Note: The following appears in the May issue of Orange: The Experience. For full access to all of the publication’s content, join IPTAY today by calling 864-656-2115.
A year ago, Clemson’s spring football practice season ended the way so many things ended in 2020: abruptly and indefinitely.
One year later, Clemson’s spring practice season ended in much more familiar fashion, with the Orange and White squads entertaining crowds on a picture-perfect day in Death Valley for the team’s annual intrasquad Spring Game scrimmage.
After the White squad scored 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to earn a 14-13 scrimmage victory, Head Coach Dabo Swinney reflected on the team’s development during spring practices this year.
“This team is definitely further along than last year’s group, there’s no doubt about that,” Swinney said. “This will be the most veteran team we’ve had since that 2018 team from a leadership standpoint, so I’m excited about that. We’re definitely ahead of where last year’s team was because, again, we were so young in the offensive line. We’re still young, but we’ve got more guys functionally and mentally ready to go compete and play winning football for us.
“Same thing on defense. We’re more mature up front. We have more guys that have been through the battles, that have a few scars on ‘em. All those young guys we played in the secondary last year that hadn’t played much — [Lannden] Zanders, [Joseph] Charleston, Ray [Thornton], Jalyn [Phillips] — all those guys have been a little bit battle-tested and have some good experience. So I’m excited about what we have a chance to put together.”
While the Tigers still parlayed the truncated spring practice window in 2020 into a sixth consecutive ACC title and sixth straight College Football Playoff appearance, the loss of practice time and additional summer development placed an unexpected cap on the team’s growth last offseason.
As noted by Swinney, the position group that was arguably most affected by the 2020 offseason was Clemson’s offensive line, which had welcomed six new signees that offseason, the most in a single signing class in the Swinney era. The youth of that group faced a tall task in trying to develop and build chemistry under different protocols.
“It’s hard to get better along the OL virtually. It just is what it is,” Swinney said. “There’s a difference between working out and training. There’s a big difference — I work out, but I ain’t training. And so we missed all of April, May, June from being able to train. Unfortunately for us, we had a critical position on our team, the position that needs the most development, and so much of that comes in the offseason in the weight room training properly and skills and drills and in-person meetings and leaders being able to put their hands on guys and bring them along. We just didn’t get that developmental time.”
In addition to the focus on the team’s development in the trenches, the eyes of many college football observers will fall on the development of sophomore quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson’s California-bred, cannon-armed, 250-pound tank now directing the offense. After impressing in two starts in 2021, he is preparing to assume the full-time starting role now vacated by the NFL departure of Clemson’s all-time winningest quarterback, Trevor Lawrence.
Less than an hour after the Spring Game — and thus the spring practice window — ended, Uiagalelei noted his work was just beginning.
“The plan starts tomorrow,” Uiagalelei said following the scrimmage. “Get faster, stronger, look at all the plays from this spring going back from practices 1-15 all the way through the Spring Game. Just look at every single rep, fine-tuning it and really dive into the playbook… I want to be the best out there for my team. I want to be the best in the country.”
At his side, Uiagalelei will have the benefit of a deep running back corps that was routinely the talk of Clemson’s spring practices. Under the leadership of first-year running backs coach and Clemson legend C.J. Spiller, the Tigers exited spring with an explosive and diverse group that features veterans Lyn-J Dixon, Kobe Pace, Chez Mellusi, Michel Dukes and Darien Rencher in addition to midyear enrollees Phil Mafah and Will Shipley, all of whom shined at various points in the spring.
“We’re blessed,” Swinney said of the team’s depth at running back. “We love these guys. It’s a very talented room, a deep room, a competitive room. We’ve got a lot of similar and unique skillsets… All those guys can make plays for us. That’s definitely one of the deepest positions we have on the team and one of the most competitive. I think we’ve got a chance to be a pretty special group.”
Clemson’s running backs and the rest of the roster now enter what Swinney calls the “Transformation Phase” of offseason strength and conditioning and “skills and drills” workouts before returning to the field as a group in August for fall camp.
“[Transformation Phase] is team, its chemistry, its leadership. It’s everybody’s individual, personal commitment to go do what they’ve got to do to come back in August the best version of themselves.”
Clemson will open the 2021 season with one of the most-anticipated non-conference showdowns of the season when it faces Georgia on Saturday, Sept. 4 in Charlotte. Clemson will return to Death Valley for its home opener a week later when it hosts South Carolina State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 11.
“Sept. 4, the lights come on, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to be ready,” Swinney said.