CLEMSON — Four months ago, when Clemson's spring football session came to an end and Dabo Swinney's coaching staff had all summer to make sense of what exactly his 2018 football team would be working with, there was one glaring area that made the Tigers uncomfortable.
Offensively, Clemson has more viable weapons than there are spots on the field. Up front, the entire monstrous defensive line is back in place. Special teams has healthy competitions underway at this very moment.
But the secondary — particularly the cornerbacks — concerned Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables to the point where Venables seemingly didn't want to talk about it much during the spring period.
"Check back with me later," Venables said April 14, the day of the spring game.
Well, it's later.
And Venables seems to be feeling infinitely better. The same goes for Swinney.
For that, the duo can thank Mario Goodrich and Kyler McMichael — two freshman corners who have performed better than expected since preseason practice began. Coaches are never sure what to expect when freshmen first arrive on campus. But Goodrich and McMichael have made splashy entrances and given Clemson some much-needed peace.
"Mario and Kyler are just what I hoped they would be. Mario made a one-handed interception (this week) and it was awesome. He technically has a little more to improve on, but I love his coachability," Swinney said.
"Kyler, he's one of the fastest kids we've had come in here. He's explosive and physically is in such a good spot."
Goodrich's interception, which Venables described as resembling a basketball player extending for a rebound and put-back shot, even impressed the defensive coordinator, who is not quick to dish out praise.
The day Venables reacted to his defensive line gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated's magazine with a 'so what?' was the same day he sung the praises of Goodrich and McMichael. Venables doesn't give compliments unless someone has really caught his eye.
Like Swinney, he likes Goodrich's instincts and McMichael's speed, along with his patience.
"Transitionally, he's explosive," Venables said. "Terrific top-end speed."
What Goodrich and McMichael give to this Clemson secondary is a couple of capable bodies who will be crucial down the stretch when the Tigers need to tap into more depth. In Trayvon Mullen, Mark Fields and A.J. Terrell, the Tigers have a strong corners, but it cannot be overstated how important it is for Clemson to have more.
Venables knows that Clemson is still one injury away from returning back to those same depth issues, but he at least has a reason to feel more optimistic now. A pair of 18-year-olds have totally changed the comfort level of the 47-year-old.
"If you got an injury, somebody pulled a hammy, all of a sudden you're back to issues," Venables said. "So we'll see as we start tackling and competing here in a couple of weeks and see how guys are able to sustain where they're at and continue to improve."
But for now? So far so good.
Scrimmage coming Saturday
Clemson will conduct an internal scrimmage in the stadium Saturday morning, the Tigers' first of the 2018 fall camp period. Now that the group is more than a full week in, Saturday will be the first time since the spring game to really evaluate quarterbacks in a more intense setting with coaches on the sidelines instead of the field. Expect all three quarterbacks to get meaningful reps and expect Clemson to look to decipher some key special teams battles, as well.
According to special teams coordinator/tight ends coach Danny Pearman, the battle at kicker is far from settled between Greg Huegel, Alex Spence and newcomer B.T. Potter.
"I think it's really intense. It goes each day," Pearman said of that competition. "There's not a runaway favorite that's out there and nobody's caught him. Each one of those guys has shined at some point so far in the first week of camp."
Punt and kick return
Clemson is still in the process of figuring out who might work with the punt returning and kick returning duties, but one thing will be clear Saturday: wide receiver Amari Rodgers will be first up for the punt returning duties and the Tigers plan to utilize the splashy running backs duo of Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster on kick return again.
Also working at punt return has been wide receiver Derion Kendrick, wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, wide receiver Will Swinney, cornerback Mark Fields and safety K'Von Wallace.