The Clemson Tigers are officially turning the page on their national championship season and turning their attention toward what poses to be another magical year. With spring practice for the 2017 slate beginning earlier this week, the infectious aura emanating from Clemson’s football facilities, the facilities of national champions, was impossible to ignore.
Visibly excited to get back to work, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney made it clear in his press conference on Wednesday that the reset button had been punched and that 2017 brought with it new challenges that he and his staff are ready to take on headfirst.
“It’s kind of hard to repeat when you don’t have the same team. This is a different team and a different challenge.”
Those challenges that Swinney referenced come in the form of roster decisions, many of them looming as the all-important spring game nears. With four mid-year enrollees seeing their first action as Tigers in key roles at practice, the youth of this year’s team is evident. Highlighted by the reality of nine former Tigers participating in the NFL Combine this weekend, the significant changes slated to take place in the starting lineup for Clemson this season will make for an interesting year.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do because it is a new team,” Swinney said. “You have experience coming back, but it’s a new team, and there are new challenges, new chemistry, new leadership and new roles that have to work out and emerge.”
Despite all of the recent hoopla surrounding the opening of Clemson’s new grandiose football facility, as well as Dabo’s visit to the State House and the unveiling of the highway sign honoring the 2016 national champion Clemson Tigers, this week marked a return to the grind and a new beginning for a Tiger squad featuring plenty of fresh faces hoping to capitalize off of what last year’s team accomplished. Through the first two of 15 total spring practices, several storylines emerged involving what to watch for and what to expect for the remainder of the spring.
Cited as being “definitely the starter” by Swinney, junior quarterback Kelly Bryant received a glowing review from the head coach, as the speedy, multi-dimensional quarterback looks to take over the reins from the departed Deshaun Watson and man the Clemson offense this season. Although Dabo’s remark was merely an indication that Bryant is the starter for spring ball and not necessarily the starter for the season opener, it is safe to say that the job is Bryant’s to lose. However, phenomenal freshmen Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson will be providing chase, looking to push upperclassman Bryant to step up his game during the remainder of the offseason.
Due in large part to the ascension of defensive end Clelin Ferrell late this past season, as well as the recent transfer of senior defensive tackle Scott Pagano, junior defensive lineman Christian Wilkins will move back to his natural position of defensive tackle this coming season. Wilkins played the bulk of this past season at the defensive end spot to make room for then-freshman defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence and to fill the void left by injured defensive end Austin Bryant.
Accentuated by All-American cornerback Cordrea Tankersley’s departure for the NFL and Adrian Baker’s decision to transfer, senior cornerback Marcus Edmond is being looked to for leadership and stability in a young secondary. The same can be said for senior offensive guard Tyrone Crowder, the most experienced offensive lineman for the Tigers. He will be expected to help Justin Falcinelli, the early favorite to be Jay Guillermo’s incumbent at center, come into his own.
Several position battles are in play, including a three-man contest at punter. Jordan Leggett’s replacement as the starter at tight end is up for grabs, with Milan Richard the leading candidate for the job right now. The starting running back spot is an area of question for the first time in a few years, too, although sophomore Tavien Feaster appears poised to earn that role with flying colors.
“I expect him to make a huge step forward,” Coach Swinney said when speaking on Feaster’s outlook. “I think he will be a big-time factor for us.”
All in all, the spring is shaping up to quite the eventful one in Tiger Town. After experiencing relatively quiet springs these past two years because of the bevy of proven veteran star power sported by Clemson’s roster, the Tigers are set to undergo a major turning of the tide as they progress toward what should be an exciting 2017 season.
Swinney and his staff have been through this before, however, and have consistently produced by way of impressive on-field results. This year should be no different, with the Tigers eager to return to the College Football Playoff for the third consecutive season and primed to do just that.