Clemson Football: 5 breakout candidates in 2017 spring game

Dec 3, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Clemson Tigers linebacker Dorian O’Daniel (6) reacts to the referee after he gets disqualified for targeting against the Virginia Tech Hokies during the first half of the ACC Championship college football game at Camping World Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Clemson football spring camp is coming to a close shortly. Here’s a look at five breakout candidates to watch in the Tigers’ spring game this weekend.

The Clemson Tigers kick off their Spring Game on April 9. Players on next year’s team will have an opportunity to show off their talent at the skill positions, particularly on offense.

The Clemson offense will have a quarterback battle on its hand as the team looks to replace Deshaun Watson, who left for the NFL Draft. Watson’s 4,593 passing yards and 41 passing touchdowns will be hard to replace. But there are four quarterbacks battling it out for the starting spot, one is a true freshman who enrolled early in January.

Running back Wayne Gallman’s 1,133 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns will also be diffcult to replace but the team has plenty of running backs. Those being Tavien Feaster, C.J. Fuller, Adam Choice and Tyshon Dye.

But this weekend’s spring game will give fans an opportunity to see what the Tigers redshirt players and depth chart have to offer.

The Clemson defense biggest advantage of 2016 was its youth. The defense returns seven starters from last year’s squad which allowed 18.0 points per game, 10th in the FBS. Defensive tackle, the secondary and linebackers will be key areas of focus in the spring. With experience returning, there could be no need to panic in Clemson.

December 31, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Clemson Tigers safety Van Smith (23) returns an interception against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2016 CFP semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports


Van Smith

S, Clemson

Clemson Tigers’ safety Van Smith returns for a secondary that needs replacements at corner and strong safety. With Cordrea Tankersley and Jadar Johnson gone, its open the door for a player to step up.

Smith will be a name to know defensively for the Clemson defense this spring. The second team All-ACC selection recorded 96 total tackles (65 solo, 31 assisted), 5.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, two interceptions and two pass breakups last season.

The rising junior had nine tackles in his first start against the Auburn Tigers in a 19-13 victory. He had an 86-yard interception return in the Tigers College Football Playoff Semifinal against the Ohio State Buckeyes.

This spring, Smith will have to step up with leading tackler Ben Boulware out of eligibility and on to the NFL. He’ll have help up front with a strong defensive line. The linebackers should be okay as well with an experienced returning group. With Smith anchoring the secondary, the Clemson defense could return to its 2016 form in no time.

Dec 31, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel (6) reacts during the first quarter in the 2016 CFP semifinal against the Ohio State Buckeyes at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports


Dorian O’Daniel

LB, Clemson

Linebacker Dorian O’Daniel is another player returning on the Clemson Tigers defense. He started in 10 games this past season but with an opening at linebacker, he’ll need to step up his play.

O’Daniel had 54 total tackles (37 solo, 17 assisted), 10.0 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble through 13 games in 2016. He caught his first interception of the season in Week Two against Troy. He also recorded four total tackles.

With Ben Boulware leaving and linebacker Kendall Joseph looking to transition to his position at weakside linebacker, it gives O’Daniel a chance to step up this spring. He held his starting role to end the past season but with other players battling for playing time, O’Daniel’s progression could increase.

The rising senior returns along with Joseph and backup Tre Lamar, who is trying out for the middle linebacker position. A strong spring will give O’Daniel a chance to start at the position. After all, there aren’t anymore linebackers incoming in the 2017 recruiting class this fall.

December 31, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Clemson Tigers running back Tavien Feaster (28) against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2016 CFP semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports


Tavien Feaster

RB, Clemson

Running back Tavien Feaster returns technically as the Clemson Tigers leading rusher from the 2016 roster. With running back Wayne Gallman off to the NFL, it gives players on the Tigers offense a shot to take over.

Feaster ran for 222 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns last season for the Clemson offense. He had just 37 carries in 2016 but his 6.0 rushing yards per carry were a team-high. This spring, with a heavier workload, he could show he’s ready for a bigger role.

He’ll need to beat out running backs C.J. Fuller and Adam Choice, however. So far, they’ve each had their fair share of strong performances. Feaster had seven carries for 54 rushing yards in a recent team scrimmage. While Fuller has eight carries for 48 yards and a rushing touchdown.

This weekend’s scrimmage could be Feaster’s final shot before the fall. Look for him to set himself apart with a big day. He also has some special teams experience which he could carry over into 2017.

Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports


Hunter Johnson

QB, Clemson

The Clemson Tigers have a quarterback competition on its hands and one potential starter could be a true freshman.

Quarterback Hunter Johnson is a five-star recruit out of Brownsburg, Indiana, according to 247Sports. Johnson is a 6-foot-2, 201-pound dual-threat prospect who has shown a lot of promise already this spring.

The Indiana native threw for 6,657 passing yards and 69 passing touchdowns in his high school career. His early arrival has been noticed by coaches and players alike. In the Tigers most recent scrimmage, he threw the ball for 110 passing yards and a touchdown. It was a 31-yard reception to wide receiver Trevion Thompson that gave him the edge.

With Johnson’s early arrival, it certainly pushes the other quarterback’s to perform at a high level this spring. The other quarterbacks on the roster are sure to push the competition which won’t be decided until the fall. But Johnson will certainly be a player to watch in this weekend’s game.

Nov 21, 2015; Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant (2) looks to pass during the third quarter against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at Clemson Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports


Kelly Bryant

QB, Clemson

Clemson Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant is another quarterback atop this year’s spring competition. Bryant is one of two quarterbacks returning with on-field experience from last season.

However, Bryant is currently being given first team reps. Bryant was 8-for-14 with 94 passing yards in the team’s scrimmage last weekend. He didn’t do poorly but freshman Hunter Johnson was the lone quarterback with a touchdown pass.

Bryant did complete 6-of-9 passes for 48 passing yards and a passing touchdown in 2016. But Deshaun Watson’s role is big shoes for anybody to fill, especially if Clemson is looking to return to the College Football Playoff. But first, they’ll have to find their starting quarterback for next season.

Between Bryant and Johnson, they could fight their Watson’s successor soon enough. Both have shown the ability to throw and keep plays alive with their legs when under pressure. Head coach Dabo Swinney made last week’s scrimmage live, meaning every player was free to get tackled, including the quarterback.

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