Seven weeks removed from a historic run that culminated with an appearance in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, the Tigers took to the practice fields on February 29, refreshed and refocused for the 2016 spring season.
Dabo Swinney’s program has been a model of consistency on both a conference and national level. The Tigers are coming off their fifth-straight season with double-digit wins, including a school-record 14 victories in 2015. Clemson has claimed bowl wins over Louisiana State, Ohio State and Oklahoma (2) the last four seasons.
College football prognosticators have high expectations for Swinney’s Tigers in 2016, not exactly an unexpected development. But still, Clemson has a few questions the coaching staff hopes to have answered as it progresses through spring ball.
With that in mind, here are five burning questions as Clemson prepares for the Spring Game on April 9.
Losing Shaq Lawson to the NFL draft seemed feasible at the beginning of the 2015 season. But it was the ascension of his counterpart, Kevin Dodd, at the other end spot that took nearly everyone by surprise.
“Kevin was a third-teamer that played 92 snaps as a fourth-year guy out of high school,” said Swinney, referencing the 2014 season. “And now, you talk about him being a first or second-round NFL draft pick. (Defensive coordinator) Brent (Venables) was about ready to jump off a cliff watching how far he had to go from a developmental standpoint.”
While Swinney lamented a lack of competition behind the two standouts last season, he stated that would not be the case in 2016.
“The lights will shine the brightest at defensive end,” he said. “Who will go compete and win those jobs? I love the guys we have on campus. We’ll have more competitive depth on the line than we had last year. The dropoff from Lawson and Dodd was big in terms of experience. It’ll be a different deal this year. That competitive depth makes everything better.”
Look for two sophomores to get the first crack at the starting lineup in Austin Bryant and Richard Yeargin. Both played at least 10 games last season and showed flashes of outstanding play. Beyond them, Clelin Ferrell is a redshirt freshman expected to be in the mix for playing time.
2) Who will step up as a leader?
One of the key components in Clemson’s run to the national championship game was its leadership within the locker room.
“For two years in a row, we have graduated the winningest class in school history,” said Swinney. “First, it was 42 wins for the 2014 seniors. Then, our past senior class had 46 wins. That’s a lot of great winners who have walked out the door the last two years. It’s critical to bring in people to replace them with similar characteristics and intangibles. We need championship people, first. That needs to be our focus.”
The 2015 senior group was led by offensive guard Eric Mac Lain, one of the greatest leaders in recent memory for the Tigers. In his stead, Clemson will look to several players to help lead both vocally and by example.
Deshaun Watson is naturally an option to emerge as a team leader. He is transitioning into his junior season on the field and works as hard at his craft as anyone on the roster. Jay Guillermo, who was not even practicing at this time a year ago, will help shoulder the load. The rest of the offense is filled with upperclassmen as well, all of whom have extensive experience on winning teams.
From a defensive standpoint, Ben Boulware looks the part of a leader after earning First-Team All-ACC honors both on and off the field in 2015. One of the young players who already has the respect of the entire team is Christian Wilkins, a charismatic and engaging personality at defensive tackle.
3) What are some areas where Deshaun Watson can improve?
It seems like a silly question, given that Clemson’s signal-caller is the only player in FBS history to compile at least 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a season. But his position coach, Brandon Streeter, is adamant on Watson improving in two areas in particular this spring.
“Number one, his leadership can always get better,” said Streeter, a former starting quarterback at Clemson in his own right. “He has a quiet style about him, but players gravitate towards him. When he speaks, everyone listens. You can always grow, and I’ve challenged him in that area. It’s critical to take us where we want to go. He’s a junior, and he has to embrace that role.”
Another area Streeter cited is the Gainesville, Ga., native’s footwork.
“It can always be improved,” added Streeter. “He took a step forward from 2014 to 2015. But as quarterbacks, it starts from the ground up. He has to be more consistent, and that will help him be even more accurate. And he was already very accurate this past season.”
4) How have the players returning from injury progressed?
It did not receive near the attention it should have, but Clemson played all but one series of the 2015 season without three key players on its roster…Adam Choice (RB), Korrin Wiggins (S) and Mike Williams (WR).
Choice tore his ACL midway through a productive freshman season in 2014, giving the Tigers one less option in its running game. Wiggins followed suit with an ACL tear during August camp last summer, while Williams went down following a season-opening touchdown grab on Clemson’s first drive against Wofford.
By all accounts, all three players are making progress and will contribute in some form or fashion this spring.
“Adam looks great,” said starting running back Wayne Gallman. “I can’t wait to see him back out there. Adam has been putting in the rehab and been working out every day. He’s full sync with our workout plan already. He’s strong, and we can’t wait to see him back on the field.”
Wiggins was a co-starter in 2014 as a nickel back and has the flexibility to help the Tiger defense in a number of areas. Williams wore a neck brace for much of the 2015 season, but he returned to light workout action in February.
“We won’t tackle Mike this spring,” admitted Swinney. “He looks good. He’ll play throw and catch and all that.”
Gallman smiled at the thought of adding Williams back into the fold with an already loaded group of playmakers on offense.
“Knowing all the key pieces are back - and we’re excited to see what Mike can do - makes you think,” he said. “As a family, we’re all back, and we know we can do big things.”
5) Which new faces will make an impact?
Swinney and his staff signed another top-10 recruiting class in February, but seven players enrolled in January and are going through workouts with the team this spring. Despite signing early, Swinney did a great job of incorporating the newest members of the team throughout National Signing Day.
“It’s fun to have those guys embrace signing day,” stated Swinney. “It’s huge to get guys on campus early, especially with the caliber of players we were able to bring in this January. We hit home runs with the three linebackers we signed in this class.”
Two of the linebackers, Tre Lamar and Shaq Smith, are heralded prospects who will have an opportunity this spring to learn from Boulware, the senior statesman of the group.
“Physically and athletically, they’re up to par with everyone else,” said Boulware. “I have to get them ready to play, mentally. They have a long way to go and there’s a lot to learn. You have to do a lot of stuff for coach Venables. They have aspirations of playing as freshmen, but there is a lot to learn.”
“It wasn’t a need for us, but it became one,” admitted Swinney. “We didn’t have a senior in our secondary. We had to hit the ground running with only a couple of weeks to get it done in January. But credit the strength of our brand, because several guys were interested in coming to see Clemson. We were pretty much done with our recruiting class until the attrition with the secondary.”
Despite all the roster turnover defensively the last two seasons, the Tigers are more than optimistic of the next group stepping up.
“It’s a tribute to coach Swinney and coach Venables, and the values they instill in us,” said Boulware. “We come to work every day, regardless of who’s on the roster or who we’re losing. We’ll just do what we did last year.
“We came to work every day and grinded, put in the work in the film room and weight room and had a pretty good outcome. We’re looking to do the same thing.”