What We Learned From Clemson’s 2023 Spring Game

Spring games are not indicative of how good or bad a college football team will be. 

Take Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s word for it. 

But coming out of the Tigers’ Orange and White Spring Game on Saturday, the prevalent thought is that the defense is ahead of the offense. 

Duh. After all, Clemson had 15 practices to install and learn a new system. Quarterback Cade Klubnik barely knew offensive coordinator Garrett Riley three months ago. The receiving corps was gutted. The offensive line was low on experienced players. 

The game, which the White team won 20-13, wasn’t a disaster, but it wasn’t what people necessarily came to see. The White team, led by Klubnik, racked up 313 total yards. The Orange had 171. The four quarterbacks who played combined for no touchdowns, four interceptions and a modest 6.5 yard per pass attempt.

Klubnik had 190 passing yards on a 55% completion percentage. There were no chunk-yard plays, passing or rushing, over 36 yards.

Those unimpressive stats come with a ton of caveats, but there were some positives. The middle of the field and tight ends were used prominently. Klubnik made good decisions for the most part. And the defense was nasty. 

Using just one public scrimmage to evaluate an entire spring is difficult, but let’s take a look at what we learned about this offseason thus far based on what we saw at Memorial Stadium on Saturday: 

Defense has its swagger back

This wasn’t only evident during the two hours on Saturday. This was something that was witnessed at media-open practices and heard from players on both sides of the ball all spring. Last year was not great in terms of the standard of this unit. A distinct dominance was lacking, especially in defending the passing game. 

They came into the spring expecting to be better, and it appears they are after picking off four passes. And while it’s important for the defensive front to be physically dominant, the linebackers to fly around and the secondary to make plays on the ball, it’s just as important that they BELIEVE they are the defense that’s been known for those things for nearly a decade. 

The key ingredient to a renewed spirit comes from the desire to improve and the influx of youth mixed with veterans. This defense has a lot of players with something to prove. There are no previous accolades to fall back on, and nobody feels like they’ve arrived. It’s a hungry group and that mentality from the spring should carry over into the fall. 

Tigers have to get healthy

This was Swinney’s No. 1 concern coming out of the spring game. Clemson was without three starting offensive linemen (one was at a wedding), star running back Will Shipley (knee tendinitis), and two likely starters in receivers Beaux Collins and Adam Randall. And that was just on offense. The defensive line missed four defensive linemen Swinney said will all “play on Sunday.” 

All of those losses showed. It made it very difficult to fairly evaluate Klubnik and where he is in both his development and knowledge of the offense. 

The defense was still really good and by many accounts had a great spring, but those big guys up front have to get healthy. They’re the key to a huge season. 

Maybe being able to develop so many freshmen and sophomores will end up being a blessing in the long run because with how many injuries the Tigers have suffered in the last couple of seasons, they might need a ton of competitive depth to make a long run this fall. 

Running back room is deep

There have been plenty of concerns on the recruiting trail expressed by the fan base over the last couple of years when it comes to this position. But watching a spring game without Shipley, with Phil Mafah being “the man,” and the backups running hard should ease some people’s minds. 

Don’t just look at the spring game stats. Neither team got to three yards per carry, and that’s fine. The offensive lines were not balanced or experienced enough against the big boys on the other side to create a ton of holes. But watch how hard Mafah, Domonique Thomas and Keith Adams Jr. ran. They all three carried a few guys for extra yards. They powered through holes and they held on to the football. 

And there are two more freshmen coming in this summer to bolster the competition. 

With a healthy Shipley and a hungry Mafah, there’s clearly enough depth behind them to feel good about this room in 2023.

Tons of work ahead

All eyes were on Klubnik every time he took a snap. He has to be better than he was in the Orange Bowl, his only start of 2022, and better than he was Saturday. His pocket presence and feeling the pressure must improve. His footwork is a big deal. He showed again what he can do with his legs, but he’s got to make some throws down field. Those didn’t happen in the spring game. 

He’s still very young and developing, but there are no training wheels when the season starts on Labor Day night at Duke. 

He hopes to have a full arsenal of pass-catchers this fall. That receiving corps did little to impress or shake off two consecutive seasons of inconsistencies. Once healthy, there is still a ways to go for that group. 

The offensive line knows what it’s starting unit will look like, but it’s got to build more quality depth. Some big boys up front looked overwhelmed at times and struggled blocking true freshmen. 

The secondary was one of the big bright spots Saturday, but they still have a lot to prove coming off a lackluster year. It appears there are more able bodies than last year, but they have to grow some guys up in a hurry to reach full potential.

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