The quest towards the beginning of the 2013 season has begun, and with five practices in the books, players are starting to make moves as position battles have started to heat up. On the defensive side of the ball Vic Beasley has been very solid at DE, with a pair of pick six's and has put on a chunk of muscle in the offseason. Question remain who else is going to step up at we move forward. There's a host of talent there with guys like Barnes, Aiken, Crawford, Lawson, and a young but physically strong Ogundeko in the mix, but someone needs to fully emerge as spring ball starts to unwind. Five practices in, coaches aren't going to have a huge grasp of whose going to lock down the DE positions, but should know more in the next few weeks.
Clemson: Will the defense continue to progress? If last year's Chick-fil-A Bowl was any indication, Clemson can play some defense, after all. Coordinator Brent Venables' unit held LSU to just 219 total yards, a colossal improvement from the team's embarrassing Orange Bowl showing the year before. Now, with offensive stars Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins set to return, Clemson's defense will be asked to round into BCS shape. Vic Beasley, Corey Crawford and early enrollee Shaq Lawson will look to fill Malliciah Goodman's void on the defensive line, and linebackers Stephone Anthony and Spencer Shuey will lead a maturing linebacking corps. But the most pressure will be on the Tigers' secondary. Clemson was picked apart by several opposing passers in 2012 -- NC State's Mike Glennon threw for 493 yards and five touchdowns on Nov. 17 -- and will need its young group of defensive backs to show significant improvement this spring.
At linebacker is this Tony Steward's chance to finally shine? It's hard to expect gangbuster type play this spring out of him coming off his ACL injury (his second one), but with this unit losing several players to graduation, his opportunity has finally arrived if he can stay healthy. Steward will have to compete with Spencer Shuey and Oklahoma transfer Kellen Jones, who was knocking heads in practice last August but was forced to sit out due to the NCAA transfer rules. Shuey was very solid last year, especially in the second half of the season. At this point Anthony and Christian are the odds on favorites to lock down the other two LB spots. There needs to be guys to push these two at their starting spots.
Holding LSU to 219 yards in the Chick-fil-A Bowl — 99 rushing — whet his anticipation of a second season in Venables’ scheme with 10 players who started at least five games. That includes Spencer Shuey and Stephone Anthony, who offer impressive depth at middle linebacker. "We’re stacked, man," said Anthony, a strapping 240-plus pounds. "We have a chance to be real good."
There's a ton of depth issues in the secondary, particularly at corner. Part of the reason Clemson was able to land blue chip prospect Mackensie Alexander was the staff's ability to sell him on immediate playing time. That has to scare you a little bit. Alexander will certainly be in the mix this fall for playing time, but having to potentially rely on a true freshman to step up at a difficult position like corner shows the depth issues we are having at that position. Breeland will likely lock down one of the spots, but whose going to lock down the other? Peters, Robinson, and Jenkins are the likely contenders at this point.
"Our number in the secondary is 14," said Swinney. "Right now we've got eight scholarship guys here, with seven coming in - so actually, we'll be one over. The reason we did that is that we know we're going to have to count on some of those guys next fall. "We know they're all not going to be ready, and you really never know who's going to be ready and who's not. Who you think is going to be ready may come in and not be ready, and then there will be a guy who you thought would never play as a freshman, and he'll shock you."
On the offensive side of the ball there are intriguing battles to watch as spring practices resumes next week. We know Tajh has solidified the top spot at quarterback, but who backs him up? Chad Kelly has tons of talent, but Stoudt has more time in the system and has actually played in games, albeit most of it in mop up duty. Can Kelly overtake Stoudt? I don't think this competition fully plays out until the end of August camp.
The offensive line looks to be the deepest its been since maybe 2006. The unit returns four starters, and although they'll miss the loss of Freeman, Norton looks to be a solid replacement at center. Battle is going to be the franchise left tackle that Clemson hasn't had since Barry Richardson, at the most important position on the line. This allows Brandon Thomas to play his more natural guard position. Timothy, Beasley, and Shatley will see tons of reps this spring and fall, but they need to be pushed by guys behind them. In particular, we would like to see players like Davis, Gore, and Anthony step up.
Find the right mix on the offensive line. With three new starters taking over on the line last season, it was no surprise Clemson allowed 2.4 sacks a game in 2012. This unit returns four starters for 2013, including first-team All-ACC tackle Brandon Thomas. Guards Tyler Shatley and David Beasley are back as returning starters, but the unit must replace center Dalton Freeman. Thomas could slide to guard if Isaiah Battle can claim the left tackle spot, while the coaching staff also hopes to see progress from Giff Timothy after making 11 starts in 2012. The pieces are there for Clemson’s offensive line to be one of the best in the ACC. Can the Tigers find the right mix this spring?
Finally, at wide receiver now is the time for Bryant and Peake to step up. One of the all time greats leaves in Hopkins, and with the additional loss of Jaron Brown, Bryant and Peake finally have their chance to make waves. Humphries will likely continue to get lots of reps in the slot. Hopper could be the wild card at this position. The young but talented receiver was close to playing last year, but redshirted simply because the position was so deep last year. The hope is he pushes either one of Bryant or Peake for playing time to create some much needed competition at that position.
Get Sammy Watkins back on track. After a standout freshman season, Watkins was a major disappointment in 2012. Watkins caught 82 passes in 2011 but watched his numbers dip to just 57 receptions in 2012. An illness and an off-the-field incident played a huge role in Watkins’ struggles last season, and with all of that behind him in spring practice, the junior is ready to rebound back to All-American status. Getting Boyd and Watkins back on the same page will be crucial for Clemson’s passing attack in 2013.
There's still tons of time for other players to step up as we move forward in spring ball. What we do know is that the offensive line is solid on paper, Clemson returns arguably its best quarterback in history, and the defense has finally established some much needed depth along the line to take some pressure off a weaker secondary. The future is bright and this season sets up very nicely. Is this program finally ready to take the next step? Well find out over the next few months.