Spring thoughts: Position battles and chasing championships


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One of the reasons the expectations are so high is because of players like Mitch Hyatt who returns on the offensive line.
One of the reasons the expectations are so high is because of players like Mitch Hyatt who returns on the offensive line.

The dust has settled after a hectic nine months and the expectations begin.

We started out with fall practice last August, and despite a seven-week break for the players football has been a clear, constant presence for us – we had a late championship game, recruiting weekends, National Signing Day and an early start to a spring practice that ended last week.

Now we have a little over 100 days until fall practice begins again. Until then, all we can do is look at back the spring and look ahead to August. Expectations will be sky-high again this season, but let’s take a look at what we learned this spring and how things might be in August.

We’ll start today with the offense and a few random thoughts.

It’s all about championships

We’ve talked to the coaches, we’ve talked to the players, and we’ve talked to recruits as we travel around to the Nike regional combines, and one theme is abundantly clear – this program is chasing championships. I was in the WestZone a few weeks ago and noticed that the countdown clocks (to the South Carolina game) were down in the meeting rooms. Are they just broke, or is there a bigger message here?

I think there’s a bigger message – a few years ago when head coach Dabo Swinney was trying to turn the corner, he knew he needed to stop South Carolina’s five-game winning streak and find a way to beat Florida St. That first hurdle has been cleared. The Gamecocks are a shell of their former selves, and Swinney knows he will have the most talented team on the field when the two play in the next few seasons. South Carolina isn’t the target, even though the game is important and means a lot to the fans.

It’s all about winning each and every game, winning the ACC and earning a shot in the College Football Playoff. A few years ago the players were asked about the Gamecocks and the streak ad nauseam – this year that game was never mentioned. Florida St. was mentioned. But it’s obvious this program has turned the corner and is now looking ahead at bigger and brighter goals.

Deshaun Watson and the quarterbacks

Watson played sparingly in the spring game, and that’s ok. He doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone. We were talking a few ago (a few of us that cover the program every day), and it was brought up that he has more weapons to rely on this season. As a result, he might not put up the numbers he did last season but might have a better overall year.

As for the backups – the coaches really want to see either Nick Schuessler or Kelly Bryant grab the backup job in the fall. It makes sense for it to be Bryant, who might be the starter once Watson leaves. But Tucker Israel rebounded to have a decent camp and Zerrick Cooper will be on campus in June. This battle might last into the season.

Running backs

Like Watson, starter Wayne Gallman just looks like one of the nation’s premier players. Unlike most golfers, he has the short game down but needs to work on his long game. We know he can get the tough yards inside, but to be the back the pros drool over he needs to pop a few longer gains.

Adam Choice looked fantastic every time we saw him, and even though the coaches told us that it’s still a three-man race at the backup spot, Choice looks like the leader heading into the fall. If he continues to progress, it makes for an interesting decision on Tavien Feaster once August arrives. At that point, Feaster won’t have played a competitive snap since last fall and will be coming off shoulder surgery. Do the coaches burn a redshirt for limited snaps? Does he perhaps fit in at the slot and kickoff return and punt return? That storyline will be fun to watch.

Wide receivers

Mike Williams didn’t participate in the spring game, but every time we saw him this spring he looked like a first round draft pick. He jumped. He dove for balls. In short, he looked spectacular. Watson didn’t have the threat that Williams poses last season, and it showed at times. Add Williams in to a group that includes Artavis Scott, Hunter Renfrow, Deon Cain (hopefully), Shadell Bell, Trevion Thompson and Ray-Ray McCloud and the Tigers are loaded. That list doesn’t include Seth Ryan or Adrien Dunn, two veterans who are capable of earning snaps, or 2016 signees Cornell Powell, Diondre Overton or T.J. Chase.

Yikes. Pick your poison, defensive coordinators. Do you double Williams over the top and leave Cain and Scott one-on-one (or even tight end Jordan Leggett)? Do you leave a back free coming out of the backfield? Poison is right. This group is scary good.

Tight ends

Leggett is the unquestioned starter and he’s another NFL draft pick. Behind him, there are still questions. At different times during camp we heard about Garrett Williams, Milan Richard, Cannon Smith and D.J. Greenlee. There is enough depth there to ensure that 2016 commit J.C. Chalk will redshirt, but the question is – who takes those second-team snaps?

The easy answer is that Williams will be in there when you need a blocker while Richard is more of a downfield threat. Greenlee might fit in as both. Smith is seen as a wide body who can not only block but has good hands. Who plays? Probably a little of all of them until someone steps up.

Offensive line

Jay Guillermo raves about this group. A starting five of left tackle Mitch Hyatt, left guard Taylor Hearn, center Guillermo, right guard Tyrone Crowder and right tackle Jake Fruhmorgen is stout, physical and athletic. I thought the offensive line took a huge step forward last season, and they might make a smaller jump this season but they will still be better.

There are key backups in Maverick Morris, Noah Green, Justin Falcinelli, Logan Tisch and Zach Giella. Freshmen Sean Pollard and Tremayne Anchrum also impressed during the spring, so offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell has his best and deepest group to date.

That offensive line – paired with playmakers at each and every skill position – means the Clemson offense has a chance to the best collection of talent ever assembled in Death Valley.

That’s one of the reasons this group talks about championships instead of streaks.

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