CLEMSON — Defensive coordinator Brent Venables is still looking for interior depth along Clemson’s reconstructed defensive line. But the silver lining to injuries keeping projected contributors Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams out of spring practice is all the extra snaps for younger guys, repetitions likely to come in handy during the fall.
The Tigers are starting spring break after nine practices and will return on March 25 for the first of five more workouts before their April 6 spring game.
Here are seven spring highlights so far as Clemson transitions from a 15-0 season to defending its national championship:
Trevor Lawrence in charge
He’s a celebrity quarterback, the projected first overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. But Trevor Lawrence, 19, is just finding out what it means to get most of the first-team snaps over an extended stretch of preseason practice.
“He has a lot more confidence,” junior wide receiver Tee Higgins said. “You can tell he’s taking a lead and getting us right, doing all those little things.”
Oh, those poor defensive strategists on Clemson’s schedule.
Clemson won the national title last season and will almost certainly have the Associated Press preseason No. 1 ranking going into 2019. The Tigers will be favored in every regular-season game. But Dabo Swinney and his coaching staff keep insisting this group is “eager” and “hungry.”
Establishing a new attitude is one of the key plusses in holding spring practice earlier than most programs.
Primary secondary motivation
The Clemson secondary, torched in a 28-26 victory at Texas A&M and a 56-35 victory over South Carolina to end the regular season, was the most suspect part of the team going into the 2018 College Football Playoffs. Not so much after Notre Dame (30-3) and Alabama (44-16) wins.
Three starters are back: cornerback A.J. Terrell and safeties Tanner Muse and K’Von Wallace.
There is still a collective chip on those shoulders.
“Yeah, we were the big problem last year,” Muse said sarcastically. “We’re used to it.”
With starter candidate Kyler McMichael (hamstring) among the Clemson cornerbacks slowed by injuries this spring, Swinney moved Derion Kendrick from wide receiver. The rising sophomore stood out Wednesday in the Tigers’ first full scrimmage.
“He competes,” Swinney said of the 6-0, 195-pound graduate of Rock Hill’s South Pointe High School.
Kendrick as a freshman caught 15 passes last season and led Clemson with 13 kick returns. Swinney said to expect a role on both sides of the ball for the rest of Kendrick’s time at Clemson, which might be just two more seasons at this rate.
Higgins (59 catches last season), Amari Rodgers (55) and Justyn Ross (46) are back. So are Kendrick (15) and Diondre Overton (14).
Lawrence also has new targets in early freshman enrollees Frank Ladson Jr. and Joseph Ngata.
Jeff Scott, the offensive co-coordinator, said Ladson’s speed and quickness remind him of “another No. 2 we had from Florida.” That’s Sammy Watkins, a former Clemson All-American now with the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.
Venables was gushing, too, saying Ladson and Ngata are performing better than Higgins and Ross were as freshmen preparing for their first college seasons.
When in doubt, punt better
Will Spiers averaged 39.7 yards per punt in the 2018 season.
Clemson opponents averaged 44.0.
But Swinney said Spiers “just looks like a different” guy this spring.
If it doesn’t translate into production, Spiers might get pushed by freshman Aidan Swanson, a recruited punter from Bradenton, Fla. Swanson, however, got off to an inconsistent start.
Tyler Davis as advertised
Clemson got an early signing day boost in December when Tyler Davis of Apopka, Fla., near Orlando picked Clemson over Florida State and Ohio State.
The big guy (6-1, 290) in the No. 13 jersey has fared well so far, including in the Wednesday scrimmage.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff