Happy spring game eve! Tomorrow we enjoy the annual glorified practice scrimmage, from which we will all draw far too many conclusions since it is our only in-person glimpse of the team between January and August. Here’s where your most foolhardy predictions and hottest of takes should land, which of course includes continuing this week’s earlier debate on the Mongolian Empire/how do we define Europe/Star Wars/various military commanders in history and their chances of victory in an Asian land war.
Getting this out of the way from the start: there isn’t a quarterback battle this spring. This isn’t 2014, where it was a matter of “when, not if” Deshaun Watson would take over for Cole Stoudt. Kelly Bryant is far more talented and experienced than Stoudt, and Clemson won’t need Trevor Lawrence or Hunter Johnson to bring life to a sputtering offense the way Clemson needed Watson in 2014.
I’m on record saying this on the Clemson Pawcast and I’ll repeat it until I’m blue in the face (whether from exasperation or from choking on crow if I’m wrong): Bryant will start for the entire season unless he is injured or regresses to the point that Dabo Swinney cannot remain loyal to his senior. Then again, Bryant could struggle (or merely remain efficient yet unexplosive as he was a year ago) and Clemson should still go undefeated against what is a remarkably easy schedule, certainly the easiest in recent memory.
The only scenario in which I see Lawrence or Johnson supplanting Bryant is, ironically, the very same which led to Jalen Hurts’ benching in the College Football Playoff: when Clemson needs to throw it all over the place to have a chance against a defense like Alabama, Georgia, or Ohio State. With FSU in transition, I don’t see a team on the regular season schedule which can both limit Bryant’s efficiency and force Clemson into a shootout. Clemson doesn’t need a 5 star passer to win 12 games; barring injury or fiasco, there isn’t a quarterback battle no matter how badly I want to see Lawrence take over the world. But I digress...
What’s Happening at Sam Linebacker?
Replacing Dorian O’Daniel is by far the biggest hole to fill on the defense, and my eyes will be glued to each player who trots out at nickel/Sam tomorrow. We have good news following reports that Isaiah Simmons is in fact working out at Sam and has to be considered the favorite to land the starting job (he’s certainly mine). Not only is he the ideal hybrid player with his size and speed, but Venables’ comfort with moving him out of the thin safety rotation bodes well for the development at that position (more on this later).
Besides Simmons, Baylon Spector has generated modest buzz at the position and should challenge Jalen Williams for snaps when/if Simmons is on the field at safety. I’m eager to see Spector step up, since we know what Williams is by this point and it’s not what I would prefer at the position against spread offenses.
How will the Wide Receiver Rotation Unfold?
Still ridiculously deep and talented even after two former 5 star recruits moved on to the NFL, I actually like the way this year’s receiving corps should unfold better than last year’s. I always felt Deon Cain was misplaced in the boundary receiver role (perhaps better suited to field) since he is not the physical ball-hawk, alpha-type receiver Clemson needs at the position (see Deandre Hopkins and Mike Williams).
With Cain departed, the door is open for Deondre Overton and Tee Higgins to fill the boundary role. Each have the ideal height and wingspan to be particularly deadly downfield, and with added bulk this offseason should prove more reliable all over the field and especially on the contested passes where Cain left a bit to be desired. Higgins remains my man-crush on offense and I expect him to earn the most boundary snaps as the unit’s alpha, but Overton has an extra year of experience and hopefully the urgency to separate himself with a 5 star boundary receiver in each of the two classes behind him.
Ray-Ray McCloud’s replacement at field receiver is just as compelling. Cornell Powell is a junior, but he hasn’t had the snaps or production to make me confident he will hold off two underclassmen behind him. Amari Rodgers is a better version of Artavis Scott, and early-enrollee phenom Derion Kendrick has already been compared to Sammy Watkins. Having seen him run drills in person I can say the comparison is valid.
In the slot, we still have future Patriots WR and PFTCommenter idol Hunter Renfrow, with TJ Chase and Trevion Thompson backing him up. Clemson is easily and confidently 3-deep at each receiver spot, the only question is how exactly will the rotation unfold. This is a good problem to have, one which bodes watching primarily for future roster turnover. If Powell or Overton are surpassed, transfers would not surprise me...and would in fact be welcome.
The Receiving Void at Tight End
The biggest problem on offense last year was not simply “the lack of a consistent downfield passing game.” That’s far too broad a brush with which to paint; the situation at tight end was as much a source (if not more) than conservatism from Bryant, or Cain failing to reel in contested passes downfield.
Without a tight end threat to occupy safeties and linebackers across the middle, Clemson’s passing game was limited. In the Sugar Bowl we finally saw Alabama take advantage of that which other Clemson opponents lacked the talent to do: shade a single high safety toward Cain (eliminating the only deep threat) without fear of being beaten elsewhere. Alabama then loaded up against the run and short passes to completely smother a Clemson offense which was only successful when it was efficient. Jordan Leggett was just as much a factor in Clemson’s success against Alabama in the previous two meetings as were Watson and Williams, and from a schematic standpoint his loss was greater.
Garrett Williams returns from injury, which means between him and Cannon Smith, Clemson has reliable, if not excellent run blockers at the position. But unless Milan Richard or one of the aforementioned two develops into a threatening intermediate target, I can’t expect much receiving production from the returning group; the entire offense will suffer for it when they face comparable talent in Tallahassee and the postseason. It’s why the staff signed Braden Galloway (basically a Leggett clone) in the 2018 class, but given the logjam ahead of him and his foot injury, it’s difficult to see him avoiding a redshirt.
Offensive Line Shuffling
Clemson has solid pieces along its offensive line, but it remains to be seen where exactly the pieces will fall. Left tackle and center are entrenched, with 1st team All-ACC performers Mitch Hyatt and Justin Falcinelli returning. John Simpson seems the heir apparent at left guard following Taylor Hearn’s departure, and Sean Pollard made a most-welcome move from right tackle to right guard to replace Tyrone Crowder, leaving Tremaine Anchrum the presumptive starter at right tackle. Operating under the rather safe assumption that’s the starting five, it should be a very good group. What happens beyond these five are where I have questions.
Utility lineman Maverick Morris graduated, and Clemson finds itself with an abundance of unproven reserves along the two-deep. Chandler Reeves and Zach Giella need to make huge strides this spring. Jackson Carman, already beloved in perpetuity for spurning Ohio State, enrolled early and will play tomorrow, which is huge not only for his acclimation but for making sure he begins to transform his body to contribute this fall. He will be counted on at guard early and perhaps at tackle as he earns more trust from the staff. He is our starter at left tackle in 2019 and for the remainder of his collegiate career.
Defensive back depth
Herein lies the only real question mark on the entire defense, the one which will determine if this unit is in fact better than the fabled 2014 unit; unless injury strikes, I believe it will be. Let’s not forget the 2014 defense was also this talented yet thin in the backfield, but was fortunate to avoid injury. This wasn’t the case for the 2017 defense, which actually ran out of bodies at cornerback (this isn’t hyperbole) against NC State and it nearly cost Clemson the game.
The numbers look even worse this spring following graduation, with only a handful of corners and safeties each with any experience. Perhaps unsurprisingly, reports from practice indicate the secondary is being absolutely destroyed by the quarterbacks and receivers. There are outstanding freshmen on the way this summer who will be relied upon immediately for depth, but the defensive back rotation will dictate what Clemson can do at nickel/Sam and not to mention how aggressively Venables can call plays. Without injury it should become a solid starting group if nothing else, but with Clemson’s front 6/7 already the most feared position group in the nation, opposing offenses will take plenty of shots through the air to test this defense’s relative weakness rather than run into this front line.