Winter is over—almost—and football is in the air. For the Clemson Tigers, who opened up spring practice last week, that is great and exciting news.
The Tigers are coming off three consecutive 10-win seasons for only the second time in school history, and the program continues to rise.
But reaching that 10-win plateau again in 2014 could be difficult, given the loss of two of the school's all-time greats: quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
Not only are Boyd and Watkins gone, receiver Martavis Bryant, offensive lineman Brandon Thomas, cornerback Bashaud Breeland and running back Roderick McDowell are all gone, too.
The race to replace Boyd is on, but the biggest issue this spring is who the new quarterback will throw to.
Fortunately for the Tigers, offensive coordinator Chad Morris returns, so the offense will be OK.
For the first since Dabo Swinney took over as head coach midway through the 2008 season, Clemson's defense could be the team's top unit.
That isn't a slight to the offense, the defense should be very good. In particular, the front seven.
Spring practice day 3, in Death Valley, and with pads. Got to love college football. pic.twitter.com/MmdwR6GGgM— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) March 8, 2014
When both defensive end Vic Beasley and linebacker Stephone Anthony decided to return to school for their senior seasons in 2014, defensive coordinator Brent Venables became the happiest guy on campus.
There aren't a lot of battles to watch on defense this spring. That unit, for the most part, is set. This spring will be about finding out who the next quarterback is and who'll be catching passes.
It's time to get back what I love to do. Spring ball is here 💯💰 http://t.co/S3vXyFAS7c— Shaq Lawson (@Shaq_Lawson90) March 3, 2014
The contenders to replace Boyd are senior Cole Stoudt, sophomore Chad Kelly and true freshman Deshaun Watson. The leading contender, according to Swinney, is Stoudt, per Aaron Brenner of the Charleston Post and Courier:
Day 1, somebody’s got to go out there first. Cole’s a senior, Cole has the most experience and is the most proven. Chad Kelly has got a little bit of experience, he’s been in our system for two seasons now, Cole’s been here for three. Deshaun Watson obviously has all the credentials, and has really played in this type of system for four years.
Stoudt, the most experienced of the three, was essentially named the leader because "somebody's got to go out there first," Swinney said.
Before you think that's a knock on Stoudt, it isn't. Swinney and Morris actually like all three and are confident in each of their signal-callers.
Stoudt, the son of former NFL QB Clint Stoudt, has played sparingly in each of the past three seasons. In 59 attempts in 2013, Stoudt completed just under 80 percent of his passes.
Kelly has also impressive bloodlines. He is the nephew of NFL Hall of Famer Jim Kelly. Kelly tore his ACL in last year's spring game but recovered in time to see the field briefly in five games last season.
Watson, though, is the one to watch. The top dual-threat QB in the country in the class of 2014, according to 247Sports (subscription required), Watson enrolled in January so he could compete in spring practice.
David Hood, senior writer for TigerNet.com, noted that Kelly was most impressive in individual drills last week. Hood said Kelly looked like he had the strongest arm and was the most accurate.
Keep in mind, these were just individual drills.
Hood also noted that Watson was impressive, too. The "ball comes out of Watson's hand so easy," he said.
Count New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan among those impressed with Watson. Ryan, the father of Clemson receiver Seth Ryan, told Hood that Watson "didn't look like a freshman"—then Watson missed his target by approximately 20 yards, which drew laughter from Ryan.
The quarterback battle will likely not be settled this spring. Expect these three to continue battling over the next few weeks.
Watson may have more negative plays right now, but the 6'3", 200-pounder is the most talented QB on the roster. He'll have some good days and some bad days.
Deshaun Watson looked good in a No. 4 uniform ... from a GQ standpoint. Not so much from a QB standpoint. Jittery, off-target throws.— Aaron Brenner (@Aaron_Brenner) March 5, 2014
Skill position battles
Adam Humphries won't remind anyone of Watkins, Bryant or DeAndre Hopkins. But he is Clemson's top returning receiver and will be a reliable target for the quarterback—or quarterbacks.
Humphries runs great routes, has good hands and underrated speed. He isn't the biggest player (5'11", 190), but will likely be the Tigers' most-targeted option in 2014. Inexperienced quarterbacks rely on players like Humphries because they can trust them to run the correct routes.
Outside of Humphries, sophomore Mike Williams is next in line. Williams had 20 receptions for 316 yards and three touchdowns in 2013.
Unlike Humphries, though, Williams looks a lot like Bryant. At 6'5" and 205 pounds, Williams is a physical freak. He has good speed and terrific ball skills. He will have to catch the ball more consistently, but everything is in place for Williams to be Clemson's next star receiver.
Behind those two are a host of younger players. Sophomore Germone Hopper is a player to watch. Swinney obviously hopes Hopper has matured since last year. He has the potential to play in the slot, line up in the backfield and return punts.
McDowell, last year's leading rusher, is gone. However, replacing him won't be as hard as replacing Watkins and Bryant. McDowell was a solid player, but if Clemson has proven anything over the year, it's that it can produce quality running backs.
C.J Spiller, James Davis and Andre Ellington all came before McDowell. All went to the NFL with varying degrees of success.
Do the Tigers have that type of player on their roster right now?
That remains to be seen, but Clemson does have several talented ball-carriers. Junior Zac Brooks and senior D.J. Howard are vying to start at running back. Both provide good speed, but Brooks is the one with the most potential.
Brooks is a bit skinny, which is a concern. Howard looked like the future as a freshman in 2011; however, he's taken steps back over the last two years.
With a new quarterback, picking up the pass rush is more vital than ever. Swinney and Morris will stress pass protection for whichever running back sees the field.
News and notes from the first week of practice
Seven players missed practice this week: Wide receiver Charone Peake (ACL), safety Travis Blanks (ACL), linebacker Kellen Jones (ACL), defensive back Martin Jenkins (shoulder), linebacker Marcus Bullard (shoulder), running back Tyshon Dye (Achilles) and offensive lineman Oliver Jones (ankle). All, except Jones, will be out until fall practice.
Six true freshmen made their practice debut for the Tigers: Watson; wide receivers Kyrin Priester, Demarre Kitt and Artavis Scott; tight end Kurt Fleming and linebacker Chris Register. Obviously, Swinney is concerned about his wide receiver depth.
Watson will wear the the previously retired No. 4 jersey, formerly worn by Steve Fuller, a two-time ACC Player of the Year. Watson received Fuller's blessing to wear the jersey, per Clemson's official website:
He was on board with it. The logo will bring attention to Steve's great career. We are talking about someone who was a first-team Academic All-American and a third-team AP All-American on the field. What a standard he set.
The big 4 is back! pic.twitter.com/e5vfcdHzLD— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) March 11, 2014
Perhaps the most interesting part of last week's practice was the team gathering at the tombstone graveyard outside of the practice fields.
The graveyard symbolizes a win over a top-10 team in a bowl game the prior season.
The Tigers have two consecutive bowl victories over top-10 teams, as they defeated No. 7 LSU at the conclusion of the 2012 season.
Clemson will conclude its first session of spring practice on Wednesday as the students head out for spring break. The Tigers will have 10 practices left before the annual spring game on April 12.