5 questions Clemson must answer during spring football practice

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Matt Connolly
·3 min read
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There are plenty of story lines surrounding the Clemson football program as spring practice begins Wednesday.

For starters — Clemson must replace its stars in the backfield with Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne moving on to the NFL.

There were also staff changes this offseason, including tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Danny Pearman moving to an off-the-field role, Tony Elliott moving from running backs coach to tight ends coach (in addition to his role as Clemson’s offensive coordinator) and C.J. Spiller being hired as a full-time assistant — coaching running backs.

Here are five questions for Dabo Swinney’s squad to answer over the next several weeks:

1. What will the starting OL look like?

Clemson’s offensive line was arguably the most inconsistent position group on the team in 2020. The Tigers were solid in terms of pass blocking, allowing 20 sacks in 12 games, but the group struggled to open holes for Travis Etienne and the other backs. The Tigers rushed for 154 yards per game last season after rushing for 241 yards per game in 2019. Clemson lost starters Jackson Carman (left tackle) and Cade Stewart (center). But everyone else on the two-deep is back. Matt Bockhorst, Will Putnam and Jordan McFadden are likely locked in as starters, but there’s plenty of competition for the other two spots.

2. Can Lyn-J Dixon secure the starting running back job?

We know that D.J. Uiagalelei will be under center for the Tigers, but who replaces Etienne? Senior Lyn-J Dixon is the favorite after serving as Etienne’s primary backup for each of the past two seasons. However, juniors Chez Mellusi and Michel Dukes, sophomore Kobe Pace and freshman Will Shipley could also get in the mix. Dixon was banged up at the start of last season but finished strong, rushing 14 times for 103 yards and two touchdowns over his final three games. Senior Darien Rencher won’t be in the mix for the starting job but will be an important piece of the running backs room, particularly with a new position coach taking over the position.

3. Which freshmen are ready to contribute?

Speaking of Shipley, he is one of 12 freshman already on campus. The highest-rated player in Clemson’s class — Shipley should see the field early on in his Clemson career. Other signees who enrolled early include: tight end Jake Briningstool, receivers Dacari Collins and Beaux Collins, defensive end Cade Denhoff, offensive linemen Ryan Linthicum and Marcus Tate, running back Phil Mafah, safety Andrew Mukuba, defensive tackle Payton Page, linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. and cornerback Nate Wiggins. The coaching staff should have a decent idea of who will play right away and who will redshirt by the end of the spring; although, those decisions won’t be final until after fall camp.

4. Is it time to tweak the defense?

Brent Venables is arguably the top defensive coordinator in college football, but the last two years his defenses have been torched in the College Football Playoff by LSU and Ohio State. Are those just a couple of bad games against great offenses, or is there cause for concern and a need to make some changes? We haven’t talked with Venables since the Sugar Bowl. It will be interesting to hear if he plans to change anything with his aggressiveness or scheme.

5. What happens at receiver?

“Wide Receiver U” obviously has plenty of talent, but there are also some question marks. Where is Justyn Ross at in his recovery after undergoing surgery for a congenital fusion in his spine last June? Is Joseph Ngata fully healthy and finally ready for a breakout year? Can Frank Ladson overcome his problem with drops and reach his potential as a speedy deep threat? E.J. Williams and Brannon Spector should battle for the starting slot receiver job. Who wins out there? Sophomore Ajou Ajou and freshmen Dacari Collins and Beaux Collins are highly touted prospects who could see the field right away. Talent isn’t an issue, but it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.