Clemson Football: Plenty of reasons to be positive about the Spring Game

Apr 9, 2022; Clemson, South Carolina, USA; White squad quarterback Cade Klubnik (2) warms up before the 2022 Orange vs White Spring Game at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 9, 2022; Clemson, South Carolina, USA; White squad quarterback Cade Klubnik (2) warms up before the 2022 Orange vs White Spring Game at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports /

Clemson Football held its annual Spring Game this past Saturday, and the White was victorious over the Orange.

Yours truly had the bad fortune of being the coach of a U9 Girls soccer team that had a game Saturday afternoon, so not only was I unable to attend, I wasn’t able to watch it live.

I did my best to avoid spoilers so I could watch the replay later Saturday evening but unfortunately couldn’t avoid all of them.

The couple of posts I saw had me a bit anxious about what I would see.

Not to mention a popular Clemson website said their subscribers weren’t holding back on their criticisms. It turned out to be typical message board stuff, but still, it was on the wrong side of what I hoped the reactions would be.

I cringed a bit as I read those spoilers but resisted the temptation to pre-judge before I watched the game myself. I’m glad I did because I wasn’t disappointed in what I saw.

I was pleased overall. Sure, I saw mistakes. I am also bummed that Garrett Riley didn’t tear every wide receiver screen out of the playbook like Robin Williams tearing up a textbook in Dead Poet Society, but that was probably a foolish expectation.

I had a lot more happy moments than frustrated ones. The biggest takeaway for me? I enjoyed watching the Spring Game. I was excited by the game itself, and this might be the first time since 2018 that I have said that.

The defense played well, but they have played well in the past few spring games too. What has been missing over the years is an offense that was fun to watch, and that is what I saw yesterday.

As one of the Twitter observers noted, they’ve only had 14 practices to install Riley’s offense. That might seem like a lot of time to some fans, and it is plenty of time to make progress. It isn’t enough time to expect the offense to be mistake-free, especially when they are missing multiple contributors and they are facing a defense that has ball hawks like Jeremiah Trotter, Barrett Carter and Andrew Mukuba.

I get it. There were seven sacks between the two sides. That’s a staple of Clemson Spring Games under Coach Swinney. Only 313 yards for the White and 172 for the Orange. Not spectacular.

Cade Klubnik made a few bad decisions. He threw a couple of INTs and still had plays where he lost too many yards because he didn’t step up in the pocket, throw the ball away, or simply take the sack. He is still the inexperienced guy who has only started one game and whose combined field time amounts to slightly more than two games of action. His shortcomings won’t disappear in one spring.

Christopher Vizzina has even less experience. He is an early enrollee – a ‘mid-year’ as Dabo Swinney calls them. He made some bad decisions too. I expected that. Nine yards and two INTs isn’t what we hoped to see, but keep in mind that Clemson wants him in the redshirt track if possible. This is just Vizzina’s starting point.

I expected both Klubnik and Vizzina to make mistakes. I guess some expected them to be Max Duggan on his way to an invitation to the Heisman ceremony in New York City, but that would also be a foolish expectation.

I saw mistakes, but I saw so much more that I liked. This wasn’t, in my opinion, the same kind of performance from Klubnik we saw in the Orange Bowl when he beat himself. The Orange offense struggled but they ended up with just as many points offensively as the White team.

I loved the way Riley used the tight ends. I learned a new name Saturday: Banks Pope. I needed that because my former favorite tight end, Luke Price, has exhausted his eligibility. I now need Pope to get his chance in a real game this fall.

The legit takeaway is if Riley can make a walk-on like Pope look that good, then I think we are going to love what we see from Jake Briningstool, Josh Sapp, and Sage Ennis this fall.

I like what I saw from the wide receivers Saturday. So much of the narrative this winter has been whether any special talents can step up in Riley’s offense. Outside of some enthusiasm about Antonio Williams, there has been much more doubt than faith in the balance of the receiving room.

What I saw Saturday was a group of receivers that got the job done. Did they set the world on fire? No. Did any one player jump off the page? No, but that’s what has me excited. I don’t think this offense needs superstars like Mike Williams, Sammy Watkins, or Tee Higgins to succeed. I think workhorses like Cole Turner and Brannon Spector can make this offense work. Beaux Collins and Adam Randall won’t have to be heroes. They will just need to be reliable.

I like the little bit I’ve seen of Noble Johnson. He’s bigger and stronger than I realized.

I’m not worried about Will Shipley not playing. There are so many ways Riley can use a Swiss Army knife like Shipley. I think Phil Mafah will feast in this new offense too.

The standout at running back was Quadzilla. Dominique Thomas is a grown man. He left some bruises on the White defense yesterday.

The one place on offense where I will not draw conclusions yet is the offensive line. I saw enough to be optimistic that the starting unit we expect in the fall will be functional and have a little more depth than in the last two seasons. I do agree that they struggled a bit Saturday, but I think it’s easy to diagnose the reasons.

Part of the reason the Clemson Football offense was challenged was because the defense played very well, despite missing some starters

Some of those reasons were the young men we wanted to see on the defensive line, and they didn’t disappoint. Peter Woods was fun to watch, and TJ Parker held his own. I have no idea if either of them will start this fall, but I do know the absence of Myles Murphy, Brian Bresee, and KJ Henry won’t be crippling. I also saw glimpses of Vic Burley and Stephiylan Green. This defensive line is going to continue to be a strength for the next three seasons.

I mentioned Trotter and Carter, but I have to admit no one else in the linebacking group jumped out at me. As long as those two stay healthy, the front seven will lead the way for this team in 2023.

I also like what I saw from the defensive backs. Mukuba looked more physical than in 2022 and it was a welcome sight. I think he is on his way to making a big comeback in 2023.

I thoroughly enjoyed Khalil Barnes. I am doing my best to not get carried away. I remember a very impressive Spring Game performance from Sheridan Jones a few years ago. We thought he would make an immediate impact but it took a couple more years for him to beat out the competition ahead of him. I’m guardedly optimistic that Barnes could turn out to be a very special player.

I understand the wish to see this offense just tear it up in the Spring Game, but like we said earlier, what we want from a spring exhibition are balance from both sides of the ball and no injuries, and for the most part, that’s what we got. Prior to Barnes’s game winning pick six, the game was tied, which is as balanced as you can get. There were a couple of injuries but so far it doesn’t look like anything highly impactful to the team.

Lastly, it was fun. I love the Spring Game, but I think I hadn’t realized how little fun the game itself had become over the past few seasons. I’m looking forward to this season more than ever now. Only four more months to wait….