The Clemson Tigers are now a week away from what should be a highly eventful, highly intriguing Orange and White Game. With roster questions still aplenty, this past week of spring practices brought with it an even clearer reality that the 2017 Tigers are going to perhaps be the deepest team in the nation.
The quarterback battle, originally considered a two-man competition, has become a three-way battle for the starting gig, and how the three top candidates fare in next weekend’s Spring Game could very well determine who the signal-caller is heading into fall practice.
Kelly Bryant, the leader of the race right now, played well in Wednesday’s scrimmage, going 8-14 for 94 yards and scoring a touchdown on the ground, as well. Bryant has primarily used his impressive speed and uncanny pocket presence to make his case as the best man for the starting job, but true freshman Hunter Johnson is coming on strong and could have a Deshaun Watson-esque freshman campaign ahead of him.
Johnson, an early enrollee, joined the Tigers in January and has already turned heads with his stellar play in practice. A prodigy at quarterback in high school, the pro-style gunslinger boasts a great arm and a knack for leading an offense that is befitting of a quarterback well beyond his years.
Johnson earned the praise of Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott after a marvelous showing in the mid-week scrimmage, with Elliott telling reporters, “We saw him extend plays with his legs. He looked confident in the pocket and made throws to put some drives together.”
Surprisingly, Johnson has come on strong enough to outplay Zerrick Cooper recently. Cooper, a redshirt sophomore, still has his unique strengths that could aid his hunt for the starting job, but Johnson appears to be coming along at a much quicker pace than him.
Another heated competition is taking place at the punter spot, with last season’s starter, Andy Teasdall, exhausting his eligibility. Will Spiers has been performing well throughout spring ball and earned recognition from Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney for doing so. “Will Spiers won the day,” Swinney said after Wednesday’s scrimmage. “All throughout the spring, he’s been a little bit ahead.”
Also on special teams, a new starting long snapper is needed in order to replace the now-graduated David Estes. Austin Spence is the likeliest replacement, but Patrick Phibbs is providing chase. The lack of experience between the two could require a close eye to be fixated on kicking tries early on this coming season, which is an area that has been relatively automatic for Clemson in recent years.
Clemson’s wide receivers have, as expected, shown out throughout spring practice. Youngsters T.J. Chase and Cornell Powell have both hauled in some impressive grabs as of late, and veterans Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow have been as good as expected.
Cain seems to be garnering more of a leadership role as practice progresses, consistently working conspicuously hard to run his routes to perfection. He proved to be an X factor late this past season, primarily due to his ability to shed defenders downfield with his blazing speed and uncanny ability to toe the sideline while running routes. With a new starting quarterback set to settle in under center, Cain will be needed early on to help whomever that may be settle into a rhythm.
Fitting the bill of the last couple of seasons, the 2017 Tigers will boast plenty of depth and versatility in the secondary. Veterans Ryan Carter and Van Smith are back in the fray to likely man key starting positions. Other younger defensive backs are expected to make an impact for the Tigers this coming season, too, including Trayvon Mullen and K’Von Wallace.
Wallace played mostly at the nickelback and backup safety positions last year, making his most significant plays on special teams. This season, though, Wallace is slated to move back to his original position of boundary cornerback, where he could compete for starting time.
All in all, the competition has been very healthy for Clemson thus far this spring, with practices having an added feeling of competitiveness and urgency. So many veterans departed the team after the conclusion of the 2016 season that many of the areas on Clemson’s depth chart are up for grabs in terms of who can step up and make a major impact.
Swinney said it all when speaking to the media following Wednesday’s scrimmage, providing an overall feel of the way that spring practice has unfolded when he giddily stated, “It’s been competitive, and it’s going to continue to be competitive.”
With both Michigan State and Oregon’s coaching staffs visiting this past week to soak Clemson’s spring practice efforts in, it was obvious that the consistent level of top-notch football produced by the Tigers under Swinney has solidified their national reputation as one of the utmost prestige.
The Spring Game will put that on full display as the Orange Team and the White Team duke it out in attempt to clear up some of the cloudiness surrounding the position battles next Saturday in a game that should foreshadow what will likely be another special season in Tiger Town.