Now that Clemson has technically completed August camp, figured it might be worthwhile to reassess where the Tigers stand headed into game-week preparations for next week’s opener against No. 24 Alabama in the Georgia Dome.
A few thoughts for the glass half-full crowd and the glass half-empty crowd:
Four reasons Clemson fans should be encouraged:
1. The Tigers have survived thus far with no debilitating injuries. Defensive tackle Rashaad Jackson was valuable for his high-motor, but he probably ranked third in terms of talent among the starting four D-linemen. Running back Jamie Harper developed a role, but if the team can’t survive with just James Davis and C.J. Spiller, they weren’t that good to begin with.
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Nearly every scrimmage has amounted to a walk-through for the veteran starters. Now coaches just have to hope the reduced workload hasn’t come at the expense of preparing them for what figures to be a physical opening contest. But all reports have intimated the key offensive stars — Cullen Harper, Davis, Spiller and WRs Aaron Kelly, Tyler Grisham and Jacoby Ford — have looked sharp.
2. The staff believes the two noted liabilities coming into camp – offensive line and linebacker – won’t be nearly as troublesome as people perceive. There may not be an all-conference candidate among this year’s linebacker lot, but they feel they have brought along six viable options that can be mixed and matched to handle whatever the down and distance. NFL defenses have specialty players for specific situations, so why can’t they?
3. By all accounts, the pass-rushing Ricky Sapp many expected to see after a teasing freshman season has arrived. And Clemson has a few tricks up its sleeve to try to maximize its newest toy.
4. Junior offensive lineman Jamarcus Grant is the feel-good story from camp. He was as good as buried on the depth chart and figured to lose the starting left guard battle to redshirt freshman David Smith. Then Smith suffered a dislocated toe that set him distantly back, and Grant seized the opportunity. He’s as light as he has been in college (315 pounds) and playing with confidence and awareness he’d otherwise lacked.
Both of the redshirt freshmen challengers – Smith and Mason Cloy – came out on the short end of their preseason competition for starting spots, but that just might be a blessing in disguise for Clemson in the short term. Neither Grant nor junior right guard Barry Humphries figures to be overwhelmed by the spectacle of what’s to come in the nationally televised Aug. 30 opener. For that game, the Tigers just need guards who avoid making major blunders.
Four reasons Clemson fans should be leery:
1. Clemson’s placekicking still appears shaky at best, and we all know how costly special teams have been the last few years. If I were in Bowden’s shoes, I’d stick with Mark Buchholz, too; I like his grittiness and mental toughness. But the fact remains that none of the kickers have consistently hit their field goals in live practice situations this month. Granted, Wake Forest might be the only team on their schedule with a known kicking commodity, but there are always games that come down to clutch kicks.
2. The flip side of the injury situation: Losing defensive tackle Rashaad Jackson until midseason doesn’t help. Yes, Jackson was a weekly hit-or-miss proposition — a high-motor, energy guy, he either looked great or was benched. But Clemson will miss his experience against Alabama’s underrated center, especially if his replacement, junior Jamie Cumbie, is still hindered by the cast on his broken hand.
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3. Simply the fear of the unknown. Nick Saban brought in Fresno State’s Jim McElwain as new offensive coordinator. But let’s be serious here; this is Saban we’re talking about, and he’s had three puppets OCs in as many years. He’s still going to run most of his preferred packages. It’s determining the ratio of Saban-to-McElwain material that has made game-planning for the Crimson Tide tediously challenging.
This much we kinda know, if reports out of Tuscaloosa are accurate: Tide QB John Parker Wilson, usually erratic in big games and not one to complete a high percentage of his passes, appears much more comfortable in McElwain’s system. McElwain has always been billed as a QB-friendly coordinator, which to me means his QBs’ stats are puffed up by throws requiring little thinking. The offense features a ton of check-downs as a safety net, and that could be a real threat to Clemson’s inexperienced Clemson linebacker corps.
4. I don’t think you can understate the psychological contrast of the two teams coming in. Clemson has been soaking in the buildup to this season for months. Anything less than some type of championship run will be construed as failure. That’s a lot to put on any team’s shoulders, much less one that wasn’t really dominant last season. So does this team play with a chip on its shoulder or play not to lose? I’m no gambler, but is there an over-under on when criticism of offensive coordinator Rob Spence’s conservatism begins?
Conversely, Alabama thrived last year when in the underdog role, and it’s in that spot again. Not saying Clemson shouldn’t be favored, but suggestions this game should be a blowout seem premature. Saban may be a controlling egomaniac, but his teams win and his defenses are stout. In particular, his defenses are technically and fundamentally sound, and they disguise blitzes + coverages deftly. Clemson’s offense will be challenged.