CLEMSON — For months it has been all about speculation and questions.
Thursday marks the beginning of some answers.
Nearly seven months after Clemson’s football team won its second national championship, fall camp officially kicks off this week as the country turns its eyes toward Death Valley to see how the Tigers respond after 2016.
All off-season, Dabo Swinney has fielded questions about what Clemson is missing this year. Gone are Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman, Mike Williams, Jordan Leggett, Ben Boulware, Cordrea Tankersley and Carlos Watkins.
But Swinney has remained steadfast that the group he brings into 2017 has plenty of talent in its own right. For weeks, he has begged reporters to ask him about players on his current roster — not those departed to the NFL — and Thursday, he has his chance. The time has finally come for the outside world to gleen some perspective on the current team Swinney is so passionate about.
Here are five questions Clemson needs to answer ahead of its Sept. 2 season opener against Kent State:
1. Which quarterbacks did their homework?
Swinney and his offensive coaches have reiterated a similar theme: it will be crystal clear if one of the quarterbacks vying for the starting position this season did not do his homework over the summer.
By “homework,” the coaches are referring to how often these quarterbacks studied the playbook and how familiar they got themselves with Clemson’s offense, in addition to the regular training that all the Tigers went through following spring practice. Having been in the system longer, Kelly Bryant, Zerrick Cooper and Tucker Israel have an advantage with scheme, but Hunter Johnson has now had an entire spring under his belt to become more comfortable, too. Chase Brice, the freshman from Georgia, is starting from scratch, having not enrolled until June.
Coaches are banking on these quarterbacks having a firm grasp on the offense and players can stand out on either end of the spectrum. Those who mastered it will be noticed. Those who are lagging behind will be noticed.
2. How big is the gap between Kelly Bryant and his teammates?
Bryant is still the No. 1 quarterback heading into Thursday’s practice — something that has been repeated publicly dozens of times. Bryant, a junior, has the most experience in Clemson’s system and is close friends with Watson. By virtue of watching Watson every day, Bryant was able to observe and therefore learn in a manner that was not possible for Johnson or Brice, who were still in high school last season.
Now that the battle for the starting spot is truly starting, coaches have said the question will be how big the gap is between Bryant and his fellow competitors. Right now, that is an unknown. Johnson seems poised to make a legitimate run at the starting position, but until practice gets underway and coaches have a larger sample size to study, it is difficult to gauge how close the quarterback competition actually is.
3. Will someone distinguish himself at running back?
Gallman played in 42 games at Clemson. He started 37 of them.
All throughout spring practice, when coaches spoke of Gallman, they spoke of a player on an absolute tear to earn the starting job when it was open. It became obvious — quickly — that Gallman distinguished himself from the pack, and as such, he earned the starting nod in 2015 and never looked back. Clemson coaches are wondering if any of their current running backs will do the same this year or if it will be a running-back-by-committee attack.
C.J. Fuller enters the season as the No. 1 back on the depth chart, but coaches have been pleased with what they have seen out of his fellow competitors Adam Choice and Tavien Feaster. Feaster, a sophomore from Spartanburg, has the star power and the flash that Clemson could cling to, but his inconsistency in the past has been what has hindered him. For every flashy play, he’d have one or two mistakes to negate it, coaches explained. Obviously Clemson would love for someone to distinguish himself like Gallman did. If no one does, it will have to be by committee.
4. Is Clemson deep enough at the defensive end position?
Clemson’s defensive line is again set to be another strong suit, perhaps the nation's’ best. But there is a question about depth at defensive end.
Austin Bryant will finally get the nod to start after he backed up Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd as a freshman and after he got hurt as a sophomore. The plan last season was to have Bryant start at defensive end, but a preseason foot injury in August camp sidelined him for the first six games and he never started after.
To adjust, Clemson slid Christian Wilkins in at defensive end from defensive tackle, a plan that worked seamlessly. This year, Wilkins will be back at tackle while Bryant starts at end. If Bryant gets hurt or struggles for whatever reason, the depth behind him isn’t as strong as it is in other areas of Clemson’s defense.
Richard Yeargin, his primary backup, injured his neck in a car accident earlier this summer and will miss the entire season. Lasamuel Davis decided to transfer. Should the Tigers need to put Wilkins back at end for whatever reason, the question then shifts to depth at defensive tackle. A lot rides on Bryant performing and staying healthy.
5. What will the punting game look like?
Andy Teasdall — while not perfect — was consistent. Will Spiers seems next in line to take over the punting duties, so long as he wins the battle. Dabo Swinney is holding one scholarship left for whoever wins the punting battle.
It may seem like Clemson has bigger questions to answer with other departures, but that is what makes the punting game so important. Because of all of the vacancies, Clemson doesn’t have room to struggle on special teams. The incoming punter needs to make the transition as seamless as possible.