This time last year, Clemson entered the spring with high hopes for Trevor Lawrence amidst a crowded quarterback room and aspirations for a fourth trip to the College Football playoff. Now, Clemson enters the spring coming off of a 15-0 season and its second national title in three years. The precursor to the Spring Game and our first taste of a new team, spring practice is a new season for the team looking to continue its rise and maintain its status as one of college football’s best. Clemson’s offense is fortunate to be returning most of its offense; however, there are some key storylines worth following as spring ball begins. Here’s a look at some storylines to keep track of:
Last season, Clemson’s quarterback situation took center stage, and it took four games for Lawrence to officially pass Kelly Bryant on the depth chart. The result was a 15-0 season and a national championship season, in which Lawrence fully unlocked the ability of Clemson’s deep receiving corps and downfield passing game. This proved vital in the College Football Playoff, in which big passing plays made all the difference in Clemson’s run.
Now Lawrence will have a full offseason to get stronger and smarter in his decision-making. With a year of film for opposing coaches to tear apart everyone is going to be trying to stop Lawrence. Whether the dreaded “sophomore slump” hangs over him will be the biggest key in the next phase of his development and how he progresses as a leader following his freshman campaign.
Backup quarterback and 2018 season-saver Chase Brice also returns, while four-star freshman quarterback Taisun Phommachanh enters the fold. He has been praised by coaches for his mental fortitude and mindset. Clemson is glad to have another scholarship signal caller in the mix, as having the likes of Will Spiers as an emergency option didn’t inspire much confidence. Unless the coaches really like Batson as the third option, Phommachanh could get plenty of work in the spring. It could be interesting to see where he measures when compared to Brice who had several chances to show his ability in 2018.
With the loss of Mitch Hyatt (who easily ranks among one of Clemson’s best linemen in recent memory), all eyes will be on his vacated left tackle spot. In other words, the spotlight is firmly planted on Carman Jackson, who is expected to fill the void and responsibility of protecting Lawrence’s blind spot. The former five-star Ohio native spent much of last season as Hyatt’s backup, and performed well when called upon. When Hyatt went down against Boston College’s physical defense, Carman performed well and demonstrated great athleticism for the position.
Along Clemson’s offensive line, the key will be continuing to establish depth. Clemson is returning several key starters from last year’s team. Left guard John Simpson and right tackle Tremayne Anchrum had their best seasons last year. Matt Bockhorst showed some great signs and proved a capable backup to Simpson on the left side.
The main position to watch for the offensive line will be at center and right guard. With Justin Falcinelli departed, Cervanka will likely assume full-time duties at center. This is where the suspension (which is currently being appealed) of backup Zach Giella hurts, as it leaves little depth at center. If Giella doesn’t win his appeal, center could be very shaky if Cervanka goes down.
At right guard, Sean Pollard and Cade Stewart were inconsistent in manning the position to the point that Cervanka was called upon to man the position. It was then that it stabilized Pollard improved somewhat, but Stewart didn’t receive many more chances afterwards. Stewart and Pollard (especially the former) must show they can handle right guard.
Replacing Hunter Renfrow:
He didn’t wow with the spectacular athletic prowess of Justyn Ross or produce the number of touchdown catches Tee Higgins had in a year, but Hunter Renfrow will forever be immortalized:
With Clemson’s most reliable third-down weapon departed, Clemson’s next-man up in the slot will be looking to make his own moves. TJ Chase looks to take over Renfrow’s position in the slot, and after using his first two years to put on some extra bulk, he got plenty of time last season in the slot. He caught 13 passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns last season as a reserve, and the offense didn’t miss a beat when Renfrow went down with an injury.
Of course, while Clemson loses Renfrow and longtime veteran Trevion Thompson, they get a nice return with a pair of highly touted receivers in Joe Ngata and Frank Ladson. Both are enrolled early and expected to add more explosiveness to an already deep receiving corps. They’ll have an opportunity to learn from arguably the best receiving corps in college football.
Void at Tight End:
When the suspensions occurred, many fans and media were more concerned about Dexter Lawrence, and for very good reasons. However, the aftermath of the suspensions hurt one position the most: tight end. Heading into 2019, Clemson lost three of its primary tight ends from the last two seasons in Milan Richard, Cannon Smith, and Garrett Williams (almost certainly entering the military). Galloway was slated for a much bigger role in 2019, and was perhaps Clemson’s best receiving threat at the position. Facing the appeal of his suspension, Galloway could be in danger of missing the entire season.
Without him, the Tigers’ most experienced tight end on the spring roster is JC Chalk, who, like the other departed tight ends, appears to be more of a blocker than a receiving threat. With Clemson’s plethora of receivers, it might be tempting to say that the lack of a tight end doesn’t matter. But, we all see what a quarterback like Deshaun Watson did with a receiving threat across the middle, especially on seam routes and against blitzes. Clemson signee Jaelyn Jay will be one to watch, as he is slated to also be more of a receiving tight end in the mold of Galloway and Leggett. How he establishes himself could determine how much Clemson integrates its tight ends back into the passing game. Regardless, depth at tight end is never a bad thing to have.
Before you say anything, Travis Etienne’s job is perfectly fine. He established that with his 1,658 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns. The biggest storyline to watch will be at running back, in which Tavien Feaster and Lyn-J Dixon will be competing for carries behind Etienne.
Dixon, who averaged 8.8 yards per carry last season while rushing for 547 yards and five touchdowns, should be in line for a bigger role with the departure of Adam Choice. He displayed a willingness in pass protection alongside explosive ability between the tackles. The staff has found a good balance regarding its running backs, but it will only get harder for coaches to keep Dixon off the field given his big-play ability and speed. Feaster has been overshadowed by backs like Gallman and Etienne during his tenure despite coming in as a five-star running back, and it will interesting to see how his mentality takes shape after pondering a potential transfer following the national championship game.