CLEMSON, SC - After watching the first two practices of fall camp, the first thing that jumps out is that this team looks incredible. They would probably win the award for most intimidating team getting off the bus. The offensive line, defensive line and wide receivers all look like they should be in the NFL. In particular, Xavier Thomas has lost a ton of weight and looks fantastic. Braden Galloway added a lot of muscle, especially in his lower body. Those young receivers--EJ Williams and the Collins boys--added some good muscle as well, and so did CB Malcolm Greene, who was skinny as a rail this time last year.
The biggest thing I wanted to watch was freshman QB Will Taylor, who will likely be No.3 on the depth chart for the opener against Georgia. The first thing you notice is how short he is for a quarterback, but he is extremely athletic and throws a very nice ball. Just about every throw I saw him make was a perfect spiral, and usually pretty accurate. His diminutive stature could be an issue at times--in fact, he hit one of the blocking posts on a 7-on-7 drill--but he'll just have to move around the pocket to find throwing lanes like many short QB's have done successfully. Think Kyler Murray, who was also a baseball star and won the Heisman. Taylor's athleticism is definitely an asset as it was with Murray. I was fortunate to meet and talk to Will's father for about 30 minutes on Saturday, and he's a very cool guy. He was watching Will with his son, Paul, who is a safety commit for The Citadel. It was fun talking football and baseball with Eddie Taylor, and he told me that Will just couldn't pass up the special opportunity to attend Clemson and play football and baseball in order to go pro early. My friend Todd Helms was also at practice on Saturday to watch his son Hunter. It will be a good battle between those two for the 3rd spot on the depth chart when Taisun is game ready.
Having said that, the Tigers' quarterback situation suddenly isn't as dire as it was a few months ago. Taisun Phommachanh, who was ruled out for the season just 3 months ago when he tore his Achilles, has almost fully recovered and was remarkably able to practice on the first day Friday. He is moving around incredibly well, all things considered, although I could see him favoring his plant foot a little and slightly limping toward the end of practice. I would guess he's maybe 75% and likely wouldn't play if needed in the opener, but he could possibly play as early as the SC State game. That will take some pressure off of Helms and young Taylor. I got to see preferred walk-on Billy Wiles in person for the first time on Friday, and he is more than capable. He's got much better size than Taylor but obviously not as athletic. His passing was a little inconsistent, as to be expected, but I saw him make a terrific throw on a corner route to Ajou for a 40-yard touchdown on Saturday.
Joseph Ngata gave us all a scare on Saturday. After falling down on a broken up pass, he pounded the ground with the fist and thought he was injured again. The team doctor, Danny Poole, came over and examined his foot/ankle with his shoe off for a few minutes, but Ngata quickly returned and finished practice, so he appears to be okay. I guess when you're injured as much as he was last season, it starts to get in your head. Ngata has as much talent as any of the receivers, but he has to be able to stay healthy. As Dabo likes to say, the best ability is "availability!"
Speaking of which, the Tigers were minus 4 receivers on Saturday. Ross, as I reported on Friday, is out for a week in the COVID protocol. Sophomore Brannon Spector will miss all of camp with an injury, freshman Beaux Collins was in green on Friday but moved to yellow on Saturday with a shoulder and freshman Troy Stellato hurt his groin on Friday and was in yellow on Saturday. Stellato, by the way, looks impressive and will be an excellent slot receiver in the near future. Think Hunter Renfrow but bigger and faster top-end speed. I'm not saying he necessarily has Hunter Renfrow's hands--not many do--but you get the idea. Of the guys who were there, Ajou and Dacari Collins stood out to me. Those guys are going to have a great season! Frank Ladson also looked good. Like Ngata, hopefully Ladson will have an injury-free season so we can see what he can do.
Speaking of injuries, the good news is DE Justin Foster was suited up and drilling on Saturday for the first time in a year and a half! He didn't do anything on Friday, but he was back in the saddle on Saturday, so that's very encouraging. He still has a long way to go before he's back in playing condition, though.
As for the running backs, I didn't see much that changed my thoughts from the spring, although I get more excited about Will Shipley seeing him up close and personal. Jordan McFadden said on Friday that Shipley might be the fastest player on the team, and I wouldn't be surprised. He can flat-out fly. And he's already considered a team leader despite being a true freshman. That speaks to his character and work ethic. Dixon looks good as always, and I imagine his name will be at the top of the depth chart come September, but I expect Shipley and/or Pace to pass Dixon by at some point early in the season. The great thing is all three of those guys catch the ball well, as does freshman Phil Mafah.
Potter badly hooked a 45-yard field goal at the end of practice, causing the whole team to do a sprint, but he put his next one right down the middle. He had an outstanding season last year and should be a Groza Finalist this season! Spiers also looked great on his punts and should be a Ray Guy Finalist. Shipley, Dixon and Will Swinney were fielding punts with Ross out, and those are the guys you can expect to see on punt returns this season.
Finally, DJ looked as polished as you would expect. It's hard to believe he's just a true sophomore. He was consistent, accurate and a little leaner than he was at this time last year. Still, it's a blessing that he was able to start those two games last season to remove all doubt about his in-game ability--especially with the magnitude of the Tigers' opener this season!
I have practice photos on the way and will have more observations and insight for you as fall camp continues, so stay tuned!
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