The beginning of August marks the start of the football season, which is the summertime version of Christmas to some. For Clemson, it’s the start of trying to get out the bad taste of last year’s loss to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
The Tigers are questionable at some spots and deservedly confident at others as they head into the 2021 season. It all begins Friday when the squad has its first fall practice of the year. In anticipation of seeing how it all pans out, here are five areas to keep an eye out for during the practices.
Justyn Ross’ clearance
Clemson is returning a deep group of wide receivers this year, and Justyn Ross could be the proverbial cherry on top. The Tigers have yet to announce the redshirt junior’s medical clearance, though it’s expected that Ross will get the green light soon. The anticipation of Ross getting back onto the field has been building, and no one is feeling that more than the man himself. Ross has been chomping at the bit since spring — where he was limited to non-contact practice — according to Clemson wide receivers coach Tyler Grisham.
Summer reports from player-led practices indicate he’s back to form.
“The guys talk, ‘I mean, coach, we can’t guard him,’ ” Grisham recalled players telling him about Ross. “We can’t guard him, one-on-ones. I can’t wait to see him back out there competing.”
Ross sat out the 2020 season after undergoing spinal surgery due to a congenital fusion. In the two years prior, he amassed 1,865 yards and 17 touchdowns on 112 receptions over 29 career games with 14 starts.
Etienne’s replacement at RB
For as much notoriety as Trevor Lawrence’s absence has received, the guy who lined up next to him wasn’t too shabby, either. Travis Etienne left Clemson as the ACC’s all-time leading rusher and, like Lawrence, was taken by the Jacksonville Jaguars during the NFL Draft in May.
D.J. Uiagalelei was the heir apparent for Lawrence, and it would seem Lyn-J Dixon will take over in Etienne’s place. The senior running back and leading returning rusher ran the ball 42 times for 190 yards and two scores to go along with a 52-yard kickoff return against Virginia in 10 games played last season.
That doesn’t count out sixth-year senior Darien Rencher, junior Michel Dukes, sophomore Kobe Pace nor newcomers Phil Mafah and Will Shipley, the Tigers’ lone five-star offensive skill player in the Class of 2021.
“Will did a great job of coming in and really wanting to learn,” Clemson running backs coach CJ Spiller said. “He’s one of those guys that sometimes you might have to pull him back a little bit because he wants to learn so much and you just want him to take it one day at a time.”
Speaking of Spiller, the former Tiger will start his first fall camp as the running backs coach Friday. He was promoted to lead his old position on Feb. 5 after spending the 2020 season as an unpaid coaching intern.
“(Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott) did a great job of making the transition for me real smooth,” Spiller said, “just giving me a lot of knowledge and understanding of how to handle some of the guys that’s in the room. ... Kind of just going through the spring and kind of just feeling the guys out for myself gave me a better understanding of how I’m going to be able to manage the room, so it’s been great.”
Elliott switched from coaching tailbacks to tight ends and was named assistant head coach in addition to receiving a contract extension through 2025 in February. He welcomes the opportunity to coach in a new area and deepen bonds with players like senior Braden Galloway, who he found is pretty athletic; freshman Jake Briningstool; junior Davis Allen; and redshirt sophomore Jaelyn Lay.
“It’s been fun for me personally because I get back closer to the position I played,” said Elliott, a former Tigers wide receiver. “There’s a ton of receiver aspects to the position still. There are multiple guys that do a ton of things, so there’s a lot of carryover from the running back room from a protection standpoint, but it’s fun to get in there and dive in and just get back to my roots.”
Clemson’s offense also added Tajh Boyd to the coaching staff. His official role has yet to be announced as the school is still working to finalize the arrangement. The former Tigers quarterback told WACH FOX the role would be somewhere between an analyst and a player development coach.
Boyd’s presence has been well-received as he begins his coaching career this season.
Defensive line hype
Quarterbacks tend to generate much of the buzz for a team, which has been the case for Clemson this year as well. The Tigers’ defensive line has been just as, if not more, of a focal point heading into the season. Some have compared the group to Clemson’s record-setting 2018 linemen, three of which went in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
Parts of the Tigers D-line last year were young, while others weren’t fully healthy. Senior defensive end Justin Foster sat out the 2020 season and briefly contemplated giving up football in February after a battle with COVID-19. He then decided to re-join the squad once doctors gave him the OK to play again in May.
“I was jumping, leaping for joy because I know the type of young man this guy is,” Clemson defensive tackles coach Todd Bates said of hearing Foster’s decision. “He’s a rock-solid guy who’s going to be where he’s supposed to be, do what he’s supposed to do and just relentless after becoming the best version of him.”
Fellow senior defensive end Xavier Thomas, too, struggled with the effects of COVID-19 and only played part of the season while dealing with breathing issues. Tigers defensive ends coach Lemanski Hall said he’s seen Thomas recently and that the Florence native is healthy and ready to go.
Defensive lineman Bryan Bresee, who was also the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year, and defensive end Myles Murphy, AP’s ACC Co-Newcomer of the Year, are both returning after being named freshman All-Americans in 2020. The two combined for 84 tackles, 18.5 for loss, and eight quarterback sacks in their first season with Clemson.
“There’s so much growth and development that takes place from Day One when you walk on campus until your last game of the season. Then it’s a whole other jump from that last game to the end of spring,” Bates said. “You learn so much and then it’s summer, man, it’s just amazing, the work they put in and where they are now compared to when they first got here.”
Player-led summer practices, by all reports, went well. Now it’s time for the Tigers’ defensive coaching staff to get their hands on the linemen to see if they can live up to the expectations as preseason practices begin.
Booth’s next step
Andrew Booth was one of the highlight-worthy pieces of Clemson’s defense last year. He had four starts as a sophomore in 2020, making athletic play after athletic play. The Georgia native ended the season with 30 tackles, four pass breakups, two interceptions, a quarterback sack and a 21-yard fumble he returned for a touchdown.
Booth sparked at different points last year, including the outstretched pass breakup he had against Miami and the one-handed interception grab against Virginia. As great as those were, cornerbacks coach Mike Reed needs for him to be more of a flame for the defense.
“He’s got to take the next step to be a consistent player,” Reed said. “That’s just a sign of maturing, working harder and being healthy.”