Clemson Football: Key Position Battles Heading into Fall Camp
As the summer continues, so does a college football fan's passion and curiosity for the season to finally begin. And many Clemson fans are waiting in anticipation for that game when their Clemson Tigers take the field against Troy at Death Valley.
But, many Clemson fans are eager to see how much Dabo's changes to the coaching staff have impacted the team and how this young team responds to their difficult schedule and how well they step up to the plate. But, before the Tigers even take the field, there are questions that must still be answered in fall camp with the new recruits in tow.
With Clemson having signed around 29 players in this year's class, and having around 24 qualify and enroll on campus, head coach Dabo Swinney has noted as many as 12 or 13 could see playing time this season, and with the number of talented players that red-shirted from the 2010 recruiting class, competition in fall camp will be the most heated than it has been among the younger Clemson players for quite some time.
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The key staple to any offense is the running game, and in today's world of college football, running backs take a lot of punishment, and coaches must keep a fresh stock of reliable backs behind the main ball carrier.
For Clemson, that main ball carrier is none other than Andre Ellington. If not for his foot injury, Ellington would have easily been on his way toward a 1,000 yard rushing performance in 2010. As a result of that injury, coupled with the lack of consistent depth behind him, the running game struggled without Ellington and a lack of consistent performance from back ups Jamie Harper and Roderick McDowell.
But, with Jamie Harper gone to the NFL, there is a chance for a fresh start at running back.
While Ellington remains the unquestioned starter, the stock of the back-up running backs must still be sorted out. The spotlight shifts to returning red-shirt sophomore Rod McDowell and the incoming red-shirt freshmen Demont Buice and DJ Howard, along with the highly touted true freshman Mike Bellamy being added to the mix.
Coming out of the spring, neither Buice, Howard or McDowell managed to truly separate themselves from one another, and all appear to continue to push for playing time in the fall. Most teams need at least two primary back ups at running back, and while Bellamy will surely see the field this season, all three of these backs will be in competition for that spot behind Ellington.
Great Hands Receivers
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One of Clemson's prime concerns in 2010 that led to their downfall was the inability to make plays in the passing game. The receivers were very inconsistent, and their only weapons at receiver were freshman Deandre Hopkins and sophomore tight end Dwayne Allen. Sophomore Jaron Brown showed flashes and was the next best option behind Allen and Hopkins.
With so few weapons, there was not any kind of deep threat receiver on the roster, nor any kind of reliable assistance working in the slot. As the new season rolls around, the Tigers will look to the incoming freshman to provide a much needed spark to the new and improved offense.
The 2011 recruiting class saw Clemson sign five receivers, three of whom will in all likelihood avoid a red-shirt and have ample opportunity to compete for playing time in the fall.
Charone Peake, standing at 6'4", is a tall target from Dorman High School who has the size and speed to become a great outside target and become the deep threat Clemson lacked last season.
Martavis Bryant, after having to attend Hargrove Academy in the fall, has finally enrolled and will get the chance he was unable to have in 2010 to compete for the main receiving rotation. Similar to Peake, Bryant is a tall target at 6'3"-6'4" who has the ball skills and speed to become another reliable deep threat for the Tigers on the outside.
But, perhaps the biggest anticipated recruit fans can't wait to see is wide receiver Sammy Watkins. At around 6'1, Watkins can flat out fly, possessing spectacular 4.3-4.4 speed. One of the best receivers out of the state of Florida, Watkins has been labeled as the "CJ Spiller" of wide receivers.Watkins will have the chance to immediately be plugged in at slot receiver, and with Chad Morris' smash mouth spread offense, the slot receiver is an important aspect of running the passing game.
The wide receiving battle will be a wide open competition, with Hopkins and Brown going in as the main starters into fall camp.
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If the Tigers had one thing worse than the passing game last year, it would be their kicking game..
Last season, walk on freshman Chandler Cantanzaro won the job in the spring, but struggled to make 50 percent of his kicks and struggled all season long with accuracy and confidence issues. Heading into fall camp, the Tigers have brought in freshman Ammon LaKip, who was known for his clutch kicks in Alpharetta, Ga., helping his team win the state championship on one final kick.
With only Cantanzaro, Benton and Lakip on scholarship, Lakip and Cantanzaro will let fall camp decide who kicks the Tigers first field goal for 2011 while Benton continues to handle kick-off duties.
The kicking game certainly meant the difference between victory and defeat in several games for the Tigers last season, especially in games against Auburn, Florida State and Boston College, and if the Tigers want to avoid yet another losing season, they must get a more consistent kicking game.
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As has been the case for the past few seasons, Clemson has been short on both linebacker production and consistency. This has been the one spot on a Kevin Steele powered defense that has kept them from obtaining their potential as the best in the ACC.
As was the case with the wide receivers, Clemson managed to bring in a highly touted group of linebackers in Stephone Anthony, Tony Steward and Lateek Townsend, along with a great underrated prospect in BJ Goodson.
Stephone Anthony has been known for his great ability at both rushing the passer and his abilities in coverage, nabbing close to 20 interceptions over the past two seasons, a number unheard of for a linebacker.
Steward is also very tough and versatile, able to play both SAM linebacker and MIKE linebacker. He is a highly regarded linebacker out of Florida, and, like Stephone Anthony, will avoid a red-shirt and see some time on the field. Anthony will likely see more time at the WILL position, while Steward will likely see time at either the SAM or MIKE position.
The linebacking corps for Clemson are as crowded with talent as they have been for the past few seasons, with returning outside linebacker Quandon Christian having a solid 2010 campaign and a great spring, and junior middle linebacker Corico Hawkins coming into his own as middle linebacker. It will be hard to unseat these two. Tig Willard will also enter camp as the starter after a solid spring and extended playing time last season.
And with the sudden emergence of Justin Parker in the spring, competition to maintain and hold spots will be interesting to see, to say the least.
In the following years to come, this will surely be a position the Tiger defense can come to count on.
Depth at Defensive Tackle
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For years, Clemson has gained a solid reputation for its talented defensive line, consistently sending its linemen to the NFL and adding even more talent every year that it continues to send. Names like William "The Refrigerator" Perry, Gaines Adams and Michael Dean Perry are some of the best linemen in Clemson history who were high NFL draft picks.
Now, Clemson sent away more talent with the departures of Jarvis Jenkins and Daquan Bowers. Now, junior Mallicah Goodman has his chance to truly hold the spotlight, and Andre Branch has his opportunity to become the main pass rusher without Bowers. Brandon Thompson will man the interior, while Rennie Moore has his chance to make his name known in his senior season.
But, as with the running backs, the questions that remain here are of depth. Behind the starters are a plethora of talented, yet young and untested players who have little to known of the field. Names like Tavaris Barnes and Tyler Shatley have to become a more active part of the rotation, and red-shirt freshman like Josh Watson will have their opportunity to become part of the regular rotation, as Steele likes to frequently rotate his defensive linemen.
Incoming freshman like Deshawn Williams and Grady Jarrett may also avoid red-shirts to provide some quality depth for the interior defensive line.
Meanwhile, on the edge, there is optimism for talented players like Corey Crawford, who, after spending a semester at Hargrove Academy, is looking to have plenty of roatation time at the end spot, while young, incoming talent like Roderick Byers and Joe Gore may have more opportunities to avoid redshirts as well.