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Clemson Spring Football/Pro Day Thoughts

What, if anything, have we learned so far?

Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard / staff, Ken Ruinard / USA TODAY NETWORK

Clemson is full go into spring practice and has pro day scheduled for Thursday, March 17. We’ve seen some different sources of news than we typically get since coaches beyond the coordinators and Dabo Swinney have had time with the media. We normally get a steady dose of positivity, which is to be expected nearly everywhere you look this time of the year in football programs. Normally the only exceptions are places where you have had a coaching change and perhaps the new guy is tempering expectations a bit or trying to push buttons with his players to get them more motivated. However, we might be able to glean a few things from the statements given from folks so far.

The quarterback competition isn’t really a competition just yet. It does appear that Cade Klubnick is ascending into the #2 role, which most considered a given, but he did start out #4 on day 1. It is doubtful he will get any real shot at the #1 spot until the fall practices begin. I had hopes that Klubnick’s presence would propel incumbent DJU into a new level and early returns are positive on that front.

At least Dabo is knocking on wood when discussing Joseph Ngata. I’ve become extra cynical on Ngata praise considering how little we have been able to see that equate to game production. Ngata’s health has been the major culprit to this point. However, if Ngata truly “looks like a pro” and can bring that to the table in the fall, it would be a huge boon to the offense making the big improvements necessary to get Clemson back into that top 5 stratosphere. The Tigers are going to have the running game to dictate some favorable matchups on the perimeter, but at least one of the WR will need to be a 1000 yard type of dude.

Phil Mafah and the walkons would be a pretty cool name for a 60s era doo wop band. Essentially that is what we have at running back this spring. We all know Mafah can play and should benefit greatly from the additional first team reps he is getting, but the true goal is to find a viable #4 and maybe #5 among the walkons. If you recall, Clemson was down that tier last season for the UConn game when Mafah and Rencher took all the snaps. Keith Adams, Jr. arrives in the summer but my guess is the staff would prefer to redshirt him since they weren’t able to do that with Mafah last season. That isn’t possible unless one of the walkons shows he can help the team’s depth.

Will Putnam is hoping to be the answer at center after the absence/attrition of Mason Trotter and absence of Hunter Rayburn. Matt Bockhorst’s move last season wasn’t very successful and he really didn’t start playing relatively well until he moved back to guard (prior to his ACL injury). I don’t expect to hear “he’s snapping it all over the yard” and “we better have plan B and C ready” from the coaches, but Putnam is a veteran presence with two years left. Clemson’s 2016 and 2018 title teams featured stable veterans at center. Clemson also struggled more with odd front defenses last year which puts more onus on the center who is covered up by a 1 tech. I’m getting the sense that the team is banking on somebody like Dietrick Pennington being the answer at RG with Putnam being the center.

Brent Venables has always been praised for the multiplicity of his defenses. Most coaches marvel not just at how much Clemson has thrown at people on defense, but how well they can execute such a high volume of packages and calls. That required working on all of it in the spring as well as the fall, but now it appears that Wes Goodwin and Mickey Conn are pulling back a bit on how much the defense is trying to do. In fact, we may see it become the biggest difference moving away from the Venables era. There are always positives and negatives to these types of changes.

On the downside, Clemson’s ability to be so multiple put a serious strain on opposing offensive coaches and in particular the quarterbacks. The few times we did see Clemson struggle on defense under Venables, the opposition almost always had a veteran quarterback at the helm who could better navigate all the changes or execute a wider array of adjustments. It also allowed Venables to deal with the ebbs and flows of the roster talent, going from a dominant front four in 2018 to a dominant back seven in 2019, for example.

However, the upside is being more precise. We saw the hurry up/no huddle/sugar huddle stuff work at times against the Venables defenses, particularly the ones relying more on schematic wins vs. individual dominance. This 2022 Clemson defense, on paper, resembles the 2018 unit, particularly up front. The more individual dominance the team can get on the line of scrimmage, the more the opposing offense is forced to make adjustments just for that. If you look back at the 2014 defense, the “gold standard” unit for Venables, it was actually one of the least multiple of his units. You didn’t see the dime of doom or really any odd front looks that year. Of course, when you have Grady Jarrett, Deshawn Williams, Vic Beasley, Corey Crawford, Josh Watson, D.J. Reader, and Carlos Watkins at your disposal, you don’t need to get too fancy. One of those guys more often than not was whipping his guy.

The other side of the coin is how the offense operates vs. this defense. We’ve already heard comments from new OL coach Thomas Austin about how his unit can devote more time to fundamentals of what the offense does without the additional burden of preparing for “every blitz and front known to man.” The jury is out on if these apparent changes are going to be true positives or not, of course, but it is certainly something that has caught my eye.

Pro Day is coming up Thursday. Clemson only had four guys at the NFL combine, and only one was healthy enough to really do everything. Baylon Spector was pretty impressive with his 4.6 flat 40 and 36” vertical leap. I imagine that was a tick better than folks probably expected. It is a shame Andrew Booth wasn’t able to test because his athleticism is pretty off the charts. I’m guessing his vertical would push 40”, maybe better. I was pretty shocked at how many fast times got posted in Indianapolis. Now we will see how guys like Justyn Ross run. Can Ross go sub 4.55? How close can James Skalski get to the types of numbers his fellow Bruise Brother put up? Booth might not be able to test according to reports. Is Mario Goodrich healed up enough to help his stock? Can Nolan Turner turn that 4.5 that Coach Venables always said he could? I look forward to seeing the results.