College football spring games are in full swing now, with defending champ Clemson, plus LSU and USC highlighting this past weekend’s action. Here are some early overreactions and takeaways from Saturday’s top games:
This won’t come as a shock, but it’s still worth noting: Clemson’s offense is going to be insanely good in 2019.
Yes, Trevor Lawrence is back, and though he admitted to some spring game frustrations as his squad took the loss — Lawrence even re-entered the game in the fourth quarter hoping to pull off a comeback — there’s little doubt that he picked up right where he left off in last year’s national championship game.
But look what else the Tigers added: Freshman Joseph Ngata caught five balls for 127 yards, and fellow early enrollee Frank Ladson Jr. had five catches for 102 yards. It’s a wealth of riches for the Tigers, and it’s hard to see how the offense doesn’t offer its share of fireworks in 2019.
Still, there are questions on defense, where key starters have departed at every level.
Shaq Smith had a strong spring game and has earned raves from coaches this spring for his leadership. He’ll be a critical part of the defensive rebuild.
The bigger issue is on the line, where two expected starters — Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams — both missed the action. Dabo Swinney said the line will be the biggest question throughout the offseason.
—David M. Hale
What we learned from the LSU spring game:
Offensive evolution? The promise of newfangled schemes for LSU’s offense has seemingly become an offseason rite of passage in Baton Rouge. Every year, the Tigers talk about how they’re retooling the offense, often with mixed results by season’s end. This year could really be different, though.
On Saturday, the Tigers did look like a different group, spreading the ball with mostly four- and five-receiver formations, virtually all in the shotgun with a generous tempo, with Joe Burrow sprinkling in quick passes with his downfield attack. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire was a significant factor in the passing game, catching four passes as LSU running backs totaled seven receptions.
There was no sign of the run-pass option plays that Ed Orgeron has bandied about this spring, but that was by design: He didn’t want to show much new in a televised spring game. Still, with his quarterback and offensive coordinator back for a second consecutive season (a rare occurrence in Tigerland), Orgeron has reason for offensive optimism.
Fantastic freshmen: The Tigers annually haul in blue-chip recruits, and two of them showed out in LSU’s spring game: cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., the No. 1 cornerback in the 2019 ESPN 300, intercepted a Burrow pass by blanketing Terrace Marshall and getting good inside position for the underthrown deep ball.
“He came in from day one and has been phenomenal,” Orgeron said. Another ESPN 300 prospect, defensive tackle Siaki “Apu” Ika, was a force on Saturday.
The 347-pound behemoth was “dominant,” Orgeron said, getting three tackles for loss and two sacks. There was a stretch in the first half in which he seemed to get in the backfield five or six consecutive times.
He looks like a potential disruptor in the middle of the Tigers’ defense this fall.
—Sam Khan Jr.
While USC’s spring showcase served as its de facto spring game, the format wasn’t noticeably different than a typical Saturday spring practice.
There was scrimmaging, limited contact and reps to go around, but it wasn’t structured to allow for any significantly meaningful development in positional competitions.
Coach Clay Helton’s highest praise was reserved for early-enrollee freshman defensive end Drake Jackson, who picked off a Jack Sears screen pass and returned it for a touchdown in one of the most impressive individual plays of the day.
Helton said Jackson, a four-star recruit from nearby Corona, reminds him of former USC star Leonard Williams, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft.
“He reminds me a lot of Leonard, where Leonard was just a grown man as an 18-year-old right now,” Helton said. “To come out here in this type of atmosphere, your first time out and have fans around and have cameras around, and make big plays like that. Not only that one play, but he was playing in the backfield all day.”
The offensive highlight of the day was a long touchdown run from running back Markese Stepp, who ran through a crowd and pulled away from the defense — an impressive display from the 230-pounder. He appeared in four games last season (keeping his four years of eligibility intact) without making much of an impact but is without question a player to keep an eye on in 2019.