Ah, what a day it was! For those of us who live and die with Clemson football, the start of spring practice provided a much-needed fix, as it has been 63 days since our Tigers last lined up on the gridiron. Although the recruiting season brought a little excitement, nothing compares to actually seeing our young student-athletes in action, even if they were only in shorts and helmet on this given day.
Without further adieu, I’ll get into what I saw on the practice fields behind Jervey. First of all, the strong winds were not exactly conducive to throwing and catching. In addition, our football players naturally had accumulated a lot of rust in the offseason that needed to be shaken off……and it showed, although not much more can be expected from the first day.
Once I arrived, my attention was immediately drawn to a middle-aged man who seemed to be jumping around and acting half-crazy about something. It didn’t take me long to realize that those arms flying through the air belonged to none other than Reggie Herring, our linebacker coach and defensive coordinator that fits the word intensity to a tee. He is absolutely absorbed into every move or every second – nothing gets by him. After watching him instruct our linebackers, I feel very at ease, knowing that he is the one preparing them for battle.
Once I stopped to observe our the ‘backers, I thought immediately from the first drill that this unit would be in good hands. Chad Carson was a vocal leader of the group, as he has just seemed to emerge into a strong leadership role. The person I was really impressed with, though, was Altroy Bodrick. He just seemed to move the best through many of the footwork drills. Braxton K. Williams also showed why he’s been a starter the last couple of years, as he looked advanced among our other ‘backers.
For those of you that haven’t seen Rodney Thomas, that man has guns that you have to see in person. Rodney Feaster also looked sharp.
On the offensive line, I was really pleased to see Cedric Johnson with a much leaner body than when he reported the last time I saw him in August. Supposedly, he’s lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 pounds, and I believe every bit of that, although I’m sure the coaches did their fair share of keeping him “motivated.” Even with very limited contact in the first day, there still was enough to see who was fundamentally sound and impressive. Kyle Young immediately stood out before I could deduce who he was by seeing the number 59 on his jersey.
I’d say Gary Byrd has the biggest arms of any of our offensive linemen, and he really looked more stout than the rest. I thought it was kind of funny when I saw a tattoo of ‘Big Byrd’ on his arm – he certainly is that.
One thing I didn’t realize is that this offensive line doesn’t operate at all like my high school offensive line where the line is silent once they take their stance and wait for the quarterback to call the snap count. No, each member of our O-Line must make reads and call out signals for each of the other linemen to get their assignments at the line. They call out to each other almost the entire time right up to the snap in ways that are totally indecipherable to an outside observer. I thought it was just kind of interesting.
Todd McClinton took several reps at TE, and I became exited after watching him take part in several run-blocking drills. That boy is huge, and he’s athletic to boot. By the way, Todd practiced at full speed, although he was wearing a knee brace.
This gives me a good opportunity to break down the injury situation. Travis Zachery watched in sweat pants and is probably out for the spring; Matt Bailey went at full speed after having off-season thumb surgery; Woody was dressed in a yellow jersey, ran a little bit and threw a little bit, and he had a brace on his left ankle; Marcus Lewis is out for the spring with an ACL injury; Brian Carr was basically 100% after tearing his ACL last year, although he was wearing a large and cumbersome-looking brace on his left knee.
At quarterback, I got a chance to observe Carr, Matt Schell, and Willie “Shotgun” Simmons. Again, the wind was pretty fierce, so it had to have affected their throwing, but overall they looked pretty good with a little rust that seemed to be shaken off during the course of practice. Matt Schell is an accurate passer, although one can just easily distinguish a pass thrown by Simmons and the other quarterbacks there.
Simmons’ passes just have a lot more zip to the them, and he just seems to have a much stronger arm and throw a much tighter spiral. I was really, really impressed with Willie Simmons today. Still, I was glad to see Brian Carr get back in the rhythm after having to sit out so much during recovery from an agonizing ACL injury. He could be a good one for us, too.
At running back, Keith Kelly’s size and speed combination was the first thing I noticed. He just possesses a very imposing physique that seems perfectly suited for a tailback in this offense, or any other for that matter. Despite my high praise on the first day of Kelly, I still love Rambert at tailback, as he has impressed me from the time he played as a true freshman.
Back to McClinton, the coaches are really trying cram as much knowledge as they can into him with every practice. It’s almost as if they can see he’ll be really something special, but that he needs to learn an awful lot about the offense. To Todd’s defense, this spring practice season is really his first true opportunity to concentrate on learning his role in the offense. McClinton did participate in some run-blocking, but he also did a fair amount of route-running, and he really, really impressed me. A huge target over the middle, Big Todd is phenomenal athlete for a guy his size, and he has some great hands. I’m really excited about what he may do this fall.
Morgan Woodward is one scrappy devil, too. He just surprises me with the kind of plays he can make with his relatively small frame against the size of players that he faces.
I guess the two primary areas where I felt concern both before and after practice were wide receivers and defensive backs. I’ll start with wide receivers. First of all, everyone today seemed to have a very difficult time catching the ball. Perhaps the wind was a factor, the receivers’ rusty route-running was a factor, and I’m sure the quarterbacks’ rustiness was also a factor. I guess for those reasons, neither Coach Stock or Coach O’Cain were not too vocal about being disappointed with the number of incomplete passes. However, I would say for a stretch of about 20 minutes when there were no defenders covering any of our wideouts, an average of only about 10% of the passes thrown resulted in a completion.
Regarding our individual wideouts, I’d say Ronnie Thomas has clearly the best hands of anyone on the team, and he’s probably the best wide receiver that we have right now. Ronnie catches everything thrown to him, and he showed absolute disgust with himself on the rare occasion where he let a ball slip through his fingers, unlike the others who didn’t really seem to let a dropped ball bother them, for whatever reason – again, that’s not a criticism, just an observation.
Kevin Youngblood looked like he had the potential to be the next superstar wide receiver at Clemson. He seemed the most impressive from a physical standpoint – tall, fast, quick, precise, with good body control and a much greater bit of meat on his bones from the last time I had a chance to watch him, providing me with a pleasant surprise. Derrick Hamilton showed that he has game-breaking ability, although the youngster appeared to still be very raw. Matt Bailey looked impressive in his route-running, although I have to say I was a little disappointed in his hands.
Jackie Robinson also struggled catching the ball, although really no one was immune from those troubles today. JJ McKelvey was a very positive surprise today, as he provides a large target and has a pretty sure set of hands. I was glad to see that JJ’s hardwork after switching to wide receiver has somewhat come to fruition. Finally, Marvis Jenkins, #37, really made some impressive catches today. I think he may just turn out to be a solid player for this Tiger team.
Regarding our defensive backs, I’d say our guys will get much better with time, despite kind of a rocky day today. Charles Hafley, or “Chuck,” as the coaches call him, showed why he’ll be relied upon to lead this unit next year. I was surprised to see how athletic Eric Meekins was, as he seemed much more athletic and fluid than I last remembered, almost like an NFL DB. I also was glad to see Marcus Houskin perform well, as he’ll have to step up next year.
At cornerback, I could almost feel a sense of urgency for Brian Mance to step up to the plate and emerge into a leadership role. After reading an article from TheState about Brian, I learned that Mance considers confidence to be the key about being a solid, consistent cornerback, like Tommy Bowden has wanted Mance to become. On that note, I think confidence is all that Brian needs, and that will only come through the rigors experienced through these upcoming spring practices. That means getting burned occasionally and learning from those mistakes, which will be required to make him and our other young corners better with time.
Like Mance, Kevin Johnson is another talented corner that just needs to become more reliable and consistent this spring, according to Coach Bowden. I thought that Johnson, Hemby, and Toure Francis could all conceivably win out the starting corner position opposite Mance, as they all appear to be fairly close at this point. Again, this unit will have to improve steadily this spring, as they all did seem to struggle on this windy March afternoon. However, I think now is not a fair point to gauge their development; I’ll reserve judgement at least until the end of spring practice, and encourage and wish them the best all the way.
On the defensive line, Donnell Washington is clearly the story, as he is a truly imposing force in the middle that I’m excited to see take on all of our upcoming ACC foes next year. Donnell has the potential to be an absolutely dominating presence in the middle, and he may just become that over the course of spring practice. David Ellis has apparently moved to defensive end, probably because Nick Eason and Marcus Lewis are out. Jovon Bush is a large body in the middle as well, so I can’t wait to see him and D. Washington clogging up holes in the middle next year.
Oh, boy, that’s all that I can must, fellow Tiger fans. I simply can’t squeeze out any more for this very first article about spring practice. I’d also like to caution all the readers out there that might now expect an article this long after every future spring practice. On the first day of spring ball, I was like a kid at the circus – full of excitement and attention to fine details.
I guess I’d like to conclude the article by stating that I’ve tried my very hardest to praise our young student athletes whenever I can, as they are the people that sweat and work their tails off so that 81,000+ members of our Tiger community can all come together on 6 Saturdays out of the year to experience an event that gives us all a great deal of pride and enjoyment. I guess these spring practice reports are a way to bring attention to them for the hard work that they put in to this team throughout the year. If I can be a part of that in a supportive manner, then I consider myself to be a lucky man. Finally, our coaches really are professionals at what they do who put in an extraordinary amount of work to this team, and I believe after watching several practices that anyone would be very reluctant to criticize our coaches if he or she observed a practice from time to time.
Wishing you all the best, Tiger fans, I’ll see you next time……..
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