Position battles to watch
Yes, that means that school is getting to start back, and people are taking their last-second vacations. But that also means that football is back, and it’s time to put the talk of NCAA violations, immodest coaches, the nation’s mounting debt and the major league baseball trading deadline on the backburner for a while.
College football practice begins this week, and Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers will once again return to the practice fields behind Jervey as they begin preparation for the 2011 season. Practice begins on Friday, and even though the temperatures are blazing right now, the competition for some of the spots on the Tiger football team will be just as hot.
Swinney has said that as many as 24 or 25 redshirt freshmen and true freshmen will be battling for jobs, creating the kind of environment of true competition that Clemson hasn’t seen for a while.
The following are some of the position battles that TigerNet will be keeping a close eye on, starting Friday.
OFFENSIVE LINE – There are several battles to watch within the offensive line. Starters are set at left guard [David Smith], center [Dalton Freeman], right guard [Antoine McClain] and right tackle [Landon Walker]. Fifth-year senior Phillip Price, a 6-5, 300-pounder left spring camp with the starting nod at left tackle, but he will be pushed by sophomore Brandon Thomas. Price played just 98 snaps last season, while Thomas, backing up former starter Chris Hairston, was on the field for 136 snaps.
New line coach Robbie Caldwell is also going to have to spend a good deal of camp trying to find depth with his unit. Mason Cloy is a former starter and a reliable backup at center or guard, and the loser of the left tackle battle will be able to provide depth at either guard or tackle. That leaves the unproven Kalon Davis [left guard], Matt Sanders [right guard] and Gifford Timothy [right tackle] to all prove they have what it takes to play. David Beasley and Reid Webster could also push for playing time, and out of the incoming freshmen, Spencer Region looks the most ready to play.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE – The defensive end rotation seems set with Andre Branch and Malliciah Goodman listed as starters and Kourtnei Brown and Corey Crawford listed as their valuable backups. The starting spots at the defensive tackle spots are also set, with seniors Brandon Thompson and Rennie Moore. The intriguing battle here, however, involves Moore and the depth behind him.
Moore is a high-energy guy that moved to tackle from end last year, but Moore is more of pass-rushing specialist than a run-stuffer. At just over 270 pounds, he lacks the size that Jarvis Jenkins brought to the middle last season, and that has led to speculation that if teams are running the ball successfully against the Tigers, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele could move to a 3-4 defense, with Thompson manning the middle.
That opens the door for redshirt freshman Tavaris Barnes, but he also moved over from end and ended the spring at just 265. Tyler Shatley (295) and Josh Watson (270) are also going to push for playing time, and Shatley has the size to be a force. The lack of depth at the tackle spot also means that freshmen DeShawn Williams and Grady Jarrett might avoid redshirts. It will be interesting to see who ends up where on the depth as September approaches.
RUNNING BACK – A healthy Andre Ellington is the starter at running back, but who backs him up will certainly be of concern to Clemson coaches and fans alike. Roderick McDowell is the lone returnee with experience, finishing 2010 as the team’s third-leading rusher after a 32-carry, 160-yard campaign. But he was pushed in the spring by redshirt freshmen Demont Buice and D.J. Howard. The spring game did nothing to sort the three out, either. McDowell finished with 12 carries for 100 yards, Howard was 11-for-97 and Buice was 18-for-102.
Look for Buice to settle into more of a short-yardage role, however, as the coaches try to take advantage of his 225-pound frame. Add in highly-touted true freshman Mike Bellamy, and offensive coordinator Chad Morris has a lot to choose from behind Ellington. Again, the next 29 practices should determine a true pecking order, but Morris has already said that he plans to use all his backs.
LINEBACKER – Upside versus experience.
That small phrase captures perfectly the battles that will be occurring at linebacker this August. The Tigers brought in two 5-star recruits in Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward, and two others in Lateek Townsend and B.J. Goodson that are almost as talented.
Trying to hold down their starting positions are Corico Hawkins, Tig Willard and Quandon Christian, while 2010 reserves Justin Parker and Daniel Andrews try to hold off the new guys plus redshirt freshman Vic Beasley.
Junior Corico Hawkins started last season and ranked third on the team in tackles (71) and second in tackles for loss (10), but a healthy Steward will push for playing time immediately. Steward has talent, size and attitude, a must-have trifecta for a championship-caliber middle linebacker.
An early prediction says that experience wins out in the short run, but upside takes over before too long.
WIDE RECEIVER – Morris has been critical of his returning receivers in the preseason, including questioning the dedication and work ethic of a few. The one thing a veteran doesn’t need is a coach questioning his resolve, especially with so many talented newcomers taking the field Thursday.
Jaron Brown and DeAndre Hopkins have fairly solid holds at their spots for now, but Bryce McNeal and Marquan Jones will be challenged for the slot position from day one by Sammy Watkins. Watkins has that special blend of size (6-1, 190), speed [a spectacular 4.3 40 time], footwork and hands that could make him a starter against Troy.
Brown made some big plays in 2010, but he still finished with just 35 receptions in 13 games, for 435 yards and four scores. Newcomers Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant are both tall and talented, and Bryant possesses the kind of breakaway speed that coaches drool over. Brown has to have the camp of his life to hold these two off.
KICKER - A year ago, Christ Church’s Chandler Catanzaro burst onto the scene in fall camp and took over the kicking duties, winning the job over senior Richard Jackson and sophomore Spencer Benton. Catanzaro made a respectable 14-of-22 kicks in 2010, but it was the misses and when they occurred that drew the most attention. A missed 32-yarder in a three point loss at Auburn; two missed field goals (44 and 36 yards) in a six-point loss at Boston College; and two missed field goals (34, 38) in a three-point loss at Florida St.
This season, Benton will most likely handle the kickoff duties, leaving Catanzaro [who did make all 34 of his PAT attempts] to battle freshman kicker Ammon Lakip for the starting job. Catanzaro has said he made a few small tweaks to his kicking motion, and feels confident he can be the same kicker that won the starting job this time last year, but once again he will have to go out and prove it to the coaches.