CLEMSON -- The Tigers have returned to spring practice this week, continuing the search for new depth, new starters and perhaps new stars. The following are five defensive players to watch this spring.

1. CB Marcus Gilchrist

The defensive staff has downplayed the loss of starting corners Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler, saying they were not often isolated in man coverage.

Still, the pair will be missed, having started 40 games together and both possessing the ability to play on Sundays.

While linebacker remains a problem area, filling the void at corner is the other major question mark on defense. The vacancies make Marcus Gilchrist a key figure.

Some national analysts thought Gilchrist was one of the top 50 corners in the country last season, but the Tigers' depth at the position forced Gilchrist to work as a free safety and as an extra corner.

This spring, the senior is back at his natural cornerback position where he wants to prove he can be an impact defender. Recall, Gilchrist was rated as a top 10 cornerback recruit in 2007.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has been impressed with his work thus far in camp, praising his leadership and toughness.

2. LB Corico Hawkins

The linebacker position caught most of the blame for Clemson's poor run defense down the stretch last season -- and more personnel changes might be on the way.

Hawkins started at middle linebacker at the Music City Bowl and is listed as a co-starter along with incumbent Brandon Maye on the initial depth chart.

Hawkins (5-11, 235) does not possess an ideal size, but the staff likes the sophomore's instincts, and he has added strength. With a virtuoso performance this spring, he could push Maye for the starting middle linebacker position or be a factor at weakside linebacker.

3. DE Andre Branch

Branch was perhaps Clemson's most underappreciated defender last year, finishing eighth in tackles for loss and 12th in total tackles despite never starting a game.

He does not have Ricky Sapp's speed, or Da'Quan Bowers' combination of size and athleticism, but Clemson assistant Chris Rumph said Branch has a great motor, allowing him to make plays "in every game from start to finish."

With Sapp and Kevin Alexander departed, Branch's role figures to expand this year. He's listed as the starting end opposite Bowers and at the very least will again be part of a defensive end rotation with Malliciah Goodman and Kourtnei Brown.

Branch might also have the versatility to play some at linebacker, as Alexander did last fall.

4. CB Xavier Brewer

Even if Gilchrist and Byron Maxwell lock down the starting cornerback positions this season, it would still be just a one-year solution, as both players are seniors.

Brewer has three years of eligibility remaining and could become a vital asset as a nickel corner this season. Clemson played three times as many snaps last season in nickel packages as they did in traditional seven-man fronts.

5. S Jonathan Meeks

Some thought Meeks might challenge for playing time last year as a highly regarded freshman stepping onto campus when former starting safeties Mike Hamlin and Chris Clemons were departing.

This spring, let's call Meeks a post-hype sleeper.

DeAndre McDaniel and Rashard Hall are locked in as the starting safeties, but Meeks could emerge as the third option this season, and has the size and skills to be a quality starter in 2011 and beyond. Swinney has praised Meeks' work early this camp.

Reach Travis Sawchik at tsawchik@postandcourier.com and check out his Clemson blog at www.postandcourier.om/blogs/tiger_tracks.