5 Things to Watch as Clemson begins spring practice Monday

Clemson receiver Mike Williams lines up during a bowl practice as the Tigers prepare to face Oklahoma in the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl. Williams is slated to return to Clemson's starting lineup in 2016 after suffering a broken neck Sept. 5, 2015. (Clemson sports information)

CLEMSON – There is no rest for the weary.

Only one page in a wall calendar has been flipped since Clemson appeared in the College Football Playoff championship game, and here are the Tigers, hitting the practice field Monday for the first of 15 sessions during spring practice culminating in the annual Orange-White scrimmage April 9 at Memorial Stadium.

Clemson fell 45-40 to Alabama with a title on the line in Glendale, Ariz. on Jan. 11, and seven weeks later to the day the Tigers will, in head coach Dabo Swinney’s words, “get ready to charge back up the mountain,” with the start of spring practices. “I can’t wait to get started with this 2016 team.”

What will characterize this 2016 team, at least on paper half a year ahead of the actual regular season (Clemson’s fourth spring practice on Saturday falls six months to the day ahead of the season opener at Auburn)? That would be offense, with nearly every crucial cog in the machine back in town with setting records in mind.

Of course, champions are rarely crowned without defense, and the Tigers are coming off the No. 1 total defense in 2014 and No. 11 in 2015. But the majority of Clemson’s key contributors from those two dominant defenses are either already in the NFL or coming off an appearance at the NFL Scouting Combine this past weekend.

Clemson is expected to start the 2016 season ranked in the top five, so in the same vein, we present five storylines ahead for the next six weeks of spring football:

Far and away the most fascinating player of this spring session played but one drive in the 2015 season and will not be tackled once this spring. Mike Williams broke a bone in his neck catching a touchdown pass on Sept. 5, and was clearly a missing contingent in the Tigers’ offense when his deep-ball presence was sorely needed during some close calls in the regular season, but if there was a silver lining for the 2016 squad, it’s that Williams – a 1,000-yard receiver in 2014 – potentially would have been out the door toward the NFL right now. Instead, Williams must prove his health has returned and so will his production during his redshirt junior year. Fans and media should have a decent grasp of both over the next 14 practices and the spring game, though Williams will only engage in non-contact drills.

No matter what Williams provides in 2016, the 6-2, 200-pound Cain represents a big piece of the Tigers’ offensive future. It’s been a roller-coaster so far: on the heels of 96- and 97-yard games, a bad attitude suspended him for the Oct. 24 game at Miami ... he responded by catching a touchdown in each of his next five games, before he was sent home from the Orange Bowl for failing a drug test. Coaches have not publicly addressed Cain’s status entering spring practices; expect that to be the newsiest news out of head coach Dabo Swinney’s Monday press conference.

“We always heard about guys leaving, and ‘They’re not going to be the same without Vic Beasley and everybody else.’ Stuff like that,” former Mackensie Alexander told the Green Bay-Press Gazette’s Ryan Wood at the NFL Combine Saturday. “We heard it from my two years on the field, so I’m sure they’re hearing it now. That’s going to motivate them.”

The Tigers’ third-team All-American cornerback is right, in the sense Clemson’s defense was mighty impressive in 2015 replacing eight starters. Last year’s unit figured to have a strong secondary, and it did: but as a result, Alexander and starting safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green departed early. Cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, linebacker Ben Boulware and defensive tackle Carlos Watkins did choose to stay, giving some semblance of senior leadership, but there are a bunch of holes to fill.

The most critical spot to address on the field? Defensive end, a position vacated by Beasley, Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd in the past two years. Lawson and Dodd combined for 49 tackles for a loss this past season; projected replacements Austin Bryant and Richard Yeargin had three total as freshmen.

Who else could emerge? Keep in mind on the backburner sophomore Chris Register and redshirt freshmen Clelin Ferrell and LaSamuel Davis. None have significant playing experience.

Both will be tested more than usual. As mentioned above, it’s been a quick turnaround since the end of the season, not just because of the title-game berth but the unnaturally early start time to spring ball. With winter workouts just completed, the Tigers will need to find another gear physically.

And how does the team respond to what was a patently disappointing loss to Alabama? History shows football teams reaching the mountaintop struggle to repeat. Can Clemson conjure up the magic for another crack at the championship game (with a different result), or was last year a once-in-a-generation experience?

-AB