March 4, 2011

Clemson's real work begins in fall

The Clemson team that takes the field for spring practice might not bear much of a resemblance to the squad that suits up for the Sept. 3 opener with Troy.

Starting TB Andre Ellington won't participate in any contact drills this spring as he continues to recuperate from a toe injury that sidelined him for the second half of the 2010 season.

Clemson also should get heavy contributions this fall from freshmen who haven't arrived on campus. The Tigers' heralded freshman class includes four five-star prospects: RB Mike Bellamy, LBs Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward and WR Sammy Watkins. None of the five-star prospects have enrolled, so they won't be participating in spring practice.

But this still is a team that bears watching this spring as it adjusts to a scheme change on offense. Coach Dabo Swinney fired coordinator Billy Napier at the end of last season and replaced him by hiring Chad Morris from Tulsa. Morris plans to install the same spread attack that helped Tulsa rank sixth nationally with 41.4 points per game last season. Morris will try to spark a Clemson offense that averaged just 24.0 points last season to rank 86th in the nation.

Here's a look at where Clemson stands heading into spring practice.

CLEMSON AT-A-GLANCE
Tajh Boyd takes over at quarterback for the Tigers.
THE BASICS
COACH: Dabo Swinney
LAST SEASON: 6-7 overall, 4-4 in the ACC. Lost 31-26 to USF in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
SPRING DATES: March 4-April 9
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
OFFENSE (8): TE Dwayne Allen, WR Jaron Brown, FB Chad Diehl, C Dalton Freeman, WR DeAndre Hopkins, G Antoine McClain, G David Smith, T Landon Walker DEFENSE (6): E Andre Branch, CB Xavier Brewer, LB Brandon Christian, FS Rashard Hall, LB Corico Hawkins, NT Brandon Thompson. SPECIAL TEAMS (2): K Chandler Catanzaro, P Dawson Zimmerman.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH: Clemson should have one of the best offensive lines in the ACC. The Tigers must replace All-ACC T Chris Hairston, but they return their other four starting linemen. Running back should be a major strength in the fall, but it won't look that way this spring. Andre Ellington was one of the ACC's top running backs last season before missing the second half of the season with a toe injury that will keep him out of any contact drills this spring. Clemson signed five-star RB Mike Bellamy, but he won't arrive on campus until this summer.

HELP IS NEEDED: The lack of depth at linebacker has been Clemson's Achilles' heel on defense the past couple of years, and that position remains a concern. The Tigers are hoping the arrivals of five-star prospects Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward this summer will shore up the position. Clemson only has three defensive tackles (Brandon Thompson, Rennie Moore and Tyler Shatley) with any game experience. Clemson returns plenty of receivers, but they didn't produce many big plays last season. The Tigers also are relying on a first-year starting quarterback, though they're confident Tajh Boyd is a quick study who should improve upon the second-half performance of predecessor Kyle Parker last season.

3 GUYS TO WATCH

QB Tajh Boyd: After leading Clemson to an impressive fourth-quarter comeback against USF - the Tigers trailed 31-13 in the fourth quarter of a game they eventually lost 31-26 - Boyd gets a chance to lead the Tigers from the start of the season. The No. 51 prospect in the 2009 recruiting class, Boyd led Hampton (Va.) Phoebus to two state titles while posting a 43-2 record as a starter.

S Bashaud Breeland: This redshirt freshman has the ability to play either corner or safety. Whatever his position, he should end up having a featured role in Clemson's secondary as the Tigers attempt to replace SS DeAndre McDaniel and CB Marcus Gilchrist. Breeland played quarterback and defensive back at Allendale-Fairfax (S.C.) High. He showed his athleticism by winning a state title in the 400-meter hurdles as well as playing football and basketball in high school.

OT Brandon Thomas: Clemson needs to replace Hairston at offensive tackle and could go in a couple of directions. The Tigers could move returning starter David Smith from guard to tackle, or they could decide that Thomas is ready for a first-team assignment as a redshirt freshman. This spring represents Thomas' first chance to impress new offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell, who worked as Vanderbilt's head coach last season.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

WR Marquan Jones: After catching 21 passes for 184 yards and no touchdowns as a part-time starter last season, Jones has much more competition for playing time as he heads into his senior season. DeAndre Hopkins figures to have one starting receiver spot locked up. That leaves Jones battling sophomore Bryce McNeal and redshirt freshman Joe Craig this spring. The receiving unit will get even more crowded this summer when five-star prospect Sammy Watkins and four-star recruits Martavis Bryant and Charone Peake arrive on campus. Jones has impressed the coaching staff with his work ethic, but his 2010 statistics reflect his relative lack of production. He must show this spring he is capable of delivering more big plays.

THE BUZZ

Swinney may have preserved his short-term job security by signing the nation's eighth-ranked recruiting class, but he still must prove he's the right man for the job. Clemson followed up its 2009 ACC championship game appearance by recording its first losing season since 1998 last fall. Swinney's overhaul of the coaching staff has removed most of the remaining connections to the Tommy Bowden regime. This spring should offer the first clues about how Clemson's offense will look under Morris, who had spent his entire career as an extraordinarily successful Texas high school coach before working at Tulsa last season. This spring will allow Morris to take a close look at early enrollees Cole Stoudt and Tony McNeal, one of whom could emerge as the second-team quarterback this fall. While Morris' attempts to rejuvenate a slumbering offense will get most of the attention, Clemson also must figure out how to replace All-America DE DaQuan Bowers, who likely will be one of the top two picks in the upcoming NFL draft. Just keep in mind that quite a few players who could make a major impact on Clemson's 2011 season won't even be participating in spring practice.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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