Clemson Football: 5 position battles to watch during 2017 spring game

December 31, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Clemson Tigers defensive lineman Christian Wilkins (42) celebrates with defensive end Clelin Ferrell (99) against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the second half of the the 2016 CFP semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson football won the 2016 National Championship, avenging their 2015 loss to Alabama. Which position battles should we watch this spring?

Clemson football made good on its promise to return to the College Football Playoff. They beat the Alabama Crimson Tide 35-31 on the final play of the game with Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson walking away with the last laugh.

However, with the departures of Watson and running back Wayne Gallman to the NFL Draft on offense, as well as the loss of some key seniors on defense, the Tigers have some big holes to fill to return to the College Football Playoff.

The Clemson Tigers offense was 14th in the FBS in scoring in 2016, putting up 39.2 points per game. They’ll have some skill positions to replace but with a strong recruiting stable, they should be okay. The spring will give fans a look at what players will stand out in the year ahead.

On defense, the Tigers lose linebacker Ben Boulware, defensive tackle Carlos Watkins and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley on a scoring defense (18.0 points per game) that ranked 10th in the FBS a season ago. The linebackers and defensive ends have some experience returning, which bodes well. But replacing their unsung defensive leaders is key this spring.

The Tigers finished strong last season but for their efforts, they have some key positions to replace. While some position battles won’t be decided until the fall, some players will have a chance to set themselves apart this spring.

Sep 3, 2016; Auburn, AL, USA; Clemson football linebacker Kendall Joseph (34) and linebacker Ben Boulware (10) wrap up Auburn Tigers wide receiver Stanton Truitt (10) during the first quarter at Jordan Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

5. Linebacker

Clemson Tigers defense returns seven starters on defense. But the key positions they need to replace are at linebacker and in the secondary.

Inside linebacker Kendall Joseph was the team’s second-leading tackler a season ago. He had 106 total tackles (59 solo, 47 assisted), 11.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. This spring he’s been playing the weakside linebacker spot, Ben Boulware’s old position.

After playing on the inside, Joseph earned the team’s Most Improved Award on defense in 2016 for his performance. This spring, he’ll have the chance to step up and be the leader on defense.

Middle linebacker Tre Lamar is also playing exclusively at the middle linebacker spot. Lamar only had 17 total tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss and a sack but he’ll be a sophomore in 2017. He has an opportunity to take on the MIKE position for years to come.

Linebacker Dorian O’Daniel is also an intriguing candidate at the strongside linebacker position. He recorded 54 total tackles (37 solo, 17 assisted), 10.0 tackles for loss. 2.5 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble in 2016. He started in the National Championship at his position. Taking on a larger role this spring, O’Daniel will be a name to watch entering the fall season.

December 31, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Clemson Tigers defensive end Clelin Ferrell (99) celebrates a play against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2016 CFP semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

4. Defensive Tackle

Entering his second season at defensive end, Clelin Ferrell has another opportunity to be starter opposite teammate Christian Wilkins. Ferrell had 44 total tackles (21 solo, 23 assisted), 12.5 tackles for loss, 6.0 sacks and two pass breakups last season. Wilkins had 48 total tackles (24 solo, 24 assisted), 13.0 tackles for loss, 9 pass breakups, 3.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries on the defensive line on 2016.

However, with defensive tackle Carlos Watkins gone, it opens the door for defensive tackles Albert Huggins, Scott Pagano and others to take over the position. Huggins had 18 total tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss and three sacks through eight games in 2016. While Pagano had 20 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks through 10 games last season.

The two of them could see time at the starting defensive tackle positions, but there will be plenty of competition. There’s also defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence as well. The true freshman returns this spring after recording 62 total tackles (22 solo, 40 assisted), 8.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries in 2016. With Huggins, Pagano and Lawrence in the middle, Watkins could hardly be missed come the fall.

Dec 3, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Clemson football wide receiver Deon Cain (8) runs after a catch in the second half against the Virginia Tech Hokies during the ACC Championship college football game at Camping World Stadium. Clemson Tigers won 42-35. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

3. Wide Receiver

The Clemson Tigers lose wide receivers Mike Williams and junior Artavis Scott, both potential draft picks in the NFL Draft this April. But, they have depth at the position due to recruiting. They’ll also be in good hands with receivers Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud leading the way.

Cain and McCloud combined for 1,196 receiving yards and 11 receiving touchdowns in 2016. But other than that, the door is wide open for other wide receivers to step up and earn some playing time.

Clemson wide receivers Cornell Powell, Diondre Overton and T.J. Chase are all being prepared for larger roles. With a new quarterback and running back, the offense may rely heavily on the wide receiving corps despite the limited experience.

Chase redshirted in 2016 but he was a four-star recruit coming out of high school in 2015. Powell caught 12 passes for 87 receiving yards last season. Overton caught two passes for 48 receiving yards and a touchdown. Overton is a 6-foot-5, 200 pound wide receiver with potential to replace what Mike Williams once was. With a new quarterback, anything is possible this spring.

December 31, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Clemson football 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

2. Running Back

The Clemson Tigers will have some work to do replacing what running back Wayne Gallman and Deshaun Watson did for them, but they could find that player this spring. They’ve still got C.J. Fuller, Adam Choice, Tyshon Dye and Tavien Feaster.

The running backs had their fair share of carries last season. Fuller had 47 carries for 211 rushing yards in 2016. Choice had 45 carries for 158 rushing yards. Dye carried the ball 21 times for 109 rushing yards and a touchdown. Feaster had 37 carries for 221 rushing yards and two touchdowns. With Dye and Feaster being the lone backs with experience in the scoring department, it could up their chances of seeing playing time ahead of others.

The Tigers will look to one of these running backs to return them to the balanced attack that’s made them successful so far. However, the coaching staff will need to find a quarterback too.

With Ray-Ray McCloud moving to wide receiver, it gives running back Tavien Feaster an opportunity to replace him on special teams at returner. Feaster has stepped up this spring to take on some kick return and punt return duty which could pay off for him in the durability department.

Apr 9, 2016; Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant (2) after faking the pass during the first quarter of the spring game at Clemson Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

1. Quarterback

First, there was quarterback Tajh Boyd, who left back in 2013. Then came quarterback Deshaun Watson, who after two ACC Championships and a College Football National Championship victory, is off to the NFL Draft. Now, the Clemson Tigers need a new starting quarterback for 2017.

The good thing is Clemson has plenty of quarterbacks to choose from; four to be exact. Each of them has a chance to prove themselves this spring. The transition shouldn’t be too difficult, especially with depth on the offensive line.

Kelly Bryant participated with the first team in the Tigers second spring scrimmage. He threw 8-of-14 completions for 94 passing yards. Freshman quarterback Hunter Johnson, an early enrollee, threw for 110 passing yards and a score.

Zerrick Cooper and Tucker Israel also took reps at quarterback, but none stood out more than Johnson. Entering their spring game, Johnson could be a name to watch as the 2017 season approaches.

Granted, Bryant and Israel are the only quarterbacks with actual on-field experience. But Johnson’s early arrival certainly speeds up the process a bit.

This article originally appeared on