ACC spring practice preview: Clemson

Clemson Tigers
2009: 9-5 (6-2)

Clemson opened spring practice Sunday afternoon without C.J. Spiller, the all-everything running back and return specialist who will be taking the field on Sundays next season. In a way, Spiller’s collegiate career was a microcosm of the entire Clemson team — high expectations at the start of every season followed by inconsistent play and nagging injuries. When Spiller was on the field, he played like a Heisman Trophy candidate. When he was hurt, the entire roster suffered.

Despite a roller-coaster 2009 campaign, the Tigers were finally able to put everything together before Spiller’s career came to a close, advancing to the ACC title game before falling short to Georgia Tech. So where does Clemson go from here?

The Tigers have the talent to make up for Spiller’s loss in the backfield, as Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington combined to average 6.1 yards per carry and totaled 909 yards and eight touchdowns in 2009. But how will the Tigers replace Spiller’s production on special teams? The Tigers’ average starting field position last season was their own 37-yard line compared to their opponents’ 24, as Spiller and fellow NFL draft prospect Jacoby Ford consistently gave the offense room to breathe. That 13-yard difference will be difficult to make up; Ellington might get the first chance to be the primary return man.

One major issue to consider this spring is the absence of quarterback Kyle Parker, who will miss football practice while he plays for the Tigers’ baseball team. If Parker has a successful season on the diamond after a promising start to his career last year, will he focus on the major league draft and give up football altogether?

Parker had an inconsistent first season under center for the Tigers, but he showed flashes of just how good he can be with a full season under his belt. He tossed 20 touchdowns against 12 interceptions and helped engineer a six-game winning streak that earned the Tigers the ACC title game berth. His hiatus from football this spring means redshirt freshman Tajh Boyd will get ample time with the first-string offense.

Depth at wide receiver will be watched closely in the next few weeks and into the fall, as the leading returning wideout is Xavier Dye, who caught just 14 passes last year.

“Wideout is going to be our ‘quarterback’ question,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “We lost some good players, but I’m excited about the guys we have on campus. It’s no different than it’s been in years past when you’ve lost good guys. We have guys who were highly productive and recruited but haven’t had much of a chance because they’ve been behind good players.”

The Tigers do maintain stability on the offensive line, which loses only starting guard Thomas Austin from the ’09 unit.

Defensively, the Tigers lose starting cornerbacks Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor, who combined for 84 career starts. Linebacker is also a concern, as last year’s leading tackler Kavell Conner is gone, while Brandon Maye struggled with consistency and Scotty Cooper dealt with knee injuries.

Swinney believes the Tigers will be better in the second year of coordinator Kevin Steele’s scheme, but there will likely be several players switching positions to make up for departures. Might Marcus Gilchrist move back to corner after moving to safety before last season?

Steele certainly put together an impressive first season on campus, as the Tigers finished 20th in the nation in total defense and 25th in scoring defense, allowing 314.3 yards and 20.4 points per game. There’s reason to believe that, despite key losses on defense, Steele will make the necessary adjustments to strengthen the unit’s weak spots.

The ACC’s Atlantic division champions came awfully close to that elusive BCS berth in 2009. With the coaching staff entering its second full season together, can the Tigers duplicate last season’s success and even take the program to a higher level in 2010?

“For this team, we talk about a standard of excellence, staying up to our commandments,” Swinney said. “The daily focus, attention to details, effort, being all in. Everybody on this team, with the exception of our new guys, they understand championship caliber. They can all take themselves back to that sick feeling of being a minute or so from ACC champions.”

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