Three takeaways from the Orange’s 17-9 victory over the White squad in Saturday’s spring finale at Memorial Stadium:
Don’t read too much into spring game
The teams were evenly split, so players who hadn’t lined up together all spring were trying to communicate and make plays. Guys who will never see a snap in the fall saw action got a lot of reps, and the first-team offense didn’t go against first-team defense. That doesn’t mean there weren’t important teaching moments and player evaluations, but what occurred Saturday isn’t too much of a harbinger for the 2016 season. Clemson will definitely score more than 26 points per game next year.
While there’s not a definitive depth chart set yet, from what we’ve heard coaches say all spring and what we saw in the game, it’s clear there will be a ton of young talent being called upon. In the spring game, over 60 freshmen or sophomores suited up.
The first-team offense, which lost just three starters, is fairly set, but there are several offensive linemen who have a lot to prove at a physical position that demands players to be ready to go at any moment in a game. Defense is where youth is the biggest concern. Coordinator Brent Venables said this spring he doesn’t have his entire roster yet, meaning some of the incoming freshmen class will have to contribute right away to help a rebuilt secondary. That doesn’t mean Clemson won’t be successful in the fall, but the Tigers need those young players to be ready to take that next step after spring ball.
Tigers possess winning attitude
Dabo Swinney raved about his team’s chemistry at this point, and it appears most players are on the same page. Getting within a touchdown of winning the national title will do that to a squad, and that was evident during the spring game in competition. The receivers and defensive backs really battled in one-on-one situations, helped out by a stiff wind that forced a lot of jump balls. There wasn’t much holding back up front as whoever was on the line really went at it. Kick returns and punt returns were live, so special teams got put in very game-like situations.
Player of the game: WR Trevion Thompson
The spring game is all about doing something in limited opportunities, and Thompson did just that with 87 yards on six receptions. For a receiver looking to take the next step and join the likes of Artavis Scott, Mike Williams and Hunter Renfrow in the upper echelon of Tiger pass catchers, Thompson was reliable Saturday and flashed some play-making ability. He didn’t have a touchdown, but showed the kind of progress to his coaches that could earn him some early-season playing time.
Grading the game
This is a difficult unit to truly assess because of how up-and-down the players were on this side of the ball, and the fact that the rosters were split evenly. But even without a true first-team vs. first-team, there was nothing of any concern here. Deshaun Watson was 7-of-11 passing for 141 yards and two touchdowns, including a 61-yard bomb to Ray Ray McCloud, in his four series. Watson didn’t need to prove anything in the spring game, but was in midseason form in early April.
The rest of the QBs were a mixed bag. Nick Schuessler had a decent completion rate (14-of-21), made some good decisions and was helped by some nice plays from his receivers. Kelly Bryant, who’s battling with Schuessler for that backup role, threw two interceptions and still doesn’t look comfortable enough in the pocket, which throws off the timing of the passing game. Swinney called Tucker Israel a “gunslinger” and a guy who looks better in front of a crowd than in practice.
Starting RB Wayne Gallman is averaged over seven yards a carry, and Adam Choice, who missed all of last year after tearing his ACL in 2014, was the standout. He ran hard and showed no signs that he’s still thinking about that injury. C.J. Fuller and Tyshon Dye showed some improvement from last year, but again, it was just one scrimmage.
WR Hunter Renfrow is going to have a monster season, and not because he had five catches for 85 yards and a TD. It’s clear defenses still can’t figure out how to defend him. Offensive line play was really hard to evaluate because of the split rosters, but there were some battles won and lost for every unit up front.
Venables was not happy with his young secondary and made that clear after the game. Too many guys were out of position, and a few got burned deep. Other than that, they played hard and challenged receivers when they were in the right spots. It’s a unit that has a long way to go, but Marcus Edmond showed playmaking ability with an interception that he returned 52.
The linebackers showed no major deficiencies. To see freshman Tre Lamar lead the team with 10 tackles is impressive, and veteran Ben Boulware shot through gaps and made some nice plays.
The defensive line had some really good performances. Defensive ends Clelin Ferrell, who redshirted last year, and Austin Bryant looked unblockable at times. At nearly 300 pounds, Wilkins is a tough assignment when he lines up at end, and he'll bounce back and forth to the inside during the season. Veteran DT Carlos Watkins made some nice plays, and freshman DT Dexter Lawrence, the 2016 class’s prize recruit, is as big and nifty on his feet as advertised.
Special teams: C-
This was Clemson’s biggest overall deficiency last year, and it cost the Tigers a national title. Special teams didn’t look much more improved in the spring game. Sure, Scott had a 32-yard punt return and a 44-yard kick return, but that means the other side gave up some yards. To be fair, with the split squads, it wasn’t the starting special teams units out there. McCloud still doesn’t look like a natural punt returner, although Swinney still wants him to be involved. McCloud had trouble handling one and fell down to end the shaky return. The wind played a factor on punts especially, but the Tigers don’t really have a punter to challenge Andy Teasdall.
Alex Spence missed a 27-yard field goal and an extra point, leading Swinney to call the backup kicker role to starter Greg Huegel his biggest disappointment of the spring game.
Clemson opens the 2016 season at Auburn on Sept. 3. The Tigers from the SEC also held their spring game Saturday, and the Blue team defeated the White team 19-10.