Tigers ready for ‘final exam’ in spring game

Quarterback Nick Schuessler throws a pass during Clemson’s spring game last year. (AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail, Mark Crammer)

CLEMSON — Jeff Scott doesn’t take the importance of spring games for granted.

“Absolutely. It’s kind of like a final exam,” said Clemson’s co-offensive coordinator. “All these practices are different days in the class, and now it’s the final exam of the spring. Some of these guys can make plays on the practice field, but when they get in the game setting, other guys actually do better. I’m looking forward to seeing how guys respond.”

Although Saturday’s Orange-White scrimmage is one of 15 practices, the fact it is the only publicly viewed of those 15 sessions isn’t the only way it differentiates from the rest of spring football. Clemson coaches could make significant personnel decisions based on what they see Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.

The Tigers’ staff has split up the Orange and White rosters evenly, so it won’t be the first string vs. the second string. Such a move places extra emphasis on individual evaluation over unit chemistry.

“It’s one thing to do it out here in scrimmages, when it’s just us out here on the practice field,” Scott said. “All of a sudden, you get some fans in the stands and everybody’s off the field and you’ve got cameras and everything out there, seeing if the guys that we’ve really challenged to take the next step have made a lot of progress this spring.”

The score of Saturday’s scrimmage is inconsequential. The biggest questions facing the national championship runner-up revolve around the second cornerback spot, the defensive end rotation and offensive backups, particularly at quarterback.

While senior Cordrea Tankersley (five interceptions in 2015) is expected to keep his starting spot at boundary corner, there is a three-man race to replace Mackensie Alexander at field corner. Based on the scrimmage rosters, sophomore Mark Fields will be assigned to All-American wideout Artavis Scott, while fourth-year juniors Ryan Carter and Marcus Edmond will audition against Hunter Renfrow and sophomore Ray-Ray McCloud.

Quarterbacks won’t be hit Saturday, but which defensive ends infiltrate the backfield will be another storyline Saturday. Austin Bryant, Richard Yeargin and Clelin Ferrell are jockeying for starting spots, while sophomore defensive tackle Christian Wilkins is also seeing time at end.

Meanwhile, Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson will quarterback both squads. After a few series, Watson is expected to trade in his helmet for a ballcap and watch the battle unfold for the position of his primary backup in 2016.

“We all get along, we all compete, and make sure we make each other better,” Watson said. “There’s no negative vibes. They’re all competing and making me better, making themselves better.”

Senior Nick Schuessler, a former walk-on, was listed as Watson’s understudy for most of 2015, though by the end of the year it was sophomore Kelly Bryant finding himself in a position to run in for Watson if needed. The 6-3, 200-pound Schuessler took the majority of first-team reps in the spring of 2015 while Watson was injured, but in the 2015 season Bryant (6-3, 215) totaled made more of an impact with 156 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Pro-style redshirt freshman Tucker Israel (5-11, 195) rounds out the pool of candidates.

“Nick is just steady-eddie. He’s a good football player, and we’re dang glad we got him,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “He’ll shock the heck out of you because he runs better than people think. He’s just a very smart, savvy, instinctive guy.

“I’m very proud of Kelly. He got a little bit of experience last year. He’s wired exactly like Deshaun Watson; the only difference is his foundation wasn’t what Deshaun’s was coming in here. But man, he loves it, and he wants to be great.

“Tucker, same thing. You put him in there, and he just kind of moves the team. He’s got a knack for making plays. He can make some throws from awkward positions. He’s got a long way to go before he’s ready to win for us. But he’s improving.”

Bryant, quarterbacking the Orange squad, will have 2015 leading rusher Wayne Gallman and Adam Choice in his backfield, throwing to Renfrow, McCloud and tight end Jordan Leggett. For the White squad, Schuessler and Israel have at their disposal receivers Artavis Scott and Trevion Thompson and tight ends Cannon Smith and Milan Richard.

“It’s a good, healthy competition,” Swinney concluded. “Those guys have done some good things.”