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Clemson Football: What We Learned from the Spring Game

Colby LanhamCorrespondent IJune 26, 2016

Clemson Football: What We Learned from the Spring Game

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    Clemson hosted its annual Orange and White spring game on Saturday, April 13, where the Orange Team prevailed, 34-26, over the White team. 

    Spring games provide several opportunities.

    For the fans, it's an opportunity to watch their favorite team one more time before the season opener and a preview of what may be to come in the upcoming season.

    For players, it's an opportunity to make one lasting impression on the coaches before the incoming freshman recruits arrive in the summer. And for the coaches, it's a chance to gauge the players to experiment and make changes to put players in different positions.

    And with Clemson being part of the BCS talk this season, there is plenty to take away from this spring game, with a defense that is the biggest question mark on a team looking to play in Pasadena and having to replace both an All-ACC running back and a wide receiver in Deandre Hopkins that accounted for 18 touchdown catches last season.

Sammy Watkins Looks Better Than Ever

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    Sammy Watkins struggled in 2012 with a two-game suspension, sickness and injury and was limited to 708 receiving yards and only three touchdown catches, a strong dip compared to his All-American season in 2011, where he had 1,219 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. 

    But if Clemson's spring game was any indication, Tiger fans could bear witness to the return of the 2011 Sammy Watkins, who was dangerous on offense at receiver and as a kick returner on special teams. In the spring game, Watkins had seven receptions for 156 yards and two touchdowns, with both of them being touchdowns of 41 and 50 yards. 

    Without Deandre Hopkins, Watkins is now the undisputed leader of Clemson's receiving corps. He is the feature receiver—the No. 1 threat in the passing game. Opposing secondaries will focus all of their attention on Watkins.

    Watkins has also seemed to improve his ability to elude real opposing coverages, when he split the safeties in zone coverage to take a five-yard screen pass and turn it into a 50-yard touchdown.

    Chad Morris also expects Watkin's production to improve as he moves to Hopkins' old position.

Clemson's Receiving Corps Looks Explosive

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    Outside of Sammy Watkins, Clemson's receiving corps has stepped up with the departure of Deandre Hopkins to the NFL, and in fact showed their elite potential during the spring game.

    Martavis Bryant had the biggest day of any receiver not named Sammy Watkins, amassing 110 receiving yards on seven catches and adding a touchdown. Bryant's improved focus has not gone unnoticed, and head coach Dabo Swinney has complemented Bryant on his improved focus this spring:

    There was one line hanging and he held on and pulled himself up out of the hole. I give him credit, because he had to do it. I tell these guys all the time that it's never too late to do what's right.

    He manned up, came back, and, to his credit, has done everything he's been asked to do. But he has zero money in the bank, and he knows that. You can't get any money out of the ATM if you don't put something in there.

    He's got a few nickels in there now. But I want to make the point again that I'm proud of Martavis. And his teammates are proud of him.

    —Kerry Capps, orangeandwhite.com

    If Bryant can continue his upward trend and maintain his focus, he can provide that second solid option behind Watkins. Bryant makes good use of his 6'5", 200-pound frame and his speed makes him a very viable deep-threat option and gives Boyd a big target in the passing game.

    Adam Humphries and Charone Peake also had a good day, with Humphries showing the crowd his deceptive speed with a 51-yard catch and run touchdown pass and Charone Peake finishing with an eight-catch, 51-yard performance with a lone touchdown catch.

Secondary Set at Safety; Questionable at Corner

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    The secondary gave up a lot of big plays in 2012 and is undoubtedly one of the bigger focal points Tiger fans are looking for in 2013. With the departure of former defensive backs coach Charlie Harbison to Auburn, head coach Dabo Swinney hired Mike Reed as the new defensive backs coach from NC State. 

    The secondary still game up with a lot of big plays in the passing game, with a large part still due to numbers and youth at the position, as several of the safeties continue to take bad angles.

    However, safeties Travis Blanks and Robert Smith, who are likely to start the season in the two vacant safety positions vacated by Jonathan Meeks and Rashard Hall following the end of the season, were among the defensive spring standouts praised by second-year coordinator Brent Venables.

    Smith led the Orange team with seven tackles, including two for a loss, while Blanks compiled six tackles along with an interception.

    While the safety position appears to have been solidified, the corner position is still up in the air, although Darius Robinson, Martin Jenkins, Bashaud Breeland and Garry Peters end spring as the main guys in the rotation.

Front-Seven Revival

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    The front seven, last season, was inconsistent, and took time to gain any ground under first-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables. But that potential came through against LSU when the team sacked LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger six times and kept him under pressure all night long en route to a 25-24 victory.

    This spring, the Tigers are looking for Vic Beasley to shine and provide the defensive line with the pass-rush ability the ends lacked for a large part of last season.

    In limited exposure as a pass-rush specialist, Beasley has found a home at defensive end and led the team in sacks with eight and was fourth in the ACC in said category. He finished the spring game with two sacks, while inside at defensive tackle, DeShawn Williams finished with two sacks, and Grady Jarrett finished with three. 

    At linebacker, B.J. Goodson showed a nose for the ball, finishing with 13 tackles, Spencer Shuey finished with sixand Stephone Anthony finished with five. Kellen Jones also came up with an interception and returned it 44 yards.

    This group was once the pride of past Clemson defenses. And now it has the chance to begin climbing toward that position once again.

Offensive Tempo Steals the Show

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    Third-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris continues to travel to different schools to expand his offense and continually preaches about "tempo." If the spring game was any indication, the offense has improved its tempo even more—and without All-American quarterback Tajh Boyd even taking a single snap.

    The Orange and White offenses combined for 90 plays from scrimmage and 632 total yards in the first half alone and put the ball in the air 76 times.

    Cole Stoudt showed the reason he has been the primary backup the past two seasons, throwing for a spring-game record 304 yards and four touchdowns plus a lone interception, while completing 16 of his 24 passes.

    His opponent Chad Kelly, who had been in serious contention with Stoudt for the top backup position, went down early in the game with a knee injury that is likely to be a torn ACL which would probably sideline him for the rest of the season.

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