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Clemson Spring Game Primer: In Search of Development

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This is the public’s only chance to see if Clemson has found any answers to its problems in 2020. Here’s what to watch for in this weekend’s scrimmage

Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard / staff via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Clemson’s Spring Game is an event that always unduly excites me. Whether it’s because I’m eager to catch my first glimpse of the defending champs or because it’s the cathartic palate-cleanse after a January playoff loss (first world problems, I know), I admittedly get overexcited about a glorified scrimmage. Not since Trevor Lawrence’s freshman spring in 2018 have I attended one though, despite living only 40ish minutes away in Greenville. My fault for the title drought these past two seasons?

This spring game has a similar feel to 2018 for a few reasons. There’s another 5-star heir at quarterback, though he’s already entrenched. There’s talent galore at wide receiver again after injuries robbed Lawrence of his most talented weapons. There’s a confident buzz around a maturing defensive line that should mirror the dominant Power Ranger force which fueled the two title runs. There’s the fact that there even is a spring game this year, to boot.

I have questions elsewhere throughout the roster, however; I’m not buying many of the preseason #1 rankings I’ve already seen just like I didn’t last year. Many of the weaknesses I saw a year ago were never overcome, whether injuries or pure inexperience, and this spring is the first chance to see if the 2021 Tigers can fix or mitigate those issues, get ahead of schedule, and be a real threat to Alabama this year instead of in 2022 like I currently expect.

I want this to be a bit deeper and more specific than the standard “developments to monitor” article preceding any game, scrimmage, or practice; my emphasis is on what to watch for in assessing if Clemson is on track to shore up weaknesses, not merely position battles to watch. None of these positions should surprise you, after all.

How does Center look? How does the competition there affect the rest of the line?

How could I not start with the offensive line? 2020 gave us the worst offensive line play we’ve seen since early in the Chad Morris days. This isn’t to cast blame, but there was no functional depth to the unit and technique grew sloppy as games and the season wore on. The center position and how its impact ripples down the line will be the toughest questions to answer based on Saturday alone because the split rosters won’t allow us to gauge the cohesion of the unit. Therefore we must watch individual play. It all starts with Hunter Rayburn at center.

Rayburn has drawn surprisingly great reviews from coaches and teammates alike this spring. If he is the answer, it allows Matt Bockhorst and Will Putnam to stay at guard, and the only question is which of Walker Parks or Jordan McFadden you put on the left side. If Rayburn isn’t C1 material yet, who is? What other dominoes fall along the line? Bockhorst starts at center and one of Tchio or Mayes slides up to LG1? It’s impossible to answer the question on shuffling based on the spring game, so we have to watch Rayburn the closest.

Pressure on the backup safeties to show improvement

Nolan Turner isn’t taking live reps and Landenn Zanders is out for the spring after a January surgery. I choose to view this as a positive since there’s no point in Turner taking developmental reps, and a healthier Zanders has to be an improvement. I want to see how the only blue-chip upperclassman, Joseph Charleston, looks after 15 practices of starter reps against Clemson’s experienced and talented WR/TE groups. I want to see a reason to get Jalyn Phillips on the field after not factoring into the back half of the year.

Most of all, I want to see the new reinforcements at the position. Two freshmen, Andrew Mukuba and Barrett Carter, seem primed to positively contribute sooner rather than later — making them glaring outliers at this position when compared to their teammates in the safety room. The fact Venables is letting the 5-star tweener Carter sit in the safety room instead of the linebacker room bodes well, both because it means Trenton Simpson is solid at Sam and because Carter can find a role in 2021 at safety.

I want to see which safety positions they man, whether they fill and fly the alley (safeties in 2020 left a LOT to be desired there), and glean what I can on their coverage integrity in what will mostly be basic calls on Saturday. It may seem the returning starters are entrenched, but I want to see Charleston, Mukuba, or Carter seize a role. I know the “floor” for the safety unit will be higher than what we saw in 2020, but the “ceiling” has to rise to get past Bama or Ohio State...not to mention UGA in week 1. This trio of blue chips is the key.

Is there an alpha — or even enough bodies — at cornerback?

I won’t speculate on Derion Kendrick. Few accounted for him on the roster in 2021 anyway and it was a shock when he announced his intent to return for his senior season. His loss was still a blow though since when paired with Andrew Booth it gave Clemson two 5-stars to at least match up outside in the playoff (don’t remind me of the Sugar Bowl film please). But that hope was based on Booth stepping forward from his platoon with Mario Goodrich and Sheridan Jones and on DK showing more effort after a realistic draft evaluation kept him from declaring.

Booth enters his second consecutive offseason where I expect/need/beg him to step into the alpha CB1 role in the boundary (DK was always a field corner in my view), but with no older leader on the other side of the defense there has to be greater urgency. Two of Booth, Jones, and Goodrich are all but certain to start now, and one absolutely has to be Booth.

I’m also especially interested to see Malcolm Greene take outside corner reps after an extremely promising freshman season playing nickel corner. He was a spark plug late in the year and has the upside to play outside as well. Fred Davis is another to see if he challenges for starter reps, though I have no pulse on his development at this point. I want to see if he has the speed to keep up with Clemson WRs (I would love if Ladson were playing Saturday to really give us a clue there). Davis does have the length to play boundary even without elite speed, and I’ll watch his technique and confidence closely just as I do Booth’s.

Has the pass rush improved? Are XT and Henry going to live up to 5-star status?

This isn’t an easy one to answer from a spring game, both because the offensive line won’t be truly cohesive in this setting and because the quarterback isn’t live, but again we can grade individuals on matchups. It’s now or never for Xavier Thomas after a couple of inconsistent seasons and then COVID robbing him of what was to be his year to declare for the draft.

Henry is likewise in year 4 with plenty of snaps under his belt, and has to reach a new level. Even freshman All-American Myles Murphy, the only no-doubt starter at DE, admitted his pass rush has to get better this season after no Tiger defender came close to double-digit sack totals. Beyond Murphy, who is separating at DE? Does XT look as good as the coaches say? Can Justin Mascoll provide more than just passable depth?

I’m also excitedly eager to see the depth at defensive tackle. Tyler Davis and Bryan Bresee might be the best pair in America and awaken in me the gleeful sadism I felt watching Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins demolish offenses inside. Demonte Capehart and Tre Williams have shown a lot of development this spring per reports and per older defensive tackles who transferred out of the program, and I want to see how disruptive those big frames can be. In all, who is shooting gaps or collapsing the pocket? Is it because of poor OL technique or superior power? This will go a long way toward mitigating those question marks in the secondary...

Will a frontrunner emerge at running back?

This is the only conventional, position battle-oriented question for which I will look for some semblance of an answer Saturday. Running back isn’t as crucial a position for Clemson’s “floor” like the offensive line and defensive backfield are, but it can lift the ceiling considerably and take pressure off DJU if there is a threat beside him in the backfield.

Most of you know by now I have never been high on Lyn-J Dixon. In my view, the drop-off from starter to backup at running back since 2018 was greater than any other skill position on the roster. Have the coaches' comments this spring been lip service or do they accurately reflect a noticeable improvement? Does he still run upright and rigid, over-reliant on a jump cut and a light box with Etienne off the field? Or is he running hard and low, hitting holes quickly and finding extra yards through contact?

I want to witness for myself the buzz around Kobe Pace. The freshmen Will Shipley and Phil Mafah will likely draw the most interest as newcomers, but Pace has turned the most heads within the program. Given I’ll need to see it to believe it regarding Dixon — and I’m keen on a bigger back if Clemson remains stubborn on inside zone when the OL gets no push — Pace is the back I’ll watch closest to see if anyone begins to separate. But again, this is just one scrimmage months before the season, and with a split roster. This question is the least likely of all in this article to present any sort of answer Saturday; it’s one that will carry over into September if not later.

My intent after the game is to work through the first half of film, since if precedent holds the second half will feature walk-ons and thus little relevancy even for a spring game. Keep a lookout for some spring game film review in the next couple of weeks where we’ll find clearer answers than what our eyes tell us live on Saturday.