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Clemson spring football: 5 questions Tigers face as practice begins

Clemson Spring Game 2018 (copy)

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence launches a pass during the team's 2018 spring game. The Tigers have no questions about who will be their starting quarterback when spring practice begins Wednesday. Gwinn Davis/Special to The Post and Courier

CLEMSON — Not quite 50 days have passed since Dabo Swinney hoisted his second national championship trophy in three years some 3,000 miles away in Northern California.

The game was played Jan. 7. Four days later, Swinney and Co. were back to work.

In a sport that is always looking ahead to what's next, Swinney is no exception. And now "what's next" is here. Clemson starts spring practice Wednesday, the first look Swinney and his staff will get of the 2019 squad set to play its spring game April 6.

As the Tigers gear up for quarterback Trevor Lawrence's sophomore season, here are five questions the team will look to address.

1. Where do the new defensive tackles stand?

Swinney said earlier this month that his two starting defensive tackles, Jordan Williams and Nyles Pinckney, will miss spring practice because of injuries. Pinckney has an issue with his pectoral muscle and decided to proceed with surgery. Williams, playing intramural basketball earlier, injured his leg. With superstar tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence headed to the NFL, along with backup Albert Huggins, the Tigers are thin at defensive tackle.

Pinckney and Williams likely have promising Clemson careers ahead of them once they are healed and they should be ready by the summer.

In their place, Swinney is going to have to experiment with a plethora of freshmen. If the newcomers aren't ready now for Clemson's veteran offensive line, they will need to get there quickly. Xavier Kelly, Darnell Jeffries and early-enrollee Tyler Davis are all options, but uncertainty remains.

2. Who steps up at linebacker?

In Tre Lamar and Kendall Joseph, Brent Venables is losing two of his starting linebackers and in J.D. Davis he loses another body with experience. Leading tackler Isaiah Simmons, a former safety converted to linebacker, returns and that is big news for the Tigers. But replacing both the efficiency and the leadership Joseph and Lamar gave to Clemson's defense will be no easy task.

Clemson will look to James Skalski to step up, as well as Chad Smith and Shaq Smith. Swinney seems particularly excited about Shaq Smith, a redshirt junior who started to make his contributions on special teams early in his career.

"I can't wait to see Shaq Smith run out there this spring with that first group," Swinney said. "Let's just see what him and ole Skalski and Isaiah Simmons can do."

3. Does Clemson switch up its receivers?

Hunter Renfrow, the 2016 national championship hero for the Tigers, is finally moving on. At last, Alabama fans can rejoice in knowing he is officially out of eligibility.

With Renfrow gone, there is a spot open in the slot, which has many wondering how Clemson is going to handle its wide receivers. Given how talented Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins both are downfield, it's likely receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott will want both of them on the field at the same time. That would mean Higgins would be the 9-man, Ross could be across him as the 2-man and Amari Rodgers could slip into the slot position as the 5-man.

Like Renfrow, Rodgers can be slippery and plays lower to to the ground than Ross and Higgins. It would make sense and could be an option the Tigers seriously explore with Derion Kendrick there to back Rodgers up at the slot.

4. Does Will Spiers have some competition?

Will Spiers, the Clemson punter, had moments where it clicked for him in 2018 and other glaring moments where he struggled. Clemson has signed a left-footed punter who is ranked among the nation's top 5 punters by most recruiting services, though ESPN ranks him No. 16.

Aidan Swanson, though young, could give Spiers a run for his money in the way that B.T. Potter gave Clemson kicker Greg Huegel a run for his. Potter won the kickoff job and kept it all season.

Swanson averaged 42.3 yards per punt in high school at the prestigious IMG Academy. Spiers averaged 39.7 for Clemson.

5. Is this the beginning of another College Football Playoff run?

It is no secret what Clemson is losing on the defensive side of the ball, but on offense the Tigers have one of the most talented groups in the country.

Lawrence is back at quarterback and his supporting cast is back as well. The Tigers' offense features Higgins, Ross, Rodgers and ACC Player of the Year Travis Etienne, one of the most explosive running backs in the nation.

Spring practice is about building a foundation and giving  coaches a true glimpse of what they are working with for the first time.

Is this another College Football Playoff team? Odds say yes. Clarity is on the way.

Follow Grace Raynor on Twitter @gmraynor

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