College football spring practices have been in full swing around the country, and now the time has come for these teams to finish up their sessions with the annual spring games. One of the most anticipated scrimmages on the calendar is up first as Clemson concludes its first spring session of the post-Trevor Lawrence era on Saturday in Death Valley.
Replacing the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft would be much more stressful if not for the presence of D.J. Uiagalelei, who not only carries a five-star recruiting background and first-round ceiling of his own, but already proved his ability against top competition during his freshman season while Lawrence missed two games following a COVID-19 diagnosis. Uiagalelei and the offense, which also loses two-time ACC Player of the Year and record-shredding all-purpose running back Travis Etienne, will be of most interest to fans. But there's intrigue all over the field for a team that will again be considered among the frontrunners in the College Football Playoff race for 2021.
Clemson's spring game is a true scrimmage with an Orange team and a White team that both include projected starters. Uiagalelei will be the starting quarterback for the Orange team, where he will be joined by starting defensive tackle Tyler Davis and two of the top young candidates expected to push Lyn-J Dixon for the starting running back job in Kobe Pace and five-star freshman Will Shipley. Dixon is suiting up for the White team, along with wide receivers Ajou Ajou and EJ Williams, starting defensive tackle Bryan Bresee and others.
Coach Dabo Swinney works with both teams while defensive coordinator Brent Venables is assigned to Orange and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott is assigned to White. There are more than a dozen notable absences for Saturday's spring game because of injuries or other reasons, including linebacker James Skalski, wide receiver Justyn Ross, defensive lineman K.J. Henry and wide receiver Frank Ladson Jr..
You can view the full rosters for the Orange and White squads at this link here.
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Date: Saturday, April 3 | Time: 1 p.m. ET
Location: Clemson Memorial Stadium -- Clemson, S.C.
TV: ACC Network
1. Defensive front has a chance to be special: The aftermath of giving up 639 yards at 8.8 yards per play in a 49-28 loss to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinals has included a lot of questions about Clemson's defense. The Tigers were dominant on that side of the ball for much of the season, but against Notre Dame (the first time) and Ohio State, the results appeared as outliers. The good news for Clemson fans is that the defensive front has a chance to not only take a step forward be elite.
The talent is there, and now young players who were forced into extra work because of injuries enter the upcoming season with more experience and a hunger to improve. Unfortunately, the impact of injuries has remained through spring practice as Xavier Thomas has dealt with some protocol limitations and a shoulder injury, plus K.J. Henry hasn't taken any live reps after being ruled out for spring practice back in February. While their absences have continued the development for Clemson's defensive line depth, the most exciting note from defensive coordinator Brent Venables is that the starters -- and stars -- of that group have had terrific springs.
"Probably the most improvement I've seen from any two guys on our defense is Tyler Davis and Bryan Bresee," Venables said this week, via 247Sports. "They've had terrific springs. If we are going to be what we all hope we can be going into next year man, it starts with those guys."
Davis and Bresee are All-ACC level players the moment they set foot on the field and each have the potential to play at an All-American level. We won't see them rack up sacks against their teammates in the spring game format, but I bet they're going to cause some headaches for the opposing defensive line.
2. Sorting out the pecking order at the skill positions: One of the most exciting announcements coming out of Clemson this spring was Dabo Swinney confirming that Justyn Ross, who missed all of 2020 following a diagnosis of a congenital fusion in his spine, was working out with the team as a non-contact participant and hoped to be medically cleared to suit up for fall camp and be on the field when the Tigers start 2021 against Georgia in Charlotte. Many feared that Ross, who totaled 1,865 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns in his freshman and sophomore seasons, might not play again. But if a follow-up appointment with doctors in June goes well, he could be one of the most important pieces to Clemson's pursuit of a seventh-straight College Football Playoff appearance.
The absence of Ross opened the door for a handful of highly-recruited young players to emerge, but nagging injuries and other issues left the Tigers relying on two seniors, Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell, as the primary targets at wide receiver. Rodgers and Powell are gone, and Ross and Frank Ladson Jr. won't be playing in the spring game, so all eyes will be on those talented underclassmen in the passing game. E.J. Williams came on strong late during his freshman season in 2020, and Ajou Ajou put together a highlight-reel catch-and-run during the rout of Georgia Tech. But keep your eye on the freshman (notably Beaux Collins) who have reportedly made a strong impression on their teammates this spring.
While wide receiver is a more interesting discussion because of the number of options, arguably the more important position to fill is running back. Etienne was not only the anchor of the ground game but the team's third-leading receiver in each of the last two seasons. Replacing his production might take a committee, and that's where it will be interesting to track the pecking order between Etienne's longtime backup Lyn-J Dixon, redshirt freshman Kobe Pace and true freshman Will Shipley.
3. Testing the depth at quarterback: When Lawrence had to miss two games in the middle of the season, Clemson was fortunate to have a player like Uiagalelei there to step up. But what if the Tigers have to go to his backup in 2021? Taisun Phommachanh is the expected starter for the White team, and thanks to a couple of blowout wins in his young career, the redshirt sophomore has seen action in seven career games. But in terms of the spring game, that's about it because redshirt freshman Hunter Helms (who did throw for two touchdowns against Georgia Tech last year) is listed on both the Orange and White rosters. Depending on how much work the Clemson coaches put on Uiagalelei's plate, there could be a lot of time for Phommachanh and Helms to show off their potential in the game.