Questions facing Clemson as spring football begins

Coach Dabo Swinney knows he’s got plenty of work ahead of him if Clemson hopes to contend for a crown next fall.

Clemson begins spring football practice with high hopes and higher expectations after wrapping up the 2012 season with a dramatic bowl victory over LSU in Atlanta.

A number of returning starters along with experienced backup players and talented newcomers will gather inside the new indoor practice facility at 4 p.m. today for the first spring practice. Quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins are back to lead the offense, which will be supported by four returning starters on the offensive line. The majority of defensive contributors return in addition to eight of the staff’s nine coaches.

Still, there are position battles to be won and new names likely to emerge during the spring’s 15 practices that culminate with the spring game April 14.

For five questions Clemson must address this spring, see Page C4

After years of playing behind star tailback Andre Ellington, Roderick McDowell is now the frontrunner. McDowell averaged 5.4 yards per carry last season. He will be pushed by Zac Brooks, who is the most physical runner in the backfield, and D.J. Howard. True freshmen Tyshon Dye and Wayne Gallman arrive in the summer.

Clemson needs a balanced offense, and quarterback Tajh Boyd can’t afford to run the ball 27 times per game like he did against LSU. This spring is McDowell’s chance to grasp the No. 1 position.

For the fourth straight spring, there is no quarterback controversy. Boyd is locked in as the starter, but the battle for the backup quarterback position figures to be interesting. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said sophomore Cole Stoudt enters the spring as the No. 2 quarterback, but redshirt freshman Chad Kelly was hand-picked by offensive coordinator Chad Morris and was a more highly rated recruit. Swinney said Kelly “turned heads” with his athletic ability last fall. The winner of the competition could be the frontrunner for the starting job once Boyd graduates.

Clemson’s greatest weakness at the end of last season was its depleted secondary. Clemson was down both of its starting corners (Darius Robinson and Bashaud Breeland) by the end of the season because of injuries. Martin Jenkins, one of the top defensive backs in 2011, was out after undergoing hernia surgery prior to the season. All three defensive backs are healthy now, and the Tigers welcome eight new defensive backs from its signing class. No area of the team should be more improved.

Clemson is losing a highly productive star in receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who set school records with 82 catches, 1,405 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. While Clemson isn’t expecting one player to come near those lofty heights, the Tigers do need a receiver to take some pressure and attention off of Watkins. There are a number of candidates to become Boyd’s No. 2 target, including Martavis Bryant, Charone Peake and Germone Hopper. This should be the most heated competition during the spring.

Four members of Clemson’s 2013 class will participate in spring practice, including a pair of four-star defensive ends in Shaq Lawson, who was part of the 2012 class but didn’t immediately qualify, and Ebenezer Ogundeko.

Clemson has to replace one starting end in Malliciah Goodman, who played well in the second half last season. Ogundeko and Lawson have a chance to show they can be part of the rotation.