Defending national champion Clemson opens spring practice Wednesday, less than two months removed from its celebration in Tampa, Florida. But as Dabo Swinney's crew gets set to kick off 2017 preparations, things are starting to feel far removed from 2016.
The differences begin at quarterback, where Deshaun Watson moves on to the NFL and a whole host of alternatives with little experience, but a lot of talent, begin battling for the job of replacing a once-in-a-generation Clemson player.
That story will dominate the spring, to be sure. But after the QB battle, there are still some interesting storylines for the Tigers. Here's a look at three we're watching closely.
Where does Christian Wilkins fit?
Ideally, Wilkins is an interior lineman. He looked terrific there as a freshman in 2015. He dropped weight last season in an effort to play on the edge due to limitations on the depth chart, and he looked terrific in that role, too. So where does Wilkins best fit now? The need, particularly with the departure of Scott Pagano, is probably back inside, but it will be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Brent Venables utilizes Wilkins this spring. Wilkins probably needs to set the tone in 2017 for how he'll be viewed in the pros.
What has the class of 2016 done?
The crazy thing about last year's national champs is that, aside from Dexter Lawrence and Sean Pollard, the Tigers didn't really get significant contributions from any other freshmen. That's a bit surprising given that Swinney signed 15 blue-chip recruits. So, what did a year largely on the sideline do for Trayvon Mullen, Tavien Feaster, Shaq Smith, Xavier Kelly, Diondre Overton, Tre Lamar and others? The progress made will be critical because virtually all of them will be in the mix for dramatically bigger roles in 2017.
What will the ground game look like?
Sure, losing Watson’s arm and leadership is big, but what about his scrambling ability? And how will Clemson replace the physical running style of Wayne Gallman? Swinney’s already made it clear he expects freshman Travis Etienne to play this year, but he won’t be on campus until the summer. That leaves Feaster, Adam Choice and C.J. Fuller in the mix this spring, with the offense needing to get a good look at how physical the trio can perform, while at the same time playing it safe to preserve depth.
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