Spring ball is in the books for Clemson football as fans got their first taste of the 2019 team on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Death Valley. Over 60,000 fans showed up to watch the Tigers’ spring game, which featured anything but another Trevor Lawrence showcase.
In fact, Lawrence’s Orange squad struggled to move the ball for most of the game. The Orange team amassed less than 200 yards of offense before Lawrence returned to the game in the middle of the fourth quarter and hit newcomer Joseph Ngata for 70 yards on the first play of the drive, which ended in AJ Terrell intercepting Lawrence in the red zone. Lawrence is in no danger of losing the starting role, but the clear performer of the game at the quarterback position was the White team starter, and QB2, Chase Brice. Brice finished 10-for-19 with 165 yards and a touchdown. Saturday’s spring game performance gave me much more confidence in Brice as Clemson’s number two. He looked cool in the pocket and delivered timely passes throughout the game. I expect his growth over the summer and into fall camp to be exponential, and barring injury for Lawrence, Brice should have the second quarterback spot locked down for good.
The freshmen stole the day for Clemson on both sides. The biggest star of the day offensively was early-enrollee Joseph Ngata of the Orange team, who wowed the crowd with some spectacular grabs on his way to five catches and 127 yards receiving. Ngata already looks like one of the favorites to replace Amari Rodgers this season, with his 6-foot-4-inch frame looking to provide Clemson with even more depth at the receiving core. Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross were their normal selves, and freshman Frank Ladson Jr. is as advertised as well. The loss of Rodgers certainly stings, but the Tigers have an immeasurable amount of depth at wide receiver.
The one area offensively that was a little concerning for me was the lack of production from the running game. Both teams combined for an abysmal 108 rushing yards, which is unusual from a ground game that averaged north of 200 yards in most of last season’s contests. Neither Travis Etienne, Tavien Feaster nor Lyn-J Dixon reached 40 yards, and the lone touchdown from the running back corps came from backup Darien Rencher, who had a team-high 35 yards on the ground. I don’t think there should be much concern given that this was a spring game, but one must certainly hope the ground game explodes into 2019 with a bang.
The defense for the Tigers’ played extremely well today. The defensive side of the ball has been the big question for Dabo Swinney’s team following the departure of the famed defensive line along with linebackers Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar. Shaq Smith and James Skalski looked great on the defensive side, while Sheridan Jones was the star for the White team defensively. Jones does not have the looks of a freshman; it would not surprise me if he works himself into a starting position at cornerback. The jump Jones had on his interception was incredible, one that rivals only AJ Terrell’s against Alabama in January. Freshman Joseph Charleston also looked good, which gives me confidence that Clemson will have much better secondary depth this season.
The defensive line for the Tigers will be just fine this season. Will it be the dynamic quartet of Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Bryant? Of course not, but what they leave behind in Xavier Thomas, KJ Henry, Justin Mascoll and Logan Rudolph will still make opposing quarterbacks tremble in fear. Clemson lacks depth on the defensive line, but if the Tigers’ can stay healthy, the sky's the limit for them.
Special teams saw some improvements from last season. Will Spiers will most likely resume punting responsibilities, but freshman Aidan Swanson delivered a few “wows” for the crowd as well, with three punts landing inside the 20. B.T. Potter is going to have over 50 touchbacks. Steven Sawicki also had a really good day, going three-for-three in the field goal category, with two kicks going over 40 yards. Clemson special teams will be an area to keep an eye on through the offseason.
Overall, I believe Dabo and company will be happy with what they saw during the spring game. Trevor Lawrence had a shaky start to the day but we know he is the guy at the quarterback position and will be just fine. Seeing Chase Brice have the game that he did was encouraging. Clemson has maybe the best 1-2 combination at quarterback in the country. The receiving squad will be the Tigers’ best unit again this season, even without Amari Rodgers in action. Freshman Brannon Spector is most likely a cloned version of Hunter Renfrow, which excites me very much.
The player that stuck out to me most defensively was Sheridan Jones. He looked real good Saturday, and I am eager to see what he looks like come August. This defense is young outside of Muse, Wallace, Simmons and Terrell, but they should still be a dominant unit. Most Tiger fans want to see an improvement in the secondary, and I am 100 percent on board with that.
Clemson has the opportunity to be the first repeat champion since Alabama in 2011 and 2012, but repeating as national champions is the last thing on the Tigers’ mind as spring ball closes. We won’t know much more until the fall, but one thing is for sure: Clemson will once again be in the hunt, but this time, they are at the top of the mountain.