I was able to watch the team scrimmage this morning and came away with a few impressions worth sharing, since we are so starved for in-person analysis this time of year. It was difficult to take notes between plays, especially when Clemson ran tempo, so this will involve less long-winded narration than quick positional thoughts and takeaways based on what I was able to glean live.
Clemson practiced this morning in Death Valley for roughly 2 hours, most of which was in a conventional scrimmage format. While not necessarily the rule, generally the 1st string offense faced off against the 2nd string defense, and vice versa, with subs earning sporadic reps with both units as the scrimmage progressed. The scrimmage started slowly for the offense, where procedural penalties knocked the unit backward on 3 of the first 4 plays. The offense quickly grew more comfortable, with each of the three quarterbacks ultimately tossing touchdown passes, and ultimately won the day by a considerable margin. When considering how good this defense should be, this great news for the offense. My single greatest takeaway was how much better Kelly Bryant, Hunter Johnson, and Zerrick Cooper all looked today versus the spring game.
Kelly Bryant started slowly but looked more and more impressive as the scrimmage progressed. He threw a bad deep lob pass on the opening drive on a seam route to TJ Chase, which was easily intercepted by Isaiah Simmons — who only had to jog underneath the ball. Bryant’s delivery still irks me and his deep balls certainly have too much float; this isn’t as much of a problem on the go routes outside, where he later hit Chase on a perfectly thrown 50 yard bomb into tight coverage. Both the throw and catch were extremely impressive. Bryant looked very good both on rollouts (no suprise) and sitting in the pocket throwing intermediate routes on 3rd down (pleasant surprise). He hit Deon Cain on deep in routes to move the chains more than once. He had a perfectly thrown 30 yard wheel route in the back corner of the endzone dropped by DJ Greenlee.
Johnson entered the scrimmage on the next drive with the 2nd string offense and seemed much more comfortable than in the spring; he got the ball out much more quickly. The exact same touchdown pass he threw to Diondre Overton in the spring game was just out of Overton’s reach today, but from my perspective it looked like Overton could’ve run under it had he run faster. Cooper came in and showed the same flashes he showed in the spring but without the mistakes. It is clear he has the strongest arm of the bunch and also perhaps the best pocket presence; he consistently escapes pressure and still looks to throw.
Based on what I saw today, it’s difficult to make my own assertion for which should start. All looked improved, but Bryant and even Cooper likely would’ve looked even better if the quarterbacks were live -- many of their escapes were blown dead.
Travis Etienne looks like Wayne Gallman. Same jersey number and same stride; the difference is Etienne runs a bit lower and is far more dangerous in the open field. He’s shifty without losing any power. Do not be surprised if Etienne avoids a redshirt and ultimately steals more than his share of carries. If it weren’t for a certain freshman receiver, he would be the most impressive newcomer I saw today, by miles.
As expected, Tavien Feaster looked much more powerful and effective at churning yards between the tackles than a year ago. He and Etienne have me all kinds of intrigued, but CJ Fuller is just as much a wrecking ball as ever, bursting through the line a 20 yard touchdown in the 2 minute situation the play after Bryant hit the deep bomb to Chase. The “starter” label looks like it will be somewhat irrelevant this year, at least at the beginning of the season, since Etienne has made such an impression along with Fuller and Feaster.
Tee Higgins. Oh my. The hype is real. I counted two Mike Williams-esque diving catches alone. The first was on a well-thrown go route from Bryant (notice a trend) which Higgins laid out for horizontally and corralled just short of the goal line. It looked exactly like this play except a yard short of the endzone. The following drive, he dove for an under-thrown back shoulder throw and kept it off the ground to convert a 3rd down. And the go routes...man crush.
Amari Rodgers didn’t have many reception opportunities today but when he did, he impressed. I am not used to seeing a short WR wearing #3 look so good in the air. Rodgers will get on the field early this year. TJ Chase, as mentioned, looks worthy of the praise he’s earned throughout the summer. Overton looked better than he did in the spring, but still not very fluid to me. I don’t think it will take long for Higgins to supplant him on the 2 deep, but with so many receivers cross-training at different roles, the depth chart won’t really matter. Overton is a bonafide red zone threat, going high to catch a quick slant touchdown from Bryant.
Not much to be said for this group. Milan Richard is the clear starter and looked good making a few catches downfield. He’s not quite Jordan Leggett, but if he is similarly reliable the position won’t be a weakness. Greenlee took the 2nd string snaps and did little to impress, so the door is open for Cannon Smith or JC Chalk to log meaningful snaps.
A surprisingly good day for this unit after the slow start. Tremayne Anchrum took the 1st string reps a RT -- a good development for the unit’s depth. I did not focus on the OL as much as the quarterbacks and secondary, but I saw no bad snaps from Justin Falcinelli. If center is serviceable (signs today were encouraging) this can be a great line when you consider the depth offered by Anchrum, John Simpson, and Maverick Morris — all very versatile players.
We know what we have in this unit. They controlled the line of scrimmage early but as reps were distributed throughout the roster, the offense found more success. The depth behind the starters will remain a concern throughout the year, and further injuries could be catastrophic.
The entire starting front 7 should be monstrous. In positional warmups, I mistook Tre Lamar for a misplaced defensive end before I saw his jersey number, he is a mountain amongst the group. To move so well at his size, gosh. This is your anchor at MIKE until he moves on to the NFL. Dorian O’Daniel was everywhere, even on blitzes he was getting pressure. With his presence, Clemson may not have to use the nickel package much this year unless opponents give up on the run game completely. And of course there’s no one better than Kendall Joseph to replace Ben Boulware. This whole unit is angry and deep.
This is where my primary interest was today. There was a bit of confusion about strong safety vs free safety since the summer depth chart showed Tanner Muse at strong safety and Van Smith still at free safety. Earlier in the offseason, we heard Smith moved to SS and Muse would take over at FS. Today Smith was indeed at SS and Muse looked dynamite at FS, leading me to presume the summer depth chart was inexplicably incorrect. Muse is much improved as an enforcer running toward the line in run support, while also big and quick enough to more than defend tight ends aligned in the boundary. Smith’s quickness is better suited for the strong (field) side anyway, while Muse has the measurables to be an extremely effective enforcer at free.
Cornerback saw more rotation and cross-training than any other position, with Mark Fields earning the most 1st string reps at field corner and Ryan Carter starting at boundary before taking snaps as the backup SS. AJ Terrell earned plenty of snaps at boundary as well; having to face Cain, Overton, and Higgins every snap didn’t exactly make him look great today but he won’t face a boundary receiver group like that this fall.
Kicking: Greg Huegel or bust. Punting: Will Spiers or bust. Everyone else was, umm, not good.
In all, it’s good to see encouraging signs from the offense today. “We can win with all three quarterbacks” isn’t hyperbole. This is an elite program reloading.