Clemson’s spring game pitted the offensive starters on the white team against the defensive starters on the orange team and showed us a lot more than the typical Orange and White game.
The Tigers were without three starting offensive linemen, but the presumptive starting left tackle, Tristan Leigh, played and looked very good. His emergence is huge for Clemson as it will allow the four returning starters to stay at the same positions as last year.
Quarterback play was pretty sloppy with four interceptions in the game. Two came from Cade Klubnik who missed a couple throws on the day. His first interception came on a pass that freshman linebacker Jamal Anderson tipped at the line of scrimmage. The pass needed a bit more loft to hit an open Banks Pope in the end zone, but really wasn’t too bad. It was more so just an excellent play by Anderson to tip it and RJ Mickens to bring it in for an INT. Mickens had 3 INTs last year and is the most underrated player on the defense.
Klubnik’s second interception was more of a true pick. He threw it into coverage and Nate Wiggins was there to get a hand on the ball. That allowed Andrew Mukuba to grab the interception.
While you’d love to see Klubnik look sharp, the defensive secondary deserves praise. They were a weakness last year and looked outstanding in the spring game. Safeties RJ Mickens, Andrew Mukuba, and freshman Khalil Barnes all looked great. Cornerbacks Nate Wiggins, Toriano Pride, and Shelton Lewis also played well. I expect that group to take a huge step forward this year.
Hunter Helms started at QB for the Orange Team and looked competent. He doesn’t strike me as a dynamic playmaker, but he makes good decisions. Chris Vizzina did not play well and it was confirmed that he will likely redshirt. With this new information, the decision to take Arizona State transfer Paul Tyson makes a lot more sense. I’d expect he has a real shot to be the second-string QB. Vizzina threw two interceptions. Khalil Barnes got the first one and took it to the house to deliver the White Team a 20-13 lead. Bubba McAtee got the next one three players later to seal the win.
I was very interested to see Peter Woods, Cade Denhoff, and Justin Mascoll on the defensive line. Woods was arguably the best player on the field. I was blown away. All the spring camp hype was deserved. If Tyler Davis, Ruke Orhorhoro, Tre Williams, Payton Page, and Demonte Capehart are all healthy at defensive tackle, you’ve got to move Peter Woods to defensive end to maximize his playing time.
At defensive end, Xavier Thomas and Justin Mascoll are both sixth year players. Thomas is an elite pass rusher when healthy, but he has seldom been healthy. Mascoll has posted some very unspectacular PFF grades (which match the eye test). A lot of football people I respect speak highly of him, but it has not translated to on-field production through five seasons. That’s no disrespect and it is not to say the former 4-star recruit can’t break out, but we shouldn’t assume he will. Cade Denhoff had two sacks and should be a major part of the rotation. Jaheim Lawson, the redshirt freshman little brother of Shaq Lawson, looked like a legitimate pass rush threat. Armon Mason, a redshirt sophomore walk-on, also played well.
Speaking of Armon Mason, Coach Swinney shared some crazy family ties he has with NFL and NBA players. His mother is the identical twin sister of NFL star and Clemson alumnus Grady Jarrett’s mom, so he’s got some athletic genes there. His father is former NBA player Anthony Mason. Anthony Mason was a notable NBA player during the 90s playing on some very good New York Knicks teams and averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds for the Charlotte Hornets in 1996-97. It’s not surprise that Coach Swinney said he is “freaky athletic.” Swinney added “if he’ll just stay his butt in the crock pot and keep cooking he’s going to help us.”
In other interesting family ties stories, Clemson has Caleb Nix on the team, the brother of Oregon starting QB Bo Nix.
I thought the wide receivers were pretty mediocre, but the tight ends were very good. Walk-on WR Hampton Earle had 51 yards including a spectacular diving catch before injuring his knee. I have not heard an update on the details, but it looked fairly bad. Cole Turner only had one catch (Cade missed him on a deep route where he beat Toriano Pride). Antonio Williams looked fine, but didn’t do anything too flashy. Noble Johnson didn’t have a big day. Beaux Collins and Adam Randall were out, but I don’t know that you can expect them to be healthy game-changers for this position group all year.
Luckily, Garrett Riley seems willing to use the middle of the field and the tight ends a lot more to compensate. Walk-on Banks Pope led all players with 67 receiving yards. Jake Briningstool and Josh Sapp both looked good. The former had a big play taken away on a very borderline called sack, but still finished with 56 yards. Sage Ennis made a great play but got hurt on the ensuing tackle. Hopefully it is fairly minor. That could be a great tight ends room.
The offense looked faster, but still not super explosive. Phil Mafah, Domonique Thomas, and Keith Adams Jr. all looked sharp at running back. Will Shipley was out with knee tendonitis, but I think there’s enough depth now that this group is a strength even if he or Mafah were to miss a game or two. The Tigers may need to lean on them and the tight ends or find a way to add a wide receiver through the portal (they’ll need some transfers out to do that) to reach their offensive potential.
Overall, the defense won the day and gave reason to think they’ll take a big step forward. I’m not too glum about the offense yet, but I am re-calibrating what were probably unrealistic expectations of immediate elite offensive production.
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