The Clemson Tigers returned to the practice field last week for their second session of spring practice. It was perfect timing for the Tigers with their first scrimmage scheduled for Monday.
Monday's scrimmage was the coaches' first chance to see all three quarterbacks taking snaps in live action. Head coach Dabo Swinney was pleased with his team's first scrimmage, particularly the offensive line, per Clemson's official website:
The offensive line played with pride today and it carried over to everyone on that side of the ball. The defensive line got exposed in some ways. What was called an easy sack previously was not a sack today.
Swinney's comments are surprising in the sense that it's the first time we've heard of the defensive line struggling at all this spring. It's good news for the offensive line, which was without two starters in the scrimmage. Center Ryan Norton and guard Eric Mac Lain both missed the scrimmage with injuries.
"I was very encouraged by what I saw from the offensive line. I saw pride there and they didn't have Norton or Mac Lain (out with injury)."— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) March 31, 2014
Surprisingly, for the first time in Swinney's tenure as head coach, he kept the purple jersey off the quarterback, and defenders could hit the quarterback.
Why did Swinney allow his defenders access to the quarterback?
"It was good for both sides of the ball," Swinney told orangeandwhite.com.
Swinney understands the need to simulate each scrimmage as close as possible to a game situation in order to fully evaluate all three quarterbacks.
As far as allowing the defense to hit the quarterback, it was something Swinney said was done during his time as a player at Alabama.
Three-Way Race at Quarterback Heats Up
Just last week, offensive coordinator Chad Morris said senior Cole Stoudt, sophomore Chad Kelly and freshman Deshaun Watson were in a "three-person race" to be the Tigers' starting quarterback, according to David Hood of TigerNet.com.
All three quarterbacks, plus redshirt sophomore Nick Schuessler—not a contender for the starting job—combined to go 27-of-48 for 379 yards and four touchdowns in Monday's scrimmage.
The biggest news from the scrimmage was that none of the four signal-callers turned the ball over in 100 total offensive snaps.
Swinney was pleased with his quarterbacks Monday, per Hood:
We have good competition a quarterback. I have said before that I am not worried about that position this year. We have talented players at that position. Overall it was a good first scrimmage. There was back and forth. The offense would stand out, then the defense would come back strong. We hope all the players learn from today's scrimmage and come back next Monday even stronger.
Yes, it was just the first scrimmage, but Swinney and Morris had to be happy with how efficient the quarterback group was.
Young Wide Receivers Impressing
Germone Hopper, Charone Peake and Mike Williams were all expected to be big contributors in 2014 with Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant heading to the NFL. That still may be the case, but, for different reasons, only Williams has participated fully thus far in spring practice.
Peake tore his ACL last September and is still rehabbing. Fortunately for the Tigers, Peake was granted a medical redshirt last week and will now have two years of eligibility remaining.
Hopper is another story. The super-talented Hopper is Clemson's best chance at a big-play threat this fall, but he first must take care of things in the classroom.
Last week, Swinney sent Hopper home for the remainder of spring practice to focus on his academics. It's a tough blow for Hopper as he is Clemson's second-leading returning receiver from a year ago.
Suffice to say, Swinney was not pleased with Hopper (subscription required), per Scott Keepfer of the Greenville News:
He’s a good young man, talented, but not very focused or committed to doing what he needs to do academically. So I’m giving him some time to go focus at Vickery Hall. That’s what he’s going to be working on these next few weeks.
While Williams has been on the practice field, he struggled early on. Morris was disappointed with Williams during the first week of practice, but in recent days, Williams began to impress coaches.
That has opened the door for three true freshmen who enrolled in January: Demarre Kitt, Kyrin Priester and Artavis Scott.
Priester spent 2013 at prep school after failing to qualify academically last year. Both Kitt and Scott came to Clemson after graduating early.
With the attrition at the position, a door has opened for at least one of the young players to contribute immediately.
According to Aaron Brenner of the Charleston Post and Courier, Swinney even compared Kitt to former Clemson star DeAndre Hopkins recently:
Demarre is going to remind a lot of people a little bit of a Nuk (DeAndre) Hopkins type of guy. He's not as long or gangly as Nuk, but he's slinky and smooth like Nuk. He's got a great knack for getting his body in position to make plays.
Senior Adam Humphries is the only sure thing among the receivers, and he isn't necessarily a big-play guy. Whoever plays quarterback is going to need someone to step up opposite of Humphries among this group of young and talented wideouts.
MacKensie Alexander Has Coaches Excited
Every few years it seems like the Tigers land a transcendent talent. Whether it's C.J. Spiller or Sammy Watkins, Swinney has had no trouble landing some of the top players in the country.
Perhaps the player who most fits that bill on this year's squad is redshirt freshman cornerback MacKensie Alexander.
Alexander likely would have played as a true freshman, but an injury early in fall practice set him back and allowed coaches to bring him along slowly.
It looks as if that move will pay off big for Clemson.
A 5-star recruit in 2013, according to 247Sports (subscription required), Alexander looks like he will fill Bashaud Breeland's shoes capably in 2014.
Count defensive coordinator Brent Venables among those impressed, per Hood:
I would just say MacKensie is the one because we lost a couple of starters at a position where we're thin. He's had a nice first seven, eight practices. Adrian Baker has as well. They give you reason to believe by the end of fall camp that we'll have some guys ready to play, as far as guys who have not been on the field for us.
Cornerback is not a position that is often conducive to early success. Players take their lumps early on. But Alexander has a year in the program under his belt, and going up against Watkins and Bryant in practice last year should benefit him in 2014.
The Tigers are just over a week away from the annual spring game, but don't expect any answers at the quarterback position until the summer. For the receivers and the defensive backs, though, spring practice is an opportunity to separate from the competition.