I've been wanting to write about how the True Freshman have done moving from recruiting expectations through Fall camp and now game-play.
Let us begin with LT Mitch Hyatt. Mitch was a 5* recruit who slipped a bit in rankings because of a few good but not great camp appearances against elite competition. He needed to gain some weight over the Summer and was unceremoniously thrown into the starting position after the untimely departure of Battle. Graded out at 94% and had very few miscues for a true freshman in the first game (he did jump offsides against App St. but that is forgivable in these early contests). Watching the tape again he maintained his blocks, got to the second level and didn't have any mental busts. This is the most refreshing thing about this current group so far--not missing many assignments. Obviously Wofford didn't blitz a ton but it was good to see some toughness and push against an inferior opponent. App State was a bit of a mixed bag but that was across the offensive line because of a lack of communication. Mitch still showed fight and decent technique--can't ask for more from a true freshman.
If Mitch can sustain this level of production against tougher competition then he will be the Sammy Watkins of the OLine.
At receiver Ray-Ray McCloud graded out higher than anybody else (according to Dabo). He is everything I thought he would be when I made him my official crush of last season (before anyone else had him even on Clemson's recruiting radar). Like MetalTiger I saw a couple of times where his blocking was suspect but he showed a burst and elite quickness mixed in with some toughness from being a RB. What makes him special is his grasp of the offense. On the play where G-hop cut the defender, RayRay got sandwiched for no gain, but other than that he made great decisions on where to run. Against App State he was electric on a kick return he took for 70 yards--more of that please...
This is all very important because he will play a lot of snaps this year (I could see him easily getting 300+). Perfect compliment to Scott at the 2. Punt returns were disastrous but really it was just a freshman mistake that is easily correctable. Great hands and knowledge of the offense--should compete to be a freshman all-american.
Same goes for Deon Cain. Man crush part 2. Yes, he jumped offsides twice against Wofford (correctable freshman errors) but he ran some beautiful routes and got behind the defense. He knows how to run with the ball after the catch. Cain is going to continue to iron out his transition to WR but he can snatch the ball out of the air and has the speed to be a deep threat. I saw nothing that makes me believe he won't have an impact this season, which will only be accelerated as he moves to the two-deep with the injury to Mike Williams. Against App St. he had a nice pitch and catch where he showed some elusiveness. Just a glimpse of his future potential that he will unleash as the season unfolds.
Garrett Williams only played 14 snaps against Wofford, but I was salivating. He came in as a 4* TE and we beat out FSU for his services. The knock was that he was unproven as a receiver because in his high school offense all he could do was block and run the ball. That has proven to be an asset because the kid can block. As I have watched last years games with fresh eyes moving into this season (how many of us didn't watch the South Carolina game 2 or 3 times??), one thing that stood out is how much our TE blocking limited our offense. Too many times TE's weren't able to seal DE's, which kills our running game and rushed the QB. What I saw from Williams is a true H-back who gives maximum effort and enjoys blocking. Against App State he had a few times where he let his block go too early but I will take that learning curve over whiffles and the comedy of errors that lead to negative plays and RB's and QB's getting blown up.
Leggett is the starter but Williams was already ahead of redshirt freshman Milan Richard and Cannon Smith because of his blocking skill. Stanton Seckinger was hot garbage against App State. If he can't block at this point in his career and has a bad knee then he should only be playing mop up duty until fully healthy. Garrett knew where to be and how to seal the edge against Wofford--he will be big in short yardage and should be second on the depth chart moving forward.
Jake Fruhmorgan didn't have a terrible day against Wofford, but showed why he has more of a learning curve than Mitch Hyatt. Fruhmorgan is still easily the best offensive lineman (apart from Mitch) that we have signed here in the last five years. He injured his shoulder, which held him back some in the Spring. His upper body strength is still coming and he will need to add that last 5-10 pounds but his technique is still better than almost all of the upperclassmen. Played well in pass protection, especially against App State. He had some freshman mistakes like the false start penalty but he held his own and will get better with experience. I didn't see anything that made me nervous about his future progression or ability to back-up (and possibly overtake Joe Gore).
QB Kelly Bryant should be the number 2 guy. He needs to continue to progress as a passer but he has the talent to win games. Thanks for your service Dr. Schuess. Elite running talent. He and Cooper will battle to be the heir apparent to DW.
Christian Wilkins. I admit I was giddy with anticipation and worried that perhaps I had built him up higher than he could be asked to deliver as a true freshman. Would the War Daddy label be wasted? Big Juicy didn't disappoint (also he and RayRay give some of the best true freshman interviews I have ever seen). Wilkins played with a high motor, good pad level and leverage, and wasn't afraid to hit somebody (he and Pagano impressed me with how they finished plays). You can see that his hand injury in the Summer has sapped a tiny bit of his strength and I think he still has another level he will get to when he gets more playing time with the absence of Reader. After one game I would have no reservations about playing Pagano and Wilkins together as the starters. Wilkins makes me excited about this season (anyone else notice that the first defensive players to go congratulate the offense are Kearse and Wilkins? War Daddy and an infectious, emergent leader on the defense as a true freshman??).
DE Austin Bryant also looked better than I expected. We will need him to step up over the course of the season because there is no one behind him. I saw a lot to like for a true freshman. He is big enough and strong enough to really play the position and showed a nice motor in pursuit in his limited snaps. He doesn't have an elite burst or top end speed though. His technique has advanced throughout camp but will need a lot more polish to actually get to the QB. The DE position should not be this thin (Rogers is the only other guy at the position and he was injured in the App State game with a high ankle sprain).
DT Albert Huggins also looked better than I expected. I cautioned everyone who thought Huggins would contribute right away that his technique was just too raw and that he would really have to adjust to playing in space as a DE. The full-time move to DT was really important and I'm glad Albert had the wisdom to go ahead and ask to move to the 3-tech spot. He has already changed his body composition (another part of the maturation process he needed to go through and one he has excelled at) and has the work ethic to be a good player for us in the future. The trick now is to play with better leverage and pad discipline, along with learning how to use his hands. He showed in the game he has the athleticism to play well at the college level, but just needs the technique to catch up with his ability. Great option to have on the 3-deep.
DB Van Smith didn't play enough for me to give him much of an evaluation. Seemed fine in limited snaps against App State. Really hope he can play over 100 snaps during the season.
CB Mark Fields saw action against Appalachian State. He came into camp physically ready to contribute, but he needed more work on his technique. Adrian Baker is getting more time at that two deep spot along with Ryan Carter playing the Nickel more (the same way Martin Jenkins would play against spread formations). I do think that Fields has the most potential when he hones in on some little things because he has the speed and physicality to man the position in the future.
LB's Judah and JD Davis...meh. JD (I think) actually looked like he was going to make a really nice play by reading the play and jumping into the running lane...and then totally whiffed on the tackle. I'm not even sure how he did that. Pray for the health of Boulware and Goodson.
The other grayshirt LB Jalen Williams is currently on the two deep and had a mixed bag day. He got out of position on a few plays and eaten up by lineman. He is very short at 5'9 (the reason other programs didn't pursue him heavily), but he does have the potential to be a contributor. Redshirt freshman Kendall Joseph played a nice game and will get more snaps as he works his way back from injury.
APP STATE NOTES
Really just one note. App State has a starting LB named Eric Boggs. As we have written here before Venables really really wanted Boggs but all we could do was offer him a preferred walk-on spot and we lost him to App State. He started as a true freshman last year. He would be in our 2-deep right now had we found room for him. We took his teammate Joseph (who I really like), but because of the twins offers couldn't swing Boggs. Just sayin...(insert beaten horse gif...)