CLEMSON, S.C. – Spring is a time for renewal. New beginnings. Opportunity. Advancement.
At Clemson, this is especially true. Dabo Swinney’s Tigers had an excellent 2013 season, finishing 11-2, winning the program’s first BCS game and finishing in the Top 10 of the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll for the second consecutive season.
However, Clemson has plenty of work to do this spring. Swinney and his staff suffered a number of losses from 2013’s roster due to graduation and the NFL draft.
Record-setting quarterback Tajh Boyd is gone. So are talented receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, 1,000-yard rusher Rod McDowell, and cornerback Bashaud Breeland.
The Tigers have recruited well over the last five seasons, and competition to replace the departed stars will be fierce. Here, in no particular order, are the five players with the most to gain this spring.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson
Watson will be among the most scrutinized players this spring. The 4-star quarterback, rated as the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat quarterback by 247Sports, enrolled early and will go through spring practice with his new teammates.
Watson will immediately be thrust into a three-way quarterback battle with steady rising senior Cole Stoudt and athletic rising sophomore Chad Kelly, both of whom have multiple years of experience in offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
He threw for more than 13,000 yards and rushed for 4,000 more at Gainesville (Ga.) High School and was trusted to call his own plays and make audibles at the line in a spread offense similar to what Clemson runs. Watson has the talent and skills to be a great collegiate quarterback, but can he learn Morris’ offense quickly enough to leap over the veterans? We’ll soon find out.
Running back Zac Brooks
With McDowell gone, Clemson’s backfield is in a state of flux. Brooks will lead a pack of unproven tailbacks competing this spring. Freshman tailback Tyshon Dye will be sidelined after suffering a torn Achilles tendon during offseason workouts last week, but redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman, rising senior D.J. Howard and rising junior C.J. Davidson will all push for time.
Brooks was recruited personally by Morris as an excellent fit in his offense, as he can gain hard yards with a tough running style and catch passes out of the backfield. But despite showing signs of brilliance, he has had trouble staying on the field.
He missed the last three games of 2013 with a shoulder injury that had hampered him throughout the season. He had 48 carries for 246 yards and two touchdowns, adding six receptions for 83 yards and a touchdown.
If Brooks can show some durability, he could certainly be the lead tailback entering the 2014 season. But he must prove to Morris, Swinney and running backs coach Tony Elliott that he can be an effective every-down option. If not, Gallman, Howard and Davidson will surely get their shots as the lead back.
Wide receiver Mike Williams
Williams had a very impressive debut as a true freshman in 2013, catching 20 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns in a reserve role.
He averaged 15.8 yards per reception, which was second on the Tigers roster behind only Bryant. He is athletic and speedy and has excellent hands, and at 6’5”, 205 pounds, has the kind of frame quarterbacks and wide receivers coaches drool over.
He has drawn comparisons to DeAndre Hopkins, who left Clemson with the program’s record for career receiving yards before being taken 26th overall by the Houston Texans in the 2013 NFL draft.
Bryant’s departure leaves an opening in the starting lineup, and Williams looks poised to fill it. With junior and 2013 starter Charone Peake unlikely to be 100 percent this spring while recovering from a torn ACL that sidelined him last fall, this is the perfect time for Williams to cement his role and build chemistry with the quarterbacks vying to replace Boyd.
Linebacker Tony Steward
Steward was a 5-star recruit when he picked Clemson over Florida State in 2011, but his college career has been star-crossed, at best. He spent the first half of his freshman season getting up to speed while recovering from a torn ACL in his senior season of high school and then suffered a torn ACL on the opposite knee during a practice, ending his season. Clemson’s appeal for a redshirt season was turned down, essentially wasting a season of eligibility.
He spent the next two seasons in a reserve role behind Quandon Christian as the “Sam” or strong-side linebacker. Christian has graduated, leaving the role open for Steward.
As a junior, Steward had 37 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss in 167 snaps. He is the favorite to win the job, but it is now or never for the once-heralded prospect.
Cornerback Mackensie Alexander
Alexander was a 4-star recruit when he picked Clemson on national signing day in 2013 and was expected to make a significant impact early on. But his freshman season was over before it began.
Alexander suffered a groin injury on the first day of preseason practice and was slow to recover. He eventually required surgery, which led to a redshirt season.
The Immokalee, Fla., native has excellent speed and ball skills, and opportunity awaits. Breeland’s departure and Darius Robinson’s graduation leave both of Clemson’s starting cornerback jobs up for grabs. Rising seniors Martin Jenkins and Garry Peters should have first crack at the roles, and the Tigers have a cadre of young, talented corners—including fellow redshirts Adrian Baker, Marcus Edmond and Ryan Carter—who’ll also compete.
But Alexander is talented, and he’ll certainly be motivated to prove himself after a fall of unexpected idleness.
Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace.