A capacity crowd of 55,000 fans filed into Memorial Stadium this past Saturday to get a glimpse at what the 2018 Clemson Tigers might look like. They were not disappointed.
Clemson has high-end talent everywhere and quality depth throughout most of the position groups. Very few questions were left unanswered, though some of the positives — like quarterback play — actually lead to more questions.
Here are thoughts on post-spring Clemson.
1. The quarterbacks
Can a returning quarterback that led his team to the College Football Playoff really be an underdog to win the starting job the next fall? It is probably the case at Alabama but it also could be true at Clemson. The mobile Kelly Bryant (above, right) was restricted by the rules of the spring game and he will most likely still take the opening snap on Sept. 1 against Furman. But he was the least effective Clemson quarterback on Saturday and ballyhooed freshman Trevor Lawrence lived up to his immense hype. Plus, sophomore Hunter Johnson played well and No. 4 quarterback Chase Brice showed that he can be an effective player. The riches at quarterback will make head coach Dabo Swinney’s decision-making process very difficult by the time fall camp rolls around.
2. Tee Higgins
With Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud off to the NFL, Clemson needed a couple of receivers to step up. Higgins didn’t step up; he leaped forward. The rising sophomore looked bigger and stronger than last fall and he had a rapport with both Lawrence and Johnson right off. The pieces are in place for the former five-star prospect to become an All-ACC receiver this season.
3. Defensive front depth
Clemson’s starting defensive line is the best in college football and has a chance to be historically good. But it doesn’t stop with Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence. The Tigers have guys waiting in the wings that will be able to spell their stars and will prove to be the building blocks of the future. Justin Foster was in the backfield all afternoon and early entry freshmen Josh Belk, K.J. Henry and Xavier Thomas acquitted themselves very well.
4. Offensive line
If there is an area of concern for Clemson, it would be the offensive line. They were going up against those incredible defensive linemen, but it was a struggle for most of the day. With Swinney blowing plays dead whenever a defender was anywhere near the quarterback, sacks were going to pile up. But the 12 times he blew the whistle in those circumstances is too many. Also, with the exception of a couple of nice Travis Etienne runs, neither side got much going on the ground. Clemson returns three starting linemen, with Mitch Hyatt and Justin Falcinelli being All-ACC selections. But Clemson needs some younger, inexperienced players to develop into consistent performers. The good news is that the competition these players face in practice will certainly prepare them for game action.
5. Special teams
Most spring games feature little to no special teams play. That was not the case at Clemson last Saturday, where Swinney decided on a full menu. There were some hiccups, like freshman punt returner Derion Kendrick failing to catch a punt that led to a fumble. But this approach allowed the Tigers to work out the kinks in a less pressurized situation. We also saw that kicker may be another key position battle come August. Alex Spence ended the 2017 season in strong fashion. But Greg Huegel, even with a leg brace, kicked the ball well in his staged appearance.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
(Top photo courtesy of Clemson Football's Facebook page)