College football never ends, and during the next few weeks teams will be getting ready for the 2013 season in their spring practice sessions. Here's a look at the Clemson Tigers and what they'll be working on this spring.
Spring practice begins: March 6
Spring game: April 13
2012 record: 11-2 overall, 7-1 ACC
Returning starters: 13 (seven offense, six defense)
The Least You Should Know about Clemson This Spring
-- Looking for new playmakers at the skill positions. Yes -- Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, and four offensive line starters return from an offense that ranked in the Top 10 nationally for both scoring and total offense. But that does not mean the Tigers are ready to step on the field and continue their tear through the ACC. Clemson's offense is most dangerous with a balanced attack that keeps defenders guessing during an up-tempo drive. Andre Ellington's rushing and DeAndre Hopkins' versatility -- both a possession receiver and deep threat -- spread defenses thin and allowed Boyd to play the numbers game from the line of scrimmage. Watkins is expected to see a boost in his production after a disappointing 2012 season, but Clemson needs new faces to step up this spring to maintain a balanced offensive attack. Redshirt senior Rod McDowell and junior D.J. Howard are likely the front-runners to step in at running back, but Zac Brooks should also get a look after getting 124 yards on 26 carries as a true freshman in 2012. Adam Humphries will see an increased workload at wide receiver after totaling 41 receptions as a sophomore last season, but Charone Peake and deep threat Martavis Bryant also know that there is more to go around with Hopkins gone and Boyd improving. The coaches could choose to shuffle players around well into the fall, but spring will be the first time to see if one player separates himself from the group.
-- The defense looks to take another step forward under Brent Venables. Clemson hired defensive coordinator Brent Venables from Oklahoma to help improve a unit that could not keep up with the surging offense. Any high-scoring offense will have an effect on its defensive teammates, but the Tigers took a noticeable step forward in Year 1 under Venables' leadership. Clemson ranked first in the ACC in opponent red zone conversions, allowing just 23 touchdowns and 10 field goals in 44 attempts on the season. The bend-but-don't-break strategy does not always provide fruitful results, but keeping opponents from the end zone is just enough when the offense is averaging 41.0 points per game.
So what is next for the Tigers defense? Officially only six starters return from last season, but due to eight different starting lineup combinations there are 10 players with at least five starts in 2012. Included in that group are linebackers Spencer Shuey and Stephone Anthony, along with three returning starters on the defensive line: Corey Crawford, Josh Watson and Grady Jarrett. There are high expectations this season for Travis Blanks at the safety/linebacker hybrid position, but there are depth concerns that can be addressed this spring in the secondary.
-- After offseason interest from other schools, Chad Morris is back. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris reportedly interviewed for multiple head coaching jobs after the 2012 regular season, but the mastermind of the Tigers' prolific offense opted not to pursue any of the opportunities -- at least not publicly. When Morris' name was attached to openings at Texas Tech and NC State, coach Dabo Swinney explained that "it's a Clemson offense, not a Chad Morris offense." That said, this could be Morris' last spring practice installing the "Clemson offense," making it one of the last great teaching periods for the highly-touted coordinator. Boyd has arguably the best understanding of anyone on the roster, but there is a heated competition for the No. 2 spot between Cole Stoudt and redshirt freshman Chad Kelly. Stoudt performed well in backup duty over the last two seasons, but Kelly was hand-picked by Morris in the 2012 recruiting class. Boyd will likely leave Clemson as one of the program's most successful quarterbacks, but the future of the offense -- both at the coordinator and coaching positions -- is a storyline to follow over the next several months. Swinney says there is always a backup plan, and we might see that take shape during spring drills and early in fall camp.
-- Are fresh faces ready to make an impact? Swinney's efforts on the recruiting trail should be credited as one of the primary reasons for the Tigers' return to the national spotlight. It seems that in each class, Swinney and his staff identify a few players who have instant-impact potential and let them loose early. Two years ago Watkins took the nation by storm as a true freshman. Last season it was Blanks joining the program and quickly becoming a centerpiece of the defense at the safety/linebacker/nickel position. Defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Ebenezer Ogundeko, two freshmen who could work their way into the rotation this fall, have enrolled early and are participating in spring practice. The staff is excited to see what they can bring this spring, while having to wait until cornerback MacKensie Alexander and running back Tyshon Dye officially join the program.
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