CLEMSON — The Clemson Tigers open fall camp Friday afternoon with all eyes on a captivating quarterback situation, a closer-than-it-might-seem kicking competition, and a loaded defensive line that is a huge reason this team might be the best Dabo Swinney has ever had.
There will be another drama unfolding on the field that will be far-less-publicized but equally important to the success of Clemson's esteemed defense under coordinator Brent Venables. The Tigers have been juggling linebackers and still don't know who will be their starter in the middle.
Clemson coaches made a surprising move after the spring game when they inserted Kendall Joseph, who was the team's weakside linebacker last season, as the first-string middle linebacker heading into fall camp. Joseph replaced Tre Lamar, the starter in the middle last year before injuries put a damper on his season.
The roster switch raises a handful of questions.
It is possible Clemson wants to see if Lamar is fully healthy before making any concrete decisions. It is possible the coaches think Joseph is so versatile that he is good enough to play that position better than anyone else, Lamar included. It is also possible they want to send a message to Lamar as a form of motivation.
How this all shakes out remains to be seen, but Swinney did offer a bit of insight over the summer.
"It's just what Brent felt like gave us the best chance Day 1 — where we felt like we needed to be based on the guys and what they had earned," Swinney said. "(Joseph) is just kind of the quarterback of the group right now and we just wanted to start that way.”
Lamar, who started eight games and had 52 tackles in 2017, is still a bit of a mystery. Despite being medically cleared to play against Alabama in Clemson's Sugar Bowl matchup in January, Lamar was still not totally recovered from the stinger injury he sustained in November. And because he led the media to believe he was 100 percent healthy ahead of the bowl game, questions arose about what his status actually was at the end of the season.
By all accounts, Lamar entered spring practice at full health and nothing has happened since to change his status.That would infer, then, that Venables and Clemson coaches made the decision to put Joseph ahead of Lamar based on something other than Lamar's health.
"I want to work on my pass coverage. Just being more of a field general out there. Just knowing exactly where I'm supposed to be as well as where everyone is supposed to be," Lamar said. "(The injury) was frustrating because you want to be out there with your teammates."
If Lamar is to open the season as the starting middle linebacker, he must prove he is ready and more capable than the ever-versatile Joseph. Clemson coaches rave about Joseph on a regular basis.
"Not many people ask me about Kendall Joseph, but he’s really as good a linebacker we’ve had in my nine years," Swinney said. "He’s smart, he’s crafty, he’s very instinctive, he’s a good tackler, he’s a good teammate. Just a really good football player in the middle that has the chance to kind of be a quarterback."
Stay tuned. A lot can happen between now and Sept. 2, the day Clemson opens the season against Furman.