Clemson Football: Position-by-Position Spring Practice Preview
Spring practice is right around the corner, and the Tigers come into it with a team that is likely heading for a Top 10 ranking to start the season.
The Tigers capped off 2012 with their first 11-win season since 1981, when they won their lone National Championship. They hope to start their road to Pasadena this spring. It also gives the coaches and fans a look at returning players before the rest of the recruits arrive on campus in the summer.
The Tigers bring back some of the top talent in the nation on offense, from offensive coordinator Chad Morris to rising senior quarterback Tajh Boyd.
They also bring hope for a defense that, despite inconsistent play all of 2012 under first-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables, was the difference-maker in Clemson's 25-24 win over then No. 8 LSU in the Chick-Fil-A bowl.
Let's see exactly what the Tigers will have to work with once spring practice begins.
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After flirting with the NFL, Tajh Boyd decided to forgo the draft and return for his senior season, after a 2012 season where he threw for 3,896 yards, 36 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. His passer rating was 165.6 en route to first team All-ACC honors and being named first-team All-American by the American Football Coaches Association.
Boyd is the unquestioned starter and leader of an offense that he helped achieve Top 10 status. The return of offensive coordinator Chad Morris is as big as any player's achievement, with Morris having interviewed during the head coaching vacancies at NC State and Texas Tech.
The big battle here will be between the incumbent backup Cole Stoudt, who has held down the position for two years, and Chad Kelly, a highly touted prospect recruited by Morris himself.
Stoudt beat back both Kelly and former quarterback Morgan Roberts who transferred and is no longer with the team. Stoudt is the more pure pocket passer between the two, and Kelly has plenty of upside with his arm strength and mobility.
In the spring, expect these guys to get plenty of looks and reps, especially during the spring game. And expect a heated competition between the two and one that may not be decided until fall camp.
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With the departure of first-team All-ACC and three-year starter running back Andre Ellington, the running back position is for the taking. And Rod McDowell is the first in line to have a crack at the job.
Having worked as a backup running back for most of his Clemson career, McDowell was patient and did well in a more prominent backup role in 2012, rushing for 450 yards and five touchdowns, spending most of the season as the main guy behind Ellington.
D.J. Howard shared time as well, but nagging injuries have cost him time, only rushing for 138 yards and two touchdowns in 2012. His health is a concern for a starting spot.
Zac Brooks, who was one of the best recruits coming out of Arkansas last season, did not redshirt due to a numbers concern at running back and saw limited time in mop-up duty, rushing for 119 yards. He will be looking to bulk up and see time on the field.
The Tigers did sign two running backs in their recruiting class in Wayne Gallman and Tyshon Dye, but McDowell, Howard and Brooks will need to make their impression on the coaches before they arrive in the summer.
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Clemson's wide receivers were unarguably the deepest on the team and some of the most productive in the nation. This spring, they will be without the dependable Jaron Brown in the slot and Deandre Hopkins on the outside, who decided to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft. Hopkins recorded 18 touchdown catches and amassed 1,405 receiving yards.
The Tigers will still bring back a solid group of receivers. Sammy Watkins, who, coming off a sensational freshman year in 2011, spent much of 2012 banged up and overshadowed by the emergence of Hopkins as the No. 1 threat.
He will look to become the primary option in the passing game in his junior season. Charone Peake and Adam Humphries who filled in nicely for Watkins while he was out of games will look to have bigger roles as potential starters.
Martavis Bryant will look to have a bigger role as well and show that he can become a dependable part of the offense, as it's harder to find 6'4" wideouts who can run as fast as he can. Speedster Germone Hopper will be coming off his redshirt season and looks to find a place in the offense out of the slot position.
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The past two years, the Tigers had the luxury of a Dwayne Allen and Brandon Ford as flex tight ends who could work out of the slot and were great receiving threats. Now, Sam Cooper and Stanton Seckinger will be looking to fill that role.
Cooper got plenty of looks last season, and while he was not a big target in the game, catching only 10 balls for 93 yards, he did catch two touchdowns. He and Seckinger, a converted wide receiver, will look to man the tight end position.
Jay Jay McCullough will be coming off a redshirt season, and a good spring will give him an opportunity for playing time. 2013 recruit Jordan Leggett enrolled early in January and will be participating in spring practice.
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A position that was a huge question mark going into 2012 and had to replace three starters, the line answered plenty of questions and silenced the critics by keeping their quarterback upright and maintaining the same lineup the entire season. The Tigers will lose their four-year starter at center in Dalton Freeman.
However, coaches are high on Ryan Norton, who got time last season at guard and center, and who coaches will plug into Freeman's vacant spot at center. Meanwhile, the coaches are more comfortable with the lineup and depth.
Right tackle Gifford Timothy did have knee issues, however, and the Tigers have good backup options at tackle with Isaiah Battle, who played at left tackle, and Shaq Anthony, who was the primary backup at right tackle.
When Timothy went down in the bowl game, starting left tackle Brandon Thomas swung over to right tackle and filled in well, while Battle held his own as Tajh Boyd's blindside.
This spring, the Tigers feel comfortable with the numbers and options they have along the line.
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The Tigers were relatively young along the defensive line last season and finding a consistent pass rush was harder to come by. Even coming into this spring, the Tigers lose only one starter in Malliciah Goodman, but the group showed positive signs during the LSU game.
Vic Beasley showed the biggest signs as the Tigers' best pass-rusher last season, and should he bulk up a little more, could find more playing time than simply time as a situational pass-rusher.
Beasley finally found a home at defensive end after attempts at tight end and linebacker. Corey Crawford mans the other end spot, and Roderick Byers is a rotational player.
Shaq Lawson enrolled in January after a semester at Hargrave and has a chance to crack the rotation. Martin Aiken is coming off a redshirt season, so the Tigers will continue to have some youth and opportunity at the end spots.
On the interior, the Tigers were led by Grady Jarrett, Josh Watson, DeShawn Williams, Carlos Watkins and D.J. Reader. Everybody in this group will be returning and made plenty of strides throughout the 2012 season, finishing it nicely with a physical effort against LSU. This group could be the strength of this team, come the season opener.
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A group that has certainly had its struggles in the past few seasons, the linebackers did see some improvement later in the 2012 season, and that improvement happened after Spencer Shuey was made the starter at middle linebacker over former 5-star prospect Stephone Anthony midway through the season.
The Tigers lose Jonathan Willard and Corico Wright at linebacker, leaving an open spot at the weak-side "Will" position.
Incumbent backup Tony Steward, another former 5-star prospect, will have a shot at the starting position. Also vying for the position are Kellen Jones, Justin Parker, who is also coming off of a redshirt season, and possibly Anthony, whom coaches have considered moving to the position.
Jones, especially, has been turning heads since practices last season. Quandon Christian will handle the duties at the "Sam/Nickel"-hybrid position. There will be backup competition after the transfer of Lateek Townsend and Travis Blanks' move to safety full time.
Names like T.J. Burell and B.J. Goodson will also be looking to make a case for themselves. The Tigers certainly have the numbers at linebacker that they did not have several seasons ago.
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This secondary was one of the more disappointing aspects of the 2012 season, as Clemson defensive backs, particularly at corner, got torched by long passing plays on a consistent basis.
On top of that, starting corners Bashaud Breeland and Darius Robinson were injured in the latter half of the season, and left the Tigers with few options at the position. They were forced to even put Adam Humphries in as an emergency option.
Now, the Tigers will be looking for someone to establish themselves as a playmaker in the secondary. Travis Blanks, the lone bright spot in the secondary and who received second-team All-Freshman honors, will be moving to safety full time after spending the majority of last season at the "Sam/Nickel"-hybrid position with Quandon Christian.
The Tigers will have to replace both safety spots after losing both Jonathan Meeks and Rashard Hall. Robert Smith is next in line for the spot, and this spring is an important one for him in claiming that starting spot, as he will have the claim of experience, but he may have competition from recruit Jayron Kearse in the fall.
At corner, the Tigers will bring back Breeland, Robinson and Martin Jenkins, who redshirted in 2012 due to a groin injury, along with Garry Peters, who filled in for the later half of the season. The spring will be crucial for these guys, as the summer will be bringing in 5-star corner Mackensie Alexander, who will be in line to compete from day one.
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In terms of kicker and punter, the Tigers are set for a third straight year with rising senior Chandler Cantanzaro, who has been a solid option for the Tigers.
At punter, the Tigers lose Spencer Benton, but Bradley Pinion, who was a highly touted punter in the 2012 recruiting class, will man the punting duties and possibly the kickoff duties as well.
In the times he was asked to punt, Pinion showed plenty of leg. Handling punting duties should not be too much of a problem for the rising sophomore.