5 storylines to follow for Clemson
CLEMSON -- Beginning next week, Clemson will have 10 practices to regroup for the Dec. 27 Music City Bowl.
While bowl practices are first and foremost important for game preparation, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said they're also critical for player development. Swinney likens the extra practices allotted to a bowl-bound team to a second spring practice.
Here are five storylines to consider as the Tigers prepare to end a three-game bowl skid against Kentucky (7-5, 3-5 SEC).
1. Linebacker controversy?
After allowing nearly 600 combined rushing yards against South Carolina and Georgia, Swinney said defensive personnel changes might be in order during bowl preparation. While he didn't address individual players, the linebacker group seems to be most suspect, and perhaps most responsible for Georgia Tech's ACC title.
Against Tech, Clemson linebackers struggled to get off blocks and make proper reads.
At linebacker, Kavell Conner and Kevin Alexander graduate with only leading tackler Brandon Maye returning as a significant contributor next season. Though Clemson was often in nickel defense, the Tigers require at least one new every-down option at linebacker, and perhaps two if Maye's performance continues to be uneven.
The staff needs to get a further look at freshman linebacker Corico Hawkins, who entered as a decorated recruit but has recorded only 13 tackles this season. In his only extended playing time this season, Hawkins recorded eight tackles and two sacks against Coastal Carolina.
Outside linebacker Tig Willard is a big hitter and figures to be in the mix along with freshman Quandon Christian.
2. Visiting the Tajh
You won't be seeing freshman quarterback Tajh Boyd, a game away from redshirt status, playing in any circumstance in Nashville.
But what the 10 bowl practices might allow is for Boyd to take some more snaps with the regular offense, and spend more time in spring-like scrimmage situations.
With Willy Korn transferring as expected -- though he'll remain the No. 2 quarterback for the bowl game -- Boyd moves up from the scout team quarterback to No. 2 on the depth chart this spring.
With Kyle Parker's football future uncertain due to doubling as a pro baseball prospect, it's important for Clemson coaches to scout Boyd thoroughly and create a plan to appease both Parker and Boyd, because this is the worst-case scenario: a frustrated Boyd transfers next December, and in the summer 2011 a major league team throws a seven-figure signing bonus at Parker.
3. Star search
Not to ruin your day, but remember the Music City Bowl is the last time Clemson will have the services of C.J. Spiller, Jacoby Ford and Michael Palmer.
They comprise the team's leading rusher and top three receivers, combining for 127 of Clemson's 212 receptions this season and 13 of the Tigers' 22 receiving touchdowns.
While Andre Ellington, Jamie Harper and Roderick McDowell might ease the loss of Spiller the runner, and Dwayne Allen could become an excellent tight end, what of the wide receiving corps?
The staff raved about Jaron Brown, Marquan Jones, Brandon Ford and Brandon Clear at different times this summer and fall, but the quartet has combined for 16 catches. Bryce McNeal might be the most talented of the group, but has redshirted. The Tigers need a player or two to emerge from this group.
4. Staff continuity
It seems Swinney wants to keep at least the majority of his staff together, saying this season he knows he has hired the right coaches. A source said a priority is redoing Kevin Steele's contract -- especially with new television money floating around the SEC. Billy Napier also has likely become more valuable, holding down the offensive coordinator duties in addition to his recruiting abilities.
5. The kicker
In August, Swinney said his greatest concern was at place-kicker. In December, place-kicker remains one of the glaring question marks.
Richard Jackson has proven to be serviceable, but has only one year of eligibility remaining. Spencer Benton has a big leg and three years of eligibility, but needs to display consistency this winter and spring to allay concern.