CLEMSON — Let’s just get this out of the way, pronto: Tajh Boyd will be the starting quarterback for Clemson, and he’s probably going to put up some big numbers.
What a blessing it is for “quarterback controversy” to be a foreign language as the Tigers begin their fifth fall camp under head coach Dabo Swinney on Friday.
Clemson knows who’s throwing the ball, knows he’ll have one elite receiver (Sammy Watkins) and several capable sidekicks to catch it, and knows any scoring average south of 30 points per game is a sizeable disappointment.
So, just coast through practices under the August heat and line ’em up for the Georgia Bulldogs, right?
Concerns remain for the ACC’s preseason darling and dark horse national championship contender. We don’t have answers to these five questions for you, nor will we try to prognosticate. Good news, though: the solutions are completely under Clemson’s control.
1. How will the Tigers handle the hype?
College GameDay hasn’t officially announced where it will debut this year, but it’s the worst-kept secret ever that Death Valley will be the site when No. 5 Georgia plays No. 8 Clemson on Aug. 31. Either way, it’s a massive opener, and because the media mongrels get more than one week to preview the showdown, the players absolutely will hear more about it than they might have wished. Clemson can’t forget there are at least 11 games after Georgia, so the onus has to be on improving every facet of football, not just zoning in on one particular opponent or basking in the spotlight of ever-increasing attention.
2. Will there be one workhorse tailback, or a committee?
If offensive coordinator Chad Morris and running backs coach Tony Elliott lived in a perfect world, they’d see “Hot Rod” Roderick McDowell grab the reins as a clear No. 1 ballcarrier. (Actually, in a perfect world, they’d fetch Andre Ellington a sixth year of eligibility. Or bring C.J. Spiller back.) Early on, the coaches are leaning toward the likelihood of shared handoffs between McDowell, D.J. Howard, Zac Brooks and perhaps either/or freshmen Tyshon Dye and Wayne Gallman. This much we know: Boyd can’t (and won’t) tuck and run 28 times a game.
3. Does Isaiah Battle have what it takes to push Brandon Thomas over to guard?
Rarely do you see coaches openly call out specific players — especially young, hyped ones — but Battle was relatively raked over the coals two weeks ago for not proving in spring practices he was ready to assume the throne at left tackle. Brandon Thomas was a 2012 1st-team all-ACC blocker, but Clemson’s offensive line would fare better with him moving to guard and pairing him with the gargantuan Battle on the left side. Battle’s focus and footwork have to catch up with his 6-6, 280-pound frame, and he might need half of another season to truly “get it.”
Don’t forget, Clemson’s got to figure out a center to replace Dalton Freeman, too. But Morris is incrementally more confident in either Ryan Norton (who’s been working the most with Boyd) or Jay Guillermo than he is in Battle.
4. The defensive line is experienced, but is it prepared to win the line of scrimmage?
You can’t replace the leadership and reps you get out of Grady Jarrett and Josh Watson, Corey Crawford’s primed for a bounceback year, and Vic Beasley’s a breakout candidate, and all four of those names are juniors, so what’s not to like, right? Here’s what: 58th in rush defense last year, and 21 rushes of at least 20 yards (more than 100 FBS teams allowed less than that.)
There are some quality figures here, in that the Tigers do get sacks and were reasonably stout on third down, but there’s a difference between being a good defense and being a championship defense. Clemson has to realize that, and the ballyhooed opener against quarterback Aaron Murray and tailback Todd Gurley provides an immediate litmus test. The D-Line isn’t filled with question marks, but it’s not yet a position of exclamation points.
5. Will the young defensive backs be called into action to replace veterans?
Eight defensive backs reported to WestZone Club headquarters Thursday for the first time as official Tigers, including the college-ready cornerback Mackensie Alexander. A little warning, young Mackensie and mates: defensive coordinator Brent Venables is rooting against you. It’s nothing personal; it’s just that Venables would much prefer his third-year (Robert Smith, Martin Jenkins) and fourth-year players (Darius Robinson, Bashaud Breeland) be the ones tangling with the speed of Georgia and Florida State rather than those first-year prospects. The rookies can give themselves a chance by showing they can handle football at an ACC level. But what they can’t affect is older players doing what Venables demands and forcing youngsters to wait their turn regardless.