239
Zac Brooks 197 - still needs at least another 10, has the frame to put on 20.
Tyshon Dye 217
Wayne Gallman 199 - will need another 10-15 minimum of good weight
D.J. Howard 198
Roderick McDowell 200
Tajh Boyd 219
Chad Kelly 212
Cole Stoudt 216
Martavis Bryant 204
Germone Hopper 177 - roughly where I had hoped, 185 is probably his max
Adam Humphries 192
Charone Peake 208
Sammy Watkins 206
Mike Williams 198 - nice frame
Tavaris Barnes 280 - exactly where he needs to stay
Vic Beasley 232 - 10 underweight at least
Roderick Byers 268
Grady Jarrett 300
Shaq Lawson 272
Ebenezer Ogundeko 253 - 265-275 should be where he ends up
Scott Pagano 292
D.J. Reader 322 - surprised he weighs this with Jack making his guys run so much.
Dane Rogers 268
Carlos Watkins 291
Josh Watson 293
Deshawn Williams 293
Ben Boulware 242
T.J. Burrell 216
Quandon Christian 230 - A little underweight but in coverage its not a detriment.
B.J. Goodson 241
Kellen Jones 225
Spencer Shuey 239
Tony Steward 230
Adrian Baker 167
Travis Blanks 203
Bashaud Breeland 186
Ronald Geohaghan 188
Martin Jenkins 184
C.J. Jones 183
Jayron Kearse 206
Garry Peters 191
Darius Robinson 178
Korrin Wiggins 195