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Notes and Observations From Clemson Football Spring Game

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A quarterback battle raged while a dominant defense had it’s way.

National Championship rings awards to seniors at halftime of the Orange and White Spring Game in Clemson, SC.
Ryan Kantor

Summary Recap

With special interest in a wide open QB battle, 60,000 headed to Clemson to watch the Orange & White Spring game. It was QBs Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel leading the Orange Team against QBs Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson for the White Team.

The game started sloppy, with a bad snap to Kelly Bryant, and would remain sloppy on offense for much of the day. Quarterbacks combined to go 33-63 with three INTs as the defenses shined. A myriad of factors led to this: a superbly deep Clemson defense, a struggling White Team O-line, rotating QBs, and a hand injury to QB Kelly Bryant.

The offense got moving when the Orange Team hit on a pop “pass” jet sweep to Ray-Ray McCloud that moved them into the red zone. They’d score on a fake jet sweep run by Kelly Bryant shortly thereafter.

A field goal by Greg Huegel extended the Orange team’s lead to 10-0. Although the defenses controlled much of the game, the White Team had a chance to engineer a game-winning drive with four minutes (on a running clock) remaining, but the Orange defense (and more bad snaps and porous O-line play) prevented any late game heroics and the Orange team won 19-14.

The offensive highlight for the white team was a 24-yard completion from Hunter Johnson to Cornell Powell. It flashed his immense upside as a passer as it was dropped in where only Powell could catch it. WRs Powell and Overton appear ready to move into bigger roles in the offense.

The highlight of the day though may have been the ring ceremony at halftime. The below video played before Coach Swinney personally invited each of the departing seniors to come get their set of National Championship rings. Enjoy and then we’ll discuss what we learned:

What We Learned

QB Job may be unsettled, but nobody has chased down Kelly Bryant

Ryan Kantor:

Kelly Bryant struggled passing the ball. He finished just 4-13 with 43 passing yards and an INT. On one particular third-and-eight, he wildly overthrew his receiver who would have picked up the conversion. Just when I thought I’d settled on his (poor) evaluation for the scrimmage, Twitter shared the news that he was played through a torn tendon in his pinky finger of his throwing hand suffered very early in the game (he was shown getting it taped). That certainly complicates things.

Due to the injury, it’s tough to analyze his passing too much. We know his upside as a running threat is great as he ran for 66 yards and a TD. He didn’t show much as a passer, and he’ll have his finger in a splint for six weeks, but we’ll have to hope he improves in that area during Summer camp.

Kelly’s teammate on the Orange Team, Tucker Israel, had the best day among the QBs. Israel finished 13-19 with 94 passing yards and a TD. He didn’t do anything to wow you, but he consistently took what the defense was giving him and made smart passes to move the chains. He’s a guy, much like Nick Schuessler a year ago, that I’d be very confident with going up against Syracuse or Wake Forest. He’s a competent QB with limited upside and Coach Swinney said as much in the post-game. I don’t believe he is being given strong consideration for the starting role as the staff seems confident one of the other QBs with a higher ceiling will pan out.

A big challenge in evaluating QB play of the White Team QBs was the struggles of their offensive line. Justin Falcinelli, Taylor Hearn, Tremayne Ancrum, Zach Giella, Chandler Reeves, and Sean Pollard (who left early with a sprained ankle) had a hard time slowing down the Orange Team’s defensive front which was led by Dexter Lawrence, Albert Huggins, Jabril Robinson, Clelin Ferrel, and Chris Register. As a result, Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson seldom had time to scan the field and go through normal progressions.

Zerrick Cooper was 11-18 for 81 yards with a passing TD and an INT. He was adequate, but didn’t show us anything that would lead us to dismiss what the coaches are saying about Kelly Bryant as the leader for the starting QB job.

Hunter Johnson finished 5-13 for 48 yards with a passing TD and an INT. His completion to Cornell Powell was incredibly impressive and gave us a look at what he can do with his arm. He’s not ready, but I could see him eventually earning snaps.

Dabo’s talk throughout Spring camp and after this game indicates that while Kelly Bryant hasn’t run away with the starting QB job, nobody is exactly chasing him down either. This game gave me reason to see things the way Dabo is seeing them. While it was unfortunate that Bryant hurt his hand and was unable to pass effectively, none of the other QBs made a strong case for the starting job either (save Tucker Israel). We still have yet to see Bryant pass effectively in any scrimmage or game situation, but Kelly Bryant starting against Kent State in week one feels more likely than it did a week ago.

QuackingTiger:

First, remember that you can never learn a ton from a Spring Game. It doesn’t give you an accurate depiction of true talent level or what will happen in the fall. Just pump the brakes on making any definitive statements based on such a small sample size. But we can look at the process and decision-making of players and make assumptions about potential.

Don’t disagree with anything Ryan wrote.

I’ve seen some folks trying to anoint Tucker as the next QB, but that ain’t happening (remember that he threw one sure interception and another that could have been picked). Got to give Bryant a pass in the passing game because of the injury. Cooper showed the big arm but some serious inaccuracy too. He showed good speed/athleticism once he gets into top gear, but doesn’t have the explosive running ability. Hunter is just 20 practices or so into his career. You can see his potential, but also his youth and inexperience. He got dealt a bad hand in the game with a weaker Oline (a couple of those sacks weren’t on him, couple bad snaps). I agree that Bryant starts and I don’t see another QB doing enough to overtake or create separation from him. But, I don’t see KB separating from the pack either. The first game will be a bit of QB by committee, trying to get this thing figured out before Auburn.

Clemson’s defense has a lot of depth

Ryan Kantor:

With a seven returning starters, Clemson’s defense could be among the nation’s best.

Shaq Smith and JD Davis both looked good at linebacker, underscoring the great depth the Tigers have at the position where they’ll have to replace Mr. Heart & Soul - Ben Boulware.

Denzel Johnson, Nolan Turner, and Korrin Wiggins all had interceptions. Wiggins’ name was called many times throughout the day, an encouraging sign for someone who’s career has been slowed by a knee injury. The secondary did not leave many big windows for Clemson’s QBs to throw into making life difficult all day long.

This is a unit Clemson fans should be very excited about. Also, news may be right around the corner about Clemson getting a boost on their DL.

QuackingTiger:

A few under the radar names that popped out at me...

Welcome back Wiggins. It was so hard to see him hobble around last season, knowing how good he had been for Clemson. He seems to be legitimately on the road to getting back fully healthy.

Trayvon Mullen looked the part and made some great plays on the ball throughout the day. He looks poised to grab more playing time. Looked long and physical, played well against the run and pass. Touchdown pass to Thompson he gave up was as much on the Safety as it was on him (Van Smith looked comfortable at SS for the most part though).

Shaq Smith had a good game in a crowded LB group. Look for him to make a move in the WILL pecking order. Seemed to diagnose plays quickly and react. Physically he is seriously imposing. Skalski and JD Davis missed some fills for the White squad. I will say that JD made a few nice reads too and Nolan Turner caught my eye on a couple of plays. Spector showed up too.

Isaiah Simmons is a player. He dropped an easy interception but filled a Nickel role otherwise. I saw one busted coverage, but that was about it. BV has plenty of weapons.

Carter struggled a bit as the number one CB. I think he was the only player to get picked on. He has generally played well during the Spring, but will struggle at times against taller WRs. Probably the only potential weakness that could be exploited on the entire defense.

On offense: Powell continued his strong Spring performance. Overton caught a nice ball and played well after a somewhat disappointing Spring (I still think Higgins has the chance to step right into a 2 deep role). Simpson looked strong on the interior of the line. Feaster showed his potential (the White offensive line really struggled after Pollard went out) and Fuller keeps running better than expected, showing a nice burst. Need the TE’s to step up. Chase had a couple nice catches and Cervenka stood out for the Orange. I continue to contend that we will have a Center battle in the fall.

The Tigers’ deep defense, along K Huegel, P Spiers, KR Feaster, and PR McCloud may make special teams a strength

Ryan Kantor:

More depth on defense means more talent on kick-off teams which may be good news for a kickoff defense that made huge strides last season after struggling in 2015.

Greg Huegel is back and should be a reliable kicker. With Andy Teasdall graduating, Will Spiers may be our punter next year. Spiers booted a 61-yarder, but also had a few shorter punts as he averaged 40 yards on 9 punts according (stat credit: David Hood). I was generally happy with what I saw from him.

With the ever-reliable and forever under-appreciated Artavis Scott off to the NFL, Feaster and McCloud will get another opportunity to return kicks and punts respectively. The coaching staff saw their upside last year, but moved to Scott when a more reliable veteran was needed following their struggles. Hopefully, they can make major contributions on special teams.

QuackingTiger:

Spiers did have the one big boot, but other than that it was ugly for all the punters. Punts without any pressure getting little hang time or distance. I didn’t see great get-off times either on punts. Spence missing a 44 yarder and seeing kickoffs not go through the back of the endzone was, again, disappointing.

I’d like to see Feaster kickoff and McCloud do punts to begin the season. If McCloud screws up a couple times then go to Powell and Renfrow.