After an extended hiatus, the Clemson Tigers will be returning to Death Valley for the Orange and White game this Saturday, April 6th. Spring games aren’t the highest level of competition, with most of them you’re lucky if they’re scored like a normal football game. But spring football does give you an opportunity to see how players are executing their fundamentals as well as how strong a grasp they have on the scheme. The performances here aren’t going to set the depth chart going forward, but serve as more of a check in. As Dabo said, “(We’ll) give them some really good, concrete feedback on what they’ve gotta do to get better and create some momentum going into the summer to improve their opportunity when camp gets back here.” With that in mind here are a handful of positions to keep an eye on during the spring game.
The two positions are linked, in part because of Robbie Caldwell’s philosophy of cross-training offensive linemen, in part because of who the options are. The current starter at center appears to be Sean Pollard, who was in and out of the lineup at right guard last year. The current starting right guard appears to be Gage Cervenka, who started games at center down the stretch. Cervenka has also taken reps as the first-string center this spring. If Cade Stewart or Matt Bockhorst is going to crack the starting lineup this is probably where it would happen, if not they are key depth.
Mitch Hyatt was a stalwart along the offensive line, manning the blind side position for four years as a Tiger. Into his shoes steps another highly rated recruit, Jackson Carman. By all appearances the job is his to lose. Look to see if Carman, who contributed as a freshman, has transformed his body enough to keep up with edge rushers consistently. Finding out if there’s a quality backup left tackle (or a backup right tackle, if the best answer to the prior question is Anchrum) will be important as well.
Also known as the “5” in Clemson’s offense, and wide open with the graduation of Renfrow and injury to Amari Rodgers. As Elliot said, the slot is “usually your smaller guy, your quicker-twitch guy creating mismatches”. Clemson might have to fit a receiver much larger than your traditional slot into this position, and it appears to be an open competition at the moment. Overton, Powell and Chase are all possibilities this spring.
Between the losses of tight ends to graduation, an ostarine suspension and the expectation that Garrett Williams is joining the military things are thin at tight end. We know this Tigers offense can operate at a high level without a lot of production from the position, but it’s hard to forget the matchups Leggett was able to create for the Tigers. As it stands, J.C. Chalk has yet to show that he’s more than a blocker and early enrollee Jaelyn Lay has to prove that he can block well enough to get onto the field. Between the situation at slot receiver and tight end Clemson has a dearth of proven inside receivers, and it’ll be interesting to see who the “go-to” target becomes on third down. This might be part of why Elliot noted the offense is “very explosive, but not quite as efficient as we’ve been in the past”.
No, this isn’t the nuclear take. Trevor Lawrence’s job is safe. But we’ve seen (usually with Syracuse, for some reason) that it pays to have a serviceable plan B in case of emergency. In today’s era, where highly rated quarterbacks often transfer rather than wait on the bench, it’s hard to have a quality backup in the wings. The competition between Chase Brice (who did well when called upon last year) and early enrollee Taisun Phommachanh should be fun to watch.
The loss of Wilkins, Lawrence and Huggins in the offseason, left Clemson thin here heading into the spring. Likely starters Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams are being held out due to injury, leaving space for players such as converted defensive end Xavier Kelly and early enrollee Tyler Davis. Davis has been turning heads and could see the rotation early this fall. How this group holds up against Clemson’s veteran offensive line could give us insight into the depth the Tigers have inside.
The Tigers will be deeper at end, where the current starters appear to be Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas. Foster was productive in limited time last year. Thomas showed electric potential as an edge rusher, although he has to shore up against the run. Behind them KJ Henry and Justin Mascoll enter the fold full time after redshirt seasons, and Logan Rudolph was in the rotation last year. Venables asks his defensive ends to be able to play on and off the line of scrimmage, so keep an eye on how players do moving in space.
Clemson graduates Kendall Joseph and J.D Davis, while Tre Lamar declared for the draft after his best season. Shaq Smith, a former five star who has mostly contributed on special teams so far, is going to have every opportunity to start at Mike linebacker. It looks like James Skalski, another special teams standout, will man the Will linebacker spot. The Sam position, a hybrid linebacker/safety, will be held down by Isaiah Simmons again. Finding out the backup Sam and Will/Mike will be worth watching, with Baylon Spector, Chad Smith and Logan Rudolph among the candidates this spring. Unfortunately, of the five linebackers signed there aren’t any early enrollees.
Clemson returns three of four starters (and the Sam, who is all but a nickel back) from last years’ unit. The veterans have a chip on their shoulder after being maligned after the Texas A&M and Syracuse games, take it from Tanner Muse, “yeah, we were the big problem last year. We’re used to it.” With the losses up front the secondary is the most experienced unit on the defense, and will have to be able to hold up without last years pass rush.
Finding a boundary corner is a key part of that. Trayvon Mullen turning pro shouldn’t be that surprising. Boundary corner is a star making position in this defense, as the last two boundary corners before him (Tankersley, Alexander) were drafted relatively early. Boundary corners are often left isolated on the other teams’ best receivers (the other DB’s being left to cover three receivers on the wide side of the field. College hashes make this more pronounced). If your boundary corner can defend that guy one on one instead of needing a safeties’ help it completely changes the defenses you can run.
Kyler McMichael looked like the starter this spring, but an injury has him out for the rest of camp. Potential backup, Mario Goodrich, is injured as well. Early enrollee Sheridan Jones and sophomore LeAnthony Williams, among others will try to take advantage of the playing time. In addition, the injuries in the defensive backfield have Derion Kendrick (a potential solution at slot receiver) practicing at defensive back, and it’s looking like that move could be permanent. Venables said recently Kendrick would be starter if the season started today.