Even amid the chaos known as March Madness, the Hill Count still continues. The count sits at 161 days. That's how long it is until August 31, when the Clemson Tigers' season opener against the Georgia Bulldogs kicks off.
And yet the Tigers are still going through spring practice, where key position battles are taking shape on both offense and defense, and may not even be decided until the fall. That being said, there are several players on both sides of the ball that Tiger fans should be excited to see once football season begins, especially with the talent that Clemson returns on offense and the potential that the defense showed in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against LSU.
Arguably the most anticipated returning player to see on defense is linebacker Kellen Jones, who transferred from Oklahoma last season after Clemson hired Brent Venables, his former defensive coordinator at Oklahoma.
Jones sat out last season because of NCAA transfer rules that required him to sit out a year, and he has been turning heads in practice since last season. Jones will be getting time at the WILL linebacker position, which was vacated after the graduation of Tig Willard.
Venables has also noted that the rotation at linebacker is becoming clearer as the offseason progresses and likes the group that he has this spring:
"I really like this group of guys.We have a lot of chemistry and experience and intelligence with the group... we have guys that can run and hit and like to compete. We are just moving some guys around and trying to experiment to see if we can add additional depth."
After splitting time with Quandon Christian at the hybrid linebacker/nickel position, Travis Blanks will be moving to safety full-time, as the Tigers lose both starting safeties Rashard Hall and Jonathan Meeks. Last season, Blanks earned Second Team Freshman All-American honors while splitting time, and was Clemson's only bright spot in a porous and injury-riddled secondary.
Last season, Blanks came into Clemson rated as the No. 2 player in Florida by ESPN as well as the No. 13 safety in the nation by ESPN, and fans surely wished they could have seen more of Blanks' aggressiveness on the field as a full-time starter. Blanks' aggressive style of play and his athletic ability could bring back some toughness and ability that the Clemson secondary was devoid of in 2012.
Everyone is well aware of the danger that Sammy Watkins poses whenever he is on the field, but his fellow corps of receivers makes this group the most dangerous part of Clemson's offense. Despite Deandre Hopkins' premature trip to the NFL, the Tigers still return three receivers in Charone Peake, Martavis Bryant and Adam Humphries.
Each of them has produced when their names have been called, from Bryant's 6'4" frame and deep threat; the big-play speed of Humphries' ability as a sure-handed possession receiver; and Peake's ball skills.
This trio will have bigger roles in 2013, and you can look for quarterback Tajh Boyd and the Clemson offense to take advantage of the single coverage looks they will be bound to get as a result of the attention Watkins will be receiving.
Last spring, defensive end was the big question mark of this defense. Now the coaches are liking the additions that they have at the position—and they're looking for even more out of Vic Beasley.
Beasley, who worked mostly as a situational pass-rusher, sacked the quarterback eight times last season, a number good enough for fourth in the ACC last season and first on the team. The coaches have noted that he has finally found a home at defensive end.
In the beginning spring practices, Beasley intercepted two passes and returned them both for touchdowns, and while the coaches want him to gain a little more weight to give him more playing time, his goal is 250 by the season opener:
"Starting spring practice at 232 pounds, up about 10 since the bowl game, his target is 250 by kickoff: “I believe my body type (at) 6-3, 6-4 can carry that much weight.”
Beasley brought the most pass-rushing threat out of any defensive end last season, but must compete against the likes of Corey Crawford, early enrollee Ebenezer Ogundeko, Tavaris Barnes, Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson, who enrolled in January after a semester at Hargrave.
This pair of linebackers was highly touted members of Clemson's 2011 recruiting class, with Stephone Anthony being ranked as the No.1 outside linebacker prospect by ESPN, while Tony Steward was ranked the No. 1 outside linebacker in the nation by Rivals and the No. 1 inside linebacker by ESPN prior to attending Clemson.
Since then, both haven't made a huge impact at their positions. Anthony has been at the Mike position, but has been inconsistent, and was replaced midseason by Spencer Shuey, who held the position the rest of the season. Steward has been hampered by consecutive ACL injuries, once before he signed his letter of intent, and he tore his other in 2011, but the coaches did not redshirt him. Now, with the vacant Will position, Steward has a chance to make an impact past special teams, where he was confined to in 2012.
Meanwhile, when many thought Anthony might move to the Will position, he stayed put at Mike, and, rather than learn a new position, has bulked up to 246 pounds. He has, according to Brent Venables, gotten more comfortable at the position. Venables calls him "the prototypical middle linebacker."
Both of these two now have the opportunity to help anchor this defense, which many will cite as the potential difference-maker between this Tiger team and a national championship.