Clemson Spring Game Observations
By Brandon Rink
Follow us at Twitter.com/SouthernPigskin. Become a fan at the SouthernPigskin.com Facebook Page
Clemson's annual spring game offered up a mixed bag of results yesterday afternoon.
The defending ACC-champion Clemson Tigers played to the rare (and maybe first ever) double-overtime spring game yesterday, as Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney simply did not want the game to end in a tie.
Ammon Lakip couldn’t match Chandler Catanzaro's 45-yard field goal in the second overtime, as the Orange team earned the 23-20 decision.
Factoring in the usual quirks and overall trivial nature of spring games, a crowd of 28,000 in Clemson Memorial Stadium saw some glimpses of what’s to come, both good and bad, for 2012.
What we learned in Clemson Saturday…
1) Tajh Boyd with an up-and-down day, QB competition forming at backup
There’s no question that Tajh Boyd has come a long way heading into his junior campaign in Clemson, but Saturday’s spring game demonstrated just where he has to improve for the Tigers to take that next step.
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris calls them “impulse decisions.” They are what plagued the Tiger's signal-caller, as he went 20-for-26 with 269 passing yards and a touchdown, but also threw two interceptions.
The first pick wasn’t all Boyd’s fault, as the ball deflected out of the arms of wide receiver Charone Peake into linebacker Spencer Shuey’s hand. The second one was inexcusable, however, as Boyd overthrew a ball across the middle into an area only cornerback Garry Peters could make a play on it.
But the INT's weren’t the only thing to catch the head coach’s eye, as a sack on third-and-goal didn’t sit well with Swinney.
“You don’t take a sack in the red zone on a bootleg,” Swinney said. “Doesn’t happen. Ever, ever. Those are the things that hurt your football team.”
Boyd’s performance was a step in the right direction from last spring though, where he hit just 8-of-24 pass attempts, but Swinney is expecting much, much more from a seasoned player.
“If he was a first-year guy – no big deal, but this is going to be his second year as a starter and we need him to be more consistent and be a great decision-maker,” Swinney said. “When he’s executing the system and he’s dialed in, he’s as good as it gets.”
After holding the backup job largely unchallenged since stepping on campus, sophomore quarterback Cole Stoudt has felt the heat for his spot behind Boyd on the depth chart recently.
One of the surprise players to emerge this spring, freshman greyshirt QB Morgan Roberts, went toe-to-toe with Stoudt yesterday, hitting 14-of-24 passes with a touchdown and an interception. Meanwhile, Stoudt was 14-for-23 with 99 yards passing, a touchdown and an interception as well.
Morris said postgame that Stoudt was "a whisker ahead” in the competition with highly-touted freshman Chad Kelly entering into the mix for fall practice this August.
2) Clemson’s receivers cap a strong spring
By now, you know Sammy Watkins.
But lost in the shadows of Clemson’s 2011 title run was one of 2010’s breakout freshman in DeAndre Hopkins, a product from just down the road from Tiger Town.
Hopkins was the talk of spring football from both Swinney and Morris, and he didn’t disappoint on Saturday, finishing with seven catches for 120 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s just at another level,” Swinney said. “(Hopkins) was clearly the MVP of our team this spring.”
Hopkins' outstanding performance came without the benefit of having Watkins on the same side in the Orange and White spring game. However, when they reunite this summer and fall on the gridiron, the rising sophomore’s presence raises the level of play for the whole Clemson receiver corps.
“When you have a guy that walks in off the street, and plays at the level that (Watkins) plays at – everybody steps their game up,” Swinney said. “…He just creates a standard that they all try to live up to.”
Watkins hauled in six catches for 66 yards yesterday, ranking fourth on the day in yards behind sophomores Charone Peake (five for 75 yards) and Martavis Bryant (seven for 74 and a touchdown).
Stepping into Mackey Award winner Dwayne Allen’s shoes, senior tight end Brandon Ford had six grabs for 57 yards with a touchdown.
3) Tigers’ interior d-line and safety Jonathan Meeks shine
With vanilla offenses and defenses on display, even squads and untouchable quarterbacks for injury concerns, defense is the hardest to judge in a spring game.
That said, the play of Clemson’s young interior defensive line was particularly impressive.
Sophomore defensive tackle Grady Jarrett repeatedly manhandled guards en route to six tackles (four for loss) and two sacks. Fellow sophomore DeShawn Williams posted six tackles and a sack as well.
Clemson is attempting to fill the gap left by NFL-bound defensive tackles Brandon Thompson and Rennie Moore, who combined to produce 6.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss last season.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables isn’t quite as quick to praise his players as Swinney and Morris, but he saw good things from Williams, Jarrett and the rest of the young defensive line.
“I thought the guys were active and playing with good technique,” Venables said. “We’ve got some good young guys – they’ve got suddenness, quickness – decent explosiveness and the ability to use their hands that are pretty natural.”
Safety Jonathan Meeks made his mark in Death Valley with two interceptions (one taken 49 yards to the goal-line) and a near pick-six.
In the new simplified scheme of Venables, Meeks says he’s been freed up to make plays.
“I’m just playing relaxed,” Meeks said. “Possibilities are somewhat limited in this defense so you can showcase your abilities.”
- Rising sophomore running back Mike Bellamy’s day was a mixed bag, rushing for 55 yards on eight rushes, but fumbling at the end of his longest run of the game (23 yards). Fumbles were an issue for him last year, and Swinney referenced earlier this spring that his playing time will depend on how he improves in pass protection. There’s no doubt he’s talented enough to see the field often this season, as he juked one defender out of his shoes on a run Saturday.
- After not missing a competitive kick all spring long, rising junior Chandler Catanzaro hooked two of his final three to end the Orange and White game. However, it bares taking into consideration that they were 52 and 50 yard attempts, respectively. Catanzaro did hit the 45-yard “game-winner” in double overtime and knocked through two more from 20 and 40 yards.
- Early-enrollee punter Bradley Pinion impressed both on punts and kickoffs, competing with senior Spencer Benton for the open punter job this spring. Pinion averaged 44.3 yards per kick, while Benton’s went 38.2 yards per. Swinney called Pinion “a weapon” postgame, but praised Benton as well and said the competition will stretch into fall camp.
- Tiger running back Andre Ellington didn’t play after what Clemson described as “minor” ankle surgery to clean up scar tissue. Swinney said Ellington had a solid spring and the operation was scheduled in advance with the plan that the senior tailback wasn’t playing in the spring game anyway.
- Morris said he has group of seven offensive linemen he is comfortable with going into summer, but wouldn’t name names postgame. Swinney vowed a couple weeks ago the Tigers would have “eight, nine or ten guys ready” for Auburn, so there’s work to go to build up that rotation.