The Powers That Be threw us a proverbial bone yesterday when Clemson released its post-spring depth chart. While this is merely an offseason depth chart and could prove completely meaningless, this is the internet in peak offseason and naturally we’re going to glean for hidden meanings and chemtrails in this lineup. There has been misconstrued chatter that this was the summer depth chart, but this is mistaken. To clarify, this explicitly states post-spring, not summer. First semester freshman haven’t begun practice yet and this depth chart reflects it; only freshmen who enrolled in the spring are listed. We will see a summer depth chart at the start of fall camp, or not at all until game week arrives.
There are only a handful of spots where a first semester freshman may contribute so this is actually a rather telling offseason tidbit directly from the coaching staff. I’ll get into a couple of those freshmen farther along after viewing the lineup and detailing the surprises or key takeaways:
Black hole at tight end
Clemson’s skill unit is perhaps the most talented and best known commodity of any position group(s) in America: Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne in the backfield, and Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, and (eventually) Amari Rodgers at receiver. Yet at tight end we find...a suspended project in Braden Galloway and Gene Stallings’ grandson, JC Chalk.
Neither freshman Jaelyn Lay nor Garrett Williams are even listed, meaning Lay is nowhere near ready to contribute despite his physical upside, and Williams is all but certain to move on to the Marine Corps. Williams is a plus blocker who was an underrated asset in the run game, yet offered little as a potential receiver. His apparent forthcoming departure was expected but became a huge hole after Galloway’s suspension; the loss in Williams’ blocking was to be made up in Galloway’s receiving capabilities. Now Clemson is left with a poor man’s Williams and a freshman drowning in technical nuance to the point he isn’t even on the depth chart.
The best case here is Chalk proves to be assignment-sound and an adequate blocker. Williams showed last year the lack of a receiving threat at the position isn’t the end of the world when you have Higgins and Ross outside. Yet now without Hunter Renfrow or Rodgers in the slot, Clemson’s short passing efficiency may not be the foregone conclusion one once thought. With Clemson’s weapons outside, in the backfield, and experience up front, it’s nitpicking to lament the one position without reason for optimism/dominance, but it’s a vital, multi-faceted role which could drag down the entire offense. In which case Clemson should just roll out 10 personnel and let Etienne run through dime defenders.
Receiver shakeup and Amari Rodgers’ ACL
Speaking of Rodgers and the receivers, it’s interesting to see Rodgers still atop the depth chart at slot receiver and punt returner despite his torn ACL. I thought reports of his accelerated rehabilitation and expected return in September were far too bullish and completely discounted them. Yet if he has not been explicitly supplanted, perhaps Rodgers will indeed return in some capacity around the time of the UNC game. Short space quickness will be much needed, and no receiver on the roster brings the skillset and experience Rodgers does to fill the Renfrow void underneath.
Rodgers quick return may be why we find Diondre Overton still backing up Higgins at boundary receiver instead of the listed starter in the slot. I for one am interested in fielding three 6’4” receivers in base 11 personnel even though Overton is not your typical slot receiver; a larger frame inside may mitigate the lack of production from the tight ends. I’m also interested to see if Cornell Powell can make an impact entering his 4th year...QT needs this for ammo against Luginbill. ;)
Foster holds off Henry at WDE
On defense, most observers eagerly await KJ Henry rising into Clelin Ferrell’s role at weak side end, yet it’s Justin Foster who continues to draw the staff’s praise despite sneaking under many fans’ radars. The defensive front will certainly look different this year, but especially with all the depth at end we will continue to see a heavy rotation; starters matter less here than any position on the roster.
At defensive tackle, we knew Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams were the only options despite missing the spring due to injury. Early enrollee Tyler Davis was a godsend given the only other depth was converted end (and phenomenal artist) Xavier Kelly, but there is good news on both fronts since Davis has been unanimously impressive and Kelly has put on the adequate weight to play inside. Even with these positive developments, defensive tackle depth is a concern with two of Clemson’s toughest games coming in the first few weeks of the season. The incoming freshmen following Davis are are long-term development projects. Pinckney will lead the group, but the rest of the meager rotation is built completely on potential rather than results.
Chad Smith all alone at Mike
An unexpected and frankly devastating development in the last month was Shaq Smith’s transfer. Shaq was the presumed starter at weak side linebacker and easily one of the most popular leaders on the team. I was very comfortable with Shaq at Will and James Skalski at Mike (Shaq would’ve been the most athletic inside linebacker since Stephone Anthony), yet Shaq transferred home to Maryland after graduating in May. This leaves Chad Smith at Mike with Skalski sliding over to Will. There’s plenty of experience here, but Chad leaves me with the same questions concerning mobility I had with Tre Lamar: a good downhill linebacker, but a potential liability backpedaling or running sideline to sideline. The lack of athleticism at inside linebacker has become a dead horse since like 2015, but we’ll beat it until it’s not an issue.
Worse, Chad Smith is the only player listed on the depth chart at Mike. Not even Jake Venables. Here is where I would point toward incoming freshmen who may make an impact, but linebacker is one of the most difficult and demanding positions to learn. Clemson sorely missed an inside linebacker enrolling early, and we’ll see a handful of first semester freshmen linebackers take their lumps in garbage time as soon as Clemson may reach it. The best guess would be Vonta Bentley.
Kendrick sticking at corner
In the most ironic twist yet we find relative stability and dependability in the secondary. The one question mark has been filled, of all people, by rising sophomore, former wide receiver, and beloved all-world trash talker (THE BEST PLAYERS TAUNT) Derion Kendrick. If one is to assume the top corner plays boundary, AJ Terrell will slide from field to boundary (unlike Mack Alexander he has the length for it) and Kendrick will play field corner. We’ve yet to see Kendrick play corner outside of the spring game, but if he gained Brent Venables’ trust at the position so quickly, there is no need to question it.
Kendrick’s quick acclimation lessens the need for Clemson to throw in a freshman at corner, and given only true sophomores Mario Goodrich and Kyler McMichael are listed on the depth chart behind Kendrick and Terrell, there is clearly room for a first semester freshman to make an impact. That freshman is undoubtedly Andrew Booth, my man crush from the last cycle. Before Kendrick’s transition, Booth would’ve been my pick to fill the second corner role based on the tape I’ve seen on him, but it’s worth noting Goodrich and McMichael have improved if they’ve passed older players like LeAnthony Williams. The secondary and defensive ends will be the overwhelming strength of this quasi-rebuilding defense, and will be stronger on the perimeter than through the middle at every level.
And don’t y’all dare ask about Will Spiers holding off Aidan Swanson at punter because CLEMSON AIN’T PUNTING THIS YEAR.