As the ACC‘s spring practices get under way, we’ll be previewing the big storylines for each of the league’s 14 (15, in this case) teams. Check back on weekdays for what to look out for during your school’s spring practices and spring game.
Team: Clemson Tigers
Spring Practice Start Date: March 6
Spring Game Date:
Following two-straight seasons of more than 10 wins, Clemson’s suddenly in the national spotlight and a real threat to win the ACC and the National Championship (and maybe even the Heisman trophy too). But even as they bring back a strong group of both players and coaches, there’s still plenty left to figure out heading in 2013 if they’re going to live up to the very lofty expectations attached to them.
Offensive coordinator Chad Morris has returned for another year with the Tigers, meaning and he couldn’t be stocked with a better weapon than quarterback Tajh Boyd. Around the senior, though, there’s questions at wide receiver and running back, along with a gaping hole at center, formerly filled by NFL-bound Dalton Freeman. The odds-on favorite to fill that center spot is currently Ryan Norton, though he could also be challenged by redshirt sophomore Jay Guillermo. At receiver, Sammy Watkins will be called upon to quickly regain the all-world stature he’d reached as a freshman in 2011, especially without an experienced safety net to remove the pressure this time around. With Watkins at the top spot on the depth chart, Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant will likely take some time this spring to gain a better rapport with Boyd and prove they can handle a larger role in Clemson’s dynamic passing game. The Tigers must also replace the departed Andre Ellington at running back, but can luckily plug his experienced backup, Roderick McDowell (450 yards, five TDs in 2012), right into the role.
Last season, despite the departure of star defensive end Andre Branch, Clemson actually had no trouble getting after the quarterback, recording 34 sacks over their 13 games. And while the secondary certainly looked less-than-impressive at times, it was also pretty easy to see the young group’s improvement within D-coordinator Brent Venables’s system. This year, though, there needs to be quantifiable progress made by defensive backs like Travis Blanks. If the secondary can reduce the number of passing yards allowed per game (240 in 2012), it can also help in taking some pressure off the linebackers. While it hasn’t been a position of strength lately, there’s a glut of talent at linebacker now, and the spring could be the perfect proving ground to see who’ll emerge at those positions. Six different players will be vying for just three spots, meaning impact freshman arriving this fall (like highly-regarded recruit Ben Boulware) will have to wait in line. Spencer Shuey appears to be among the leaders for a starting linebacker job in the spring, but don’t count out former transfer Kellen Jones, either. Though there’s very little game tape on Jones from his 2011 season playing at Oklahoma, he has a reputation as a tireless worker, along with a quick body and mind, and could surprise this March.
The stakes have been raised at Clemson, and now we get to see whether this program’s truly taken the leap everyone believes. As the influx of talent on the Tigers increases, these position battles will get more and more interesting — something we’re just seeing the beginnings of this year. But it’s critical for them to at least start resolving questions at key positions (like RB, WR and LB) now. The last thing they want is to sort out those roles during a season in which they have very little breathing room.
Previously: Boston College