CLEMSON — Extra fan interest coming off a 44-16 College Football Playoff national championship game victory over Alabama is part of the drill. Clemson coaches want to see how players at Saturday’s annual Orange and White Spring Game at Death Valley handle great expectations.
“We’re expecting and anticipating a big crowd and, especially with guys that haven’t been in that situation, we want to see how guys function in that environment,” offensive co-coordinator Tony Elliott said.
Seven things to look for as head coach Dabo Swinney and Co. close the book on spring preparations for a fifth straight College Football Playoff run:
The new defensive line
The rising star is Tyler Davis, a 6-1, 290-pound freshman early enrollee from Apopka, Fla. But that void at defensive tackle is huge with the departures of Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Albert Huggins.
Davis got extra snaps in practices and scrimmages with veterans Nyles Pinckney and Jordan McFadden missing spring practice with injuries.
Wide Receiver U
With one Heisman Trophy candidate (Lawrence) throwing and another (Travis Etienne) running, any Clemson wide receiver is at a competitive advantage. But this group is potentially the best yet at “Wide Receiver U.” No college team has two better starters than Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross; no one has a pair of freshmen quite like Frank Ladson Jr. and Joseph Ngata, both early enrollees.
Jeff Scott, Clemson’s offensive co-coordinator, has already compared Ladson to “another No. 2 we had from Florida” — NFL veteran and former Tiger game-breaker Sammy Watkins.
The standout story of spring practice is probably Derion Kendrick, a multi-position star at South Pointe High School in Rock Hill who played wide receiver and returned kicks as a Clemson freshman.
Kendrick was asked to help when there were injuries at cornerback. He promptly seized what looks like a starting role.
Not that he’s finished as a receiver or returner.
It’s hard to replace a guy like Mitch Hyatt, a staple at left tackle for four seasons, blindside protector for three primary quarterbacks and winner of two national championships.
Unless you have 6-5, 355-pound sophomore Jackson Carman ready to mash foes and manage his weight.
Carman won’t match Hyatt’s technician skills right away but check out those nimble feet.
Will Spiers as a junior last season averaged 39.7 yards per punt while Clemson foes averaged 44.0. That comparison should improve one way or another: Swinney has been impressed with Spiers’ added strength and scholarship punter Aidan Swanson is a freshman early enrollee.
The most solid part of the kicking game? Standout long-snapper Patrick Phibbs, a senior Geology major from Pittsburgh.
With Lawrence or backup Chase Brice at quarterback, Elliott wants to see the offense “stay ahead of the chains and not just live on the explosive play.”
A year ago, the emphasis was more explosive plays, a goal dramatically achieved all season.
Backfield pecking order
Don’t expect much action for Etienne, who rushed for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns last season.
But is sophomore Lyn-J Dixon (8.8 yards per carry in 2018) ready to supplant Tavien Feaster as the No. 2 back?
With all this talent on offense, does it matter?
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff