Clemson's annual Orange and White Game showcased a little bit of everything, which is exactly what these scrimmages are designed to do.
Was there some bad? You better believe it. Was there some good? Absolutely. The competition on a team with many of its stars sitting out was undeniable. Clemson has a real chance to be really good again in 2021.
Saturday was a building block toward that, and it was a tremendous opportunity for many players to perform in front of a crowd hungry for football. Here's a look at what was learned during head coach Dabo Swinney's split-squad spring game:
QB depth is a real problem
It didn't take long Saturday for serious concerns at the quarterback position to begin to build. Taisun Phommachanh, who came into the spring as the assumed backup to surefire starter D.J. Uiagalelei, got off to a tough start passing but settled in nicely. He completed 14 of 25 passing for 163 yards, one touchdown and an interception. But Phommachanh left the game with a foot injury that Swinney later announced was likely an Achilles tendon tear. That would mean Phommachanh won't be available this fall, leaving the Tigers in a potentially perilous position. Sure, freshmen Bubba Chandler and Will Taylor are supposed to join the team this summer, but Hunter Helms is the only other QB on the roster with experience. Uiagalelei's health becomes a major topic in 2021.
The playmaking youngsters look good
Spring games are all about the players no one has seen play, and this year didn't disappoint. While Will Shipley, one of the headliners, underwhelmed with 13 rushing yards on six carries and one reception for nine yards, fellow running back Phil Mafah looked exceptional. The Georgia native had 38 yards on six carries and scored the game-winning touchdown for the White team. Meanwhile, at receiver, Beaux Collins and Dacari Collins lived up to the hype. Dacari Collins had just two receptions, but he proved with his 48 yards that he needs the ball a lot more. Beaux Collins had a touchdown catch on the opening drive, and it's quite clear how much chemistry he and high school teammate Uiagalelei have, although Collins did leave the game with an injury. Nate Wiggins was a ballhawk at cornerback. Overall, there's a lot to like about these young playmakers.
Defensive fundamentals improving
This probably wasn't the spring practice season to be playing for Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. The defensive performance in that Sugar Bowl got thrown out the window, but it's clear after watching the spring game that the coaches got back to the basics. The fundamentals were much better. Tackles were crisper. Blitzes were on time. Defenders were in a position to make plays. And that was all without two stalwarts in linebacker James Skalski and safety Nolan Turner. Add in talented freshman safety Andrew Mukuba, who was also out, and the Tigers have a lot of reasons to believe last year's defensive woes against Notre Dame and Ohio State and be corrected. But it still all comes down to what happens in the trenches. The Tigers need more pressure on the QB, and that appears headed in the right direction.
No blowing smoke
Is anybody really surprised that the two receivers Swinney has complimented the most in recent months turned out to be the leading pass-catchers? They shouldn't be. Ajou Ajou (6 catches, 102 yards) and Joseph Ngata (6 catches, 83 yards) were the best receivers on the field Saturday and it wasn't even close. Ajou is a monster across the middle of the field. Defenders have a hard time staying with him, and his size is going to be a factor. Ngata was somewhat forgotten last year as he dealt with multiple injuries and only contributed in seven games, but he looks like the best one-on-one outside option on the team. Of course, Justyn Ross and Frank Ladson Jr. were both out, but Ngata is going to be a playmaker in 2021. He had a tremendous catch along the sideline, where he went up over a defender to haul in a Uiagalelei deep pass. Swinney's right...again.
Functional depth on O-line
Coaches don't really care about how old or young an offensive line is or the number of bodies available. The keyword is "functional." Swinney has used it over and over again the last few years, and this might be his most capable O-line since that veteran group of 2019. Yes, the Tigers are still young up front, but they're much more capable. For example, Clemson threw an early enrollee in at left tackle, and he held his own. Marcus Tate was one of the standouts of the spring game, and it was unexpected. It goes to show that there's plenty of depth this year. This time last spring, Swinney didn't have a second-team O-line that could actually help his roster. It wasn't all pretty Saturday as the Tigers' front got beat plenty of times, but with veteran Matt Bockhorst out, they still showed enough to believe this group can improve as much as any before Sept. 4 against Georgia.
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