Whether it is spring camp or fall camp, we always hear chatter about what’s new, which player is about to breakout, and why Clemson will win the National Championship in the upcoming season. Media members’ practice reports and coaches’ interviews can reveal some interesting nuggets this time of year. I’ve been through this routine a number of times and I’ve started to notice there are some things to really pay attention to and others you’re best discarding.
Listen for position changes, especially along the offensive line. In each of the past two offseasons Clemson has moved players around on the offensive line. Prior to 2021, veteran guard Matt Bockhorst scooted to center. There was a lot of talk about how great he looked, but when push came to shove in the season opener against Georgia, well, he was getting pushed and shoved a lot. It wasn’t pretty and it held the offense back.
To a lesser extent we saw this again last year. Will Putnam moved from guard to center and Walker Parks moved from right tackle to right guard. This was far from a disaster, but we saw Walker Parks take a step back as he transitioned to his new position. Coaches will talk about getting the “best five” players, but what matters most is finding the best cohesive group.
Early indications from spring camp point to redshirt sophomore Tristan Leigh, a former five-star recruit out of Virginia, getting the first crack at the open left tackle position. Walker Parks and Marcus Tate are recovering from injury, but it sounds like they’ll be back in plenty of time and the most likely scenario is that everyone stays at the same position they played last year. That’s a legitimate reason for optimism!
There has been a little talk about Marcus Tate moving to left tackle if Leigh isn’t ready. This could cause a cascading round of position changes and hopefully can be avoided.
Don’t buy camp O-line hype. Every year we’re told the offensive line is better than ever. It is true that I’m excited about what this group could do in a new offense without offseason position shuffles, but I won’t buy the hype when coaches tell us how elite they’re going to be. I was burned in 2020 when Coach Swinney heaped mountains of praise on them only for the O-line to struggle immensely all year. That 2020 offensive line had major issues in run blocking causing Travis Etienne’s yards per carry to drop for 7.8 as a junior to 5.4 as a senior. Luckily, he became an elite pass catcher as a senior and still made a big impact.
Take note of injuries. Injuries, tend to get played down in camp. This is more relevant in the fall than spring as there is less time to recover, but even now some injuries can be nagging or a sign of a troublesome recovery.
Last year we heard about Beaux Collin’s balky shoulder and EJ William’s hematoma. Collins’ shoulder ended up derailing what was looking like a very promising sophomore campaign and Williams struggled all year with health and performance issues.
This year, the wide receiver room is already banged up with Beaux Collins, Troy Stellato, and Adam Randall already out. Randall had surgery (a minor clean up) on his other knee — not the one he tore last year.
Ever since 2019 when Joe Ngata and Frank Ladson came to campus with a ton of acclaim only to have injury-riddled careers, it seems Clemson’s wide receiver room cannot stay healthy. Clemson choose to take two local 3-star high school recruits (Tyler Brown and Tink Kelley) late in the cycle instead of dipping into the portal for a more instant impact player. That is probably wise in the long-run, but it puts a premium on this group staying healthy, so that’s something to watch.
Don’t expect immediate impact from hyped freshman. Every year we get excited about freshman to make an immediate splash. They don’t, we’re disappointed, and then later in the year or the following year, they emerge.
Wade Woodaz wasn’t a huge recruit, but we kept hearing how great he was, yet we only saw him on special teams (he blocked a punt against GT). Later in the year, he had enough seasoning and the coaches had him playing all over the field. He’ll start this year as a sophomore. The year before it was Barrett Carter. Like Woodaz, he didn’t come on until later in his freshman campaign before emerging as a star.
As a freshman in 2018, Justyn Ross averaged 49.5 yards per game through 10 games, and then averaged 101 yards per game in the final five games.
Defensive lineman Peter Woods and wide receiver Noble Johnson are the two freshman getting a lot of hype early in camp. I have very high expectations for both of them, but probably not immediately. Sammy Watkins and Mitch Hyatt were major exceptions. Could they become starters mid-season, perhaps after the open-date? Absolutely. Will they have starring roles against Duke in the prime time season opener? Don’t bet on it.