Here are some details the astute Clemson fan will want to observe and evaluate at tomorrow's Orange & White Game.
1) The Secondary
The off-season attrition in the Tigers' secondary has been well documented. They lost 3 of 4 starters a year early to the NFL Draft, CB Adrian Baker tore his ACL, CB Kaleb Chalmers was dismissed from the team and S Jefferie Gibson decided to transfer. Yikes! Most programs would be in dire straits, but fortunately Clemson has recruited extremely well and does a great job of developing players. Mr. Versatile, Ryan Carter, has been moved back to corner, where he played last season, after playing safety early in the spring. This will plug the hole left at corner until Baker recovers from his ACL tear, and the safety positions are in pretty good hands with Jadar Johnson, Van Smith and Tanner Muse. By all accounts, Johnson has been one of the top performers this spring, and Muse has impressed as well. He is a freakish athlete, and I am looking forward to seeing him compete with the #1 WR corps in the nation. Another one to keep an eye on is redshirt junior CB Marcus Edmond. Both Dabo and Venables have said that they have been pleasantly surprised with his play. Finally, sophomore CB Mark Fields (now wearing #2) appears to be ready to live up to the hype. The U.S. Army High School All-American was questioned for his work ethic as a freshman, but he seems to have matured and is ready to be one of the leaders in the secondary. No one has any questions about his talent and potential.
2) Special Teams
Without question, if there was a weakness on the team that was ranked #1 longer than any other, it was special teams--specifically, the coverage and return units. Going into the National Championship Game, Clemson was ranked #7 in defense and #17 in offense but was a pitiful 126 out of 128 on special teams. No other ranked team was close in that category. Alabama, on the other hand, was #30 in special teams, and it won them a national title, as Clemson was the better team on offense and defense. You may recall that I first noted the chronic coverage issues after the App State game in week 2, and it reared its ugly head again in the next game against Louisville, nearly costing Clemson the game. I asked Dabo about the coverage unit several times throughout the course of the season, and he said that early on it was just a matter of a player or two not being in the right position. They made a couple personnel changes early, and in the latter half of the season there was clear improvement in kick and punt coverage. Dabo said that the game-changing kick return by Alabama had more to do with their player making a great play than any mistakes in coverage. However, if you watch the play closely, there were some considerable gaps in the coverage up the middle, and Huegel pushed way too far ahead in my opinion. You never want to rely on your kicker as a last line of defense, but it is often the difference between a good return and a touchdown. He was so far up field that he was forced to take a poor angle on Drake. For those who don't know, TE Coach Danny Pearman oversees Special Teams, but it's a group effort, and the ones primarily responsible for the coverage unit are Venables and Hobby. Pearman coached special teams at Virginia Tech before coming to Clemson.
The return unit wasn't much better, and as a result the Tigers had one of the worst average starting positions in the nation. What used to be an enormous asset back in the days of Spiller and Ford has become a liability. What is puzzling is that Clemson has as formidable a collection of athletes as anyone, so it makes you wonder about the blocking schemes and personnel for returns. Artavis Scott has seen the lion's share of returns, and we all know what he is capable of in the open field. Ray-Ray showed some flashes of promise but wasn't the same player after his knee injury against FSU. Those two will continue to get the returns next season, but the staff has been auditioning CB Mark Fields for kickoff returns over the past couple of weeks. I saw him return a few at practice, and he looked very smooth and natural in doing so. He returned kicks in high school, so it is not a new experience for him. I asked Dabo if they would consider using him for punt returns at all, and Dabo said they would not. That might have something to do with the lack of depth in the secondary and the inherent vulnerability of punt returners. We could also see some auditions for returners in August from the likes of Tavien Feaster and Cornell Powell.
For the first time to my knowledge, special teams will be live on Saturday at the Orange & White Game, so that will be an added bonus for those in attendance. It also demonstrates the urgency and attention the staff is focusing on special teams. They know all too well that it probably cost them a national title. You could also sense that urgency in the way they were drilling in practice, although when I asked Dabo about it back in February, he said that they would not prepare any differently than they had in the past.
The one silver lining on special teams was the performance of freshman Greg Huegel, who was named Second-Team All-American. He will obviously be the man on field goals, and he has been doing pretty well on kickoffs this spring. That is another critical component in mitigating opponents' returns. Redshirt sophomore Alex Spence will also show what he can do on Saturday. Andy Teasdall did a respectable job on punts last season and will be the starter again next fall. Dabo is looking for someone to separate as the backup, hoping he will not have to rely on Hunter Renfrow in that capacity!
3) Wilkins at DE
For anyone who is on the fence about making the trip for the O&W Game, the promise of seeing jumbo athlete Christian Wilkins line up at defensive end beside Carlos Watkins, Scott Pagano and Austin Bryant should be all the incentive you need. Who could forget the freakish athleticism he exhibited in the Orange Bowl, catching a long pass from Teasdall on a fake punt and nearly running it in for a touchdown! The Tigers have lost junior DE's Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, both of whom will likely be first-rounders, but they are not bereft of talent. Austin Bryant, Richard Yeargin and Clelin Ferrell are extremely talented in their own right, but they just lack experience (as did Dodd last season). However, the ability of Wilkins to slide out to the edge gives Brooks and Venables that many more options. They have a solid rotation on the interior between Wilkins, Watkins, Pagano, Robinson and Huggins along with freshman Dexter Lawrence, so Wilkins will provide more depth and experience at the end position. Dabo has said that seeing Wilkins perform at DE has been the biggest thing he will take away from the spring. He said he thought Wilkins was capable, but to actually see him do it and know that it will be an option next fall is a huge relief. The only down side is that we won't get to see him sack a quarterback until next fall!
4) Early Enrollees
I have been fortunate enough to get a glimpse of Big Dex, Tre Lamar and Shaq Smith up close at practice, and it is mind boggling that these guys should still be in high school. All three are physically ready to play for any team in the nation right now, and they have just begun their strength and conditioning regiments. I cannot wait to see them in action in Death Valley. Their coaches and teammates seem to be as awe-stricken by them as we are. Although they still have a lot of learning to do and will make some freshman mistakes, they will be difference makers. Big Dex is like another Christian Wilkins in terms of his freak athleticism--only he's bigger! To wit, he had an interception and long return in the first stadium scrimmage a few weeks ago. As for Tre and Shaq, it will be nice to have some depth at linebacker again, after we were on thin ice all last season with Boulware and Goodson. With Boulware and Joseph starting in the middle, Jalen Williams and the two freshman monsters behind them, LB should once again be a position of strength for the Tigers. Also, don't forget about the other early enrollees: Nyles Pinckney, Lasamuel Davis, Sean Pollard and Tremayne Anchrum. The coaches have had good things to say about all of them, particularly Pollard and Anchrum, and now we'll get to see how they comport themselves in front of a crowd.
5) Wide Receivers
Mike Williams has reportedly looked every bit like his old acrobatic self throughout the spring, but as with the other scrimmages, he will be held out strictly as a precautionary measure. Deon Cain, who has been suspended from practice all spring will also miss the game, but there will still be plenty of wide out weapons to watch. Hunter Renfrow has picked up right where he left off--with 2 TD catches in the National Championship Game and another in the Orange Bowl. Artavis Scott is sure to make some big plays as well, and Ray-Ray McCloud will be one to watch. A knee injury against FSU stunted his progress last season, but he is back to his speedy self despite wearing a protective brace. Another one to watch will be Trevion Thompson. He made a big step forward last season and has had a great spring. Let's see if he's ready to make some big catches in a game situation.
6) Running Backs
The Wayne Train will do what the Wayne Train does, but will one of the other backs emerge as a distinct #2? It has and will continue to be a great competition between Adam Choice, Tyshon Dye and C.J. Fuller, but it will be interesting to see if one of them stands out on Saturday. Tavien Feaster will be added to the mix in August, but for now it's anyone's guess which one of these backs will see the most touches behind Gallman. Look for Wayne to be used more and more in the passing game out of the backfield. That is something he has really worked on, and we saw the fruits of that labor toward the end of the season. Zac Brooks was the #1 option in the passing game, and he of course has moved on. This is also an area in which Tavien Feaster excels.
7) Bryant or Schuessler?
Though the coaches still refuse to come out and say it, I think it's safe to say Bryant is the #2 QB, to match his number. He is every bit as dynamic a runner as Watson--if not more so--and his passing is improving by the week. He is also becoming more comfortable in the pocket and starting to grasp the cerebral aspect of the position. All of that notwithstanding, don't sleep on Schuessler. The coaches have been very pleased with his performance this spring, and it's very possible he could have a better day on Saturday than Bryant.
8) Tight Ends
Beyond Leggett, who will be a consistent threat in the passing game? It could be Garrett Williams or Milan Richard. Maybe even Cannon Smith. They all do different things well right now. Dabo and Jeff Scott have said that D.J. Greenlee has been one of the surprises this spring. Let's see if one of them distinguishes himself on Saturday.
A record crowd is expected in Death Valley at 2:30 on Saturday, so be sure to get to get to campus early!