No Deshaun Watson, but defending champ Clemson likes its shot to restock and rule

1:58 | College Football
#DearAndy: How will Clemson replace Deshaun Watson?
Monday April 10th, 2017

CLEMSON, S.C. — On a chamber of commerce Saturday when seemingly no one would make a definitive declaration about Clemson’s quarterbacks, receiver Ray-Ray McCloud offered the closest thing. “Obviously, our two quarterbacks played better,” McCloud said of Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel, who led the Orange team to a 19–14 win against the White in the Tigers’ spring game.

Unfortunately for those seeking a hint at who might take the first snap for Clemson when Kent State visits Sept. 2—or, more importantly, when Auburn visits Sept. 9—McCloud was only kidding. No edge was apparent for any member of the trio (junior Bryant, redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper or true freshman Hunter Johnson) competing to replace the greatest player in the history of Clemson football.

That is not hyperbole, by the way. As a sophomore, Deshaun Watson led the Tigers to within an onside kick of a national title. As a junior, he led them to a national title. Watson, receiver Mike Williams, tailback Wayne Gallman, defensive tackle Carlos Watkins and the rest of the Tigers’ outgoing seniors came back to Death Valley on Saturday to pick up their ACC and national title rings at halftime. “They were blessings,” McCloud said, “and it was an honor to play with them.” Then he acknowledged the new reality. “We flipped the page on day one of spring,” McCloud said. “We know that last year is last year.”

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Sandwiching the ovations for those champions were two halves played by fairly evenly matched teams of Clemson’s current players. The Tigers didn’t use any wacky scoring system. They didn’t play the first-team offense against the second-team defense to goose the scoring numbers for the players the fans already knew. The defenses were allowed to hit all four quarterbacks who played, and hit them they did. (While the defenses combined for only two sacks, given what we know about Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell, all of whom played much of the game, this probably means the quarterbacks are fairly elusive.) Though the Tigers didn’t reveal who will start at quarterback in the 2017 season, they did reveal what they are: a deep, carefully constructed team that will not take a huge step back a season after winning a national title.

“It’s not just depth,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said when asked about his team’s apparent plug-and-play capability. “It’s functional depth.” What he means is this. Clemson has big numbers on campus because only 10 true freshmen have yet to arrive. The Tigers have not experienced anywhere near the attrition most teams do. Between National Signing Day in ’13 and the opening game of the ’16 season, Clemson lost seven players from the roster. Most schools lost more than 20 in the same period. But those players who stayed have not merely hung around campus watching Watson & Co. succeed. Many have played backup roles. Many would have started earlier elsewhere. This is why defensive tackle Scott Pagano can graduate from Clemson, decide to play his final year of eligibility at a program where he can start and get scholarship offers from virtually every school that isn’t Clemson.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

This program was not a flash-in-the-pan propped up by Watson. The people who follow Clemson closely already knew that, but Clemson isn’t always mentioned in the same breath as Alabama and Ohio State* even though it should be.

*That would be the Ohio State program that suffered a 31–0 loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. That particular buttkicking will serve as a footnote to the Tigers’ toppling of Alabama, but it might be the most dominant performance any team delivered last season.

Clemson isn’t reloading now. It has been in a perpetual state of reloading for five years. Receiver DeAndre Hopkins left after ’12. Sammy Watkins had one more year to play. Watkins and quarterback Tajh Boyd left after ’13. Williams was already on the roster, and Watson came in ’14. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and defensive end Vic Beasley left after ’14. Wilkins, who can play tackle or end, came in ’15 and joined Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, who were already on the roster. Lawson and Dodd left after ’15. Ferrell emerged in ’16, the same year when all 340 pounds of Lawrence arrived on campus.

The Tigers lost five stars to the NFL draft after the ’14 season and reached the national title game in ’15. They lost nine players to the draft off that team and then won the national title in ’16. So why should we expect much dropoff now? “It’s just the culture we have,” Wilkins said. “We recruit the right guys. All the coaches know what’s up. All the players know what’s up. … Everybody knows the standard. The best is the standard.”

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Go ahead. Make a short list of the teams that might compete for the next national title. Alabama should be on it. So should Ohio State and Penn State. So should USC and Washington. You’ve probably got Florida State on there, but Florida State has to go to Clemson on Nov. 11. The top of the ACC Atlantic (Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, NC State) could be the most rugged foursome in any division in any conference, and the team that emerges from that group should be in line to earn a playoff berth.

For Clemson to be that team, several things must happen. First, the defense likely needs to lead the way. With America’s best defensive line fronting a group at least as athletic as last year’s, that shouldn’t be a problem. Second, the Tigers need to find offensive production from new sources. Williams, the runaway favorite to win any 50/50 ball, is gone. Deon Cain isn’t as big, but he’s just as fast. He’ll have to help the Tigers stretch the field. Meanwhile, they’ll try to get the ball to McCloud in space through either bubble screens or by moving him around before the snap. C.J. Fuller and Tavien Feaster will need to help replace Gallman’s production on the ground, though the winner of the quarterback derby may help on that front.

Rick Scuteri/AP

Bryant appeared to have the best command of the offense Saturday even though he injured a tendon on the pinky finger on his throwing hand on the game’s first play. “If we played today, he’d go be the guy,” Swinney said. “But we don’t play today. We play in September. Everything matters. Everything counts.” Cooper appeared to have the strongest arm. Johnson seemed to have the best touch. He engineered the play of the day by dropping a 24-yard touchdown pass into the hands of Diondre Overton in the corner of the end zone. He also took two huge losses after mishandling shotgun snaps.

Watching the trio offered a reminder that Watson made everything look easy. But these Tigers can move the ball if one of the three develops over the summer and stakes a claim to the job in camp. The competition won’t be paused until then, though. It will rage during throwing sessions throughout the summer, and Clemson’s veterans will be paying attention to everything. “You’ve still got to get chemistry with all of them,” redshirt junior receiver Hunter Renfrow said. “You have to divvy up your time accordingly. You can’t spend too much time with one of them. You don’t want to always hang out with Hunter or always hang out with Zerrick. You’ve got to mix it up. We’re just looking for a guy to step up and lead the team.” Each day will have a winner. “We’ll probably have them rotating,” Renfrow said. “The one that has the best day will probably lead the team in the next skill and drill.”

The quarterback finally chosen by Swinney and co-coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott will be surrounded by everything he needs to succeed. With a lot of help from Watson, the Tigers finally reached the top of the sport last season. But Swinney and the staff didn’t build Clemson to be a two-year wonder. The Tigers are constructed to be an annual participant in the national title race for the foreseeable future. “We definitely have the ingredients to be one of those teams that has a chance,” Swinney said. “That’s really where we want to be every year. You won’t hear me come out and say ‘We’re going to win it all.’ I just want to be one of those teams that has a chance.”

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A random ranking

I happened upon some excellent blackberries this week, and as I ate them, I realized that I have yet to rank fruits. I’ve ranked vegetables, and I’ve ranked specific varieties of apples, but I’ve never done fruit in general*. That oversight gets corrected today.

1. Blueberry

2. Cherry

3. Peach

4. Apple

5. Orange

6. Watermelon

7. Strawberry

8. Pineapple

9. Plum

10. Blackberry

11. Raspberry

12. Grape

13. Mango

14. Cantaloupe

15. Banana

*We’re only ranking fruits for their standalone value. Lemons and limes are quite valuable, but I’m not taking a big honking bite of either unless I’ve just had a vodka or tequila shot.

First-and-10

1. The NCAA Division I council will vote on a massive package of football recruiting reforms this week. The package includes an allowance for a 10th assistant coach, a December signing date, earlier official visits and new rules governing camps.

What originally looked like a rubber stamp is now somewhat in doubt because of the sheer volume of changes in the package. If voted upon individually, almost everything would pass. Bundle it all together, and someone is bound to complain. If you’re having trouble sleeping, click here and read Proposal 2016-116. You’ll be asleep in seconds. But this stuff matters a lot to coaches and athletic directors.

If you’re wondering why the council will have individual votes on exceptions to dead period rules for Rifle coaches and for beach volleyball coaches while cramming multiple high-impact football changes into one agenda item, you’re not alone. Welcome to the NCAA, where even rubber stamping is difficult.

2. They were already excited about Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham at Auburn. They’re even more excited after Stidham completed 16 of 20 passes for 267 yards in Saturday’s spring game.

3. Oklahoma had a 360-degree camera on the field when Rodney Anderson returned a kickoff for a touchdown during the Sooners’ spring game.

4.Things are touchy in Oxford, Miss., these days. On Saturday, athletic director Ross Bjork tried to inject some humor into the Rebels’ unpleasant NCAA investigation-fueled reality and wound up having to explain the joke as criticism rained.

Bjork joked with the radio crew during the spring game that since Ole Miss has banned itself from a bowl game this season, the team would name each of its regular-season games and treat each like a bowl. This sounded a little too much like Tennessee coach Butch Jones’s “champions of life” comment—uttered last season after the Volunteers couldn’t become champions of the SEC East—for some of the faithful, so Bjork had to explain himself later on Twitter.

5. Texas coach Tom Herman brought out the sledgehammer on Friday for locker room Demo Day. Herman doesn’t have the demolition skills of Baylor grad Chip Gaines, but Gaines does have a lot more practice.

6. The attorney for Texas A&M receiver Kirk Merritt has resorted to the time-tested “jock itch” defense, according to the Houston Chronicle’s Brent Zwerneman.

7. We already knew the best player on Florida State’s defense wears No. 3. You’re also going to want to get to know the guy wearing No. 3 for the offense. Early enrollee tailback Cam Akers finished an excellent spring practice with 10 carries for 87 yards in the Seminoles’ spring game.

8. Speaking of Florida State, the Seminoles open the season in Atlanta against Alabama. Crimson Tide safety Ronnie Harrison, who grew up in Tallahassee, Fla., and played for FSU University School, has already heard plenty about the game from the 850 area code.

“It’s already started,” Harrison said last week. “You know what they’re saying. They’re going to beat us, stuff like that.” Needless to say, Harrison doesn’t agree. “Of course not,” he said.

Having Florida State sitting at the front of the schedule has helped all the Crimson Tide players focus this off-season, but Harrison is especially excited. “It means a lot more to me because it’s my hometown team,” he said. “It definitely helps me prepare.”

9. After former Louisville cornerback Shaq Wiggins appealed late last week, Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino lifted a restriction that would have banned Wiggins, a graduate transfer, from going to Mississippi State on scholarship. Wiggins told ESPN’s Edward Aschoff that Petrino originally had blocked Wiggins from Kentucky, Purdue, Notre Dame, Western Kentucky and Mississippi State. Purdue and Kentucky play the Cardinals in ’17. Mississippi State, Notre Dame and Purdue do not.

Presumably, the original block of Mississippi State was to keep Wiggins from following former Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and former Louisville cornerbacks coach Terrell Buckley. Perhaps someone reminded Petrino that he didn’t seem to mind Wiggins following Grantham when it brought Wiggins to Louisville from Georgia, where Grantham had previously worked.

10. Iowa State holder Kyle Starcevich, who was already winning at life the moment he included #LacesOut in his Twitter bio, capped the Cyclones’ spring game with a proposal to girlfriend Tor Monroe.

What’s eating Andy?

One of the better burger eateries from my college days is for sale on eBay. Should I buy it, quit my various jobs and go to work slinging burgers? Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports said I should open an offensive line-themed burger shop. We could call it Big Ugly Burgers. The featured menu item would be this:

The Pancake Block: Two half-pound patties topped with cheddar cheese, a fried egg, bacon and maple syrup between two extra-thick buttermilk pancakes.

Watch your back, Fuddruckers.

What’s Andy eating?

To put it in football terms, I backed up the barbecue joint I’m reviewing today against its own goal line by showing up at 8:10 p.m. This violates one of my bedrock barbecue guidelines: Always go for lunch. Meat that takes hours to cook tends to be ready when the place opens. Go for dinner, and you’re putting yourself and the restaurant in a difficult spot. Go for a late dinner, and you’re asking to be disappointed.

But I couldn’t resist. I was only in Buford, Ga., for a night, and I’m a sucker for a great name. That’s how I wound up walking into Praise The Lard Barbecue 50 minutes before closing time.

Praise The Lard might be the best barbecue joint name in America. I also love Meat U Anywhere in Grapevine, Texas, and Cattleack Barbecue in Dallas. In the non-barbecue division, Austin’s Juan In A Million and Pho Shizzle in Renton, Wash., rank high. It would be wise for the proprietors at Praise The Lard to keep more size extra large T-shirts in stock. With a name that good, they can do a booming business selling gear. Fortunately, they can do a much bigger business selling barbecue.

Despite the difficult circumstances, Praise The Lard drove 99 yards against my appetite. Was everything perfect? Of course not. But that’s my fault for arriving when I did. Discovering a life hack to create the world’s most decadent pulled pork sandwich made up for any lateness-induced shortcomings.

Andy Staples

Even at that late hour, the spare ribs and pulled pork lived up to the credo on Praise The Lard’s website. The place brags that its meat doesn’t need sauce, and these certainly didn’t. The spare ribs were moist and came off the bone with a slight pull. They were sprinkled with a spicy rub that gave the meat a kick but didn’t overpower it. Praise The Lard took a similar tack with the pulled pork, which was juicy but not greasy. That pork also had a slight spike in spice that set it apart from the average piles of pig at most places.

Don’t bother with the brisket. (It’s Georgia, so you shouldn’t expect much from anyone selling brisket.) Do try the turkey, which was excellent and would have been even better at lunch. Skip the Brunswick Stew, which the menu notes does not include lima beans. The menu does not advertise how sweet the stew is. My guess is the owners would explain that this is a feature rather than a bug. My tastebuds beg to differ.

Andy Staples

Do order the grit cakes as a side. They’re amazing as offered, but they can be conscripted to provide the backbone of a truly decadent sandwich. What’s a grit cake? Take cooked grits and then season them properly with butter, salt and pepper. (There are no bad grits—only grits that weren’t prepared correctly.) Next, form the grits into cakes and fry them in oil. Praise The Lard makes perfect grits before frying the cakes, so by themselves the grit cakes make an addictive side. But before devouring those cakes, do me a favor. Pile some pulled pork on one cake and then slap the other cake on top. Now take a bite.

You’ll praise the lard—and the lord.

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