Clemson 2019 spring football preview: Can you improve on 15-0?

David J. Phillip/AP Photo

Here's the bad news for Clemson: After becoming the first college football team since the 1800s to finish 15-0, there's no room for improvement in 2019. The good news, however, is there's not much reason to think things will get any worse, either.

Sure, the Tigers have some big holes to fill on defense -- particularly when it comes to leadership and personality. Christian Wilkins, Kendall Joseph and Clelin Ferrell were the catalysts of Clemson's rise to the top of college football, and beyond their play on the field, their work ethic, leadership and perseverance drove the Tigers. That's not going to be easy to replicate, no matter how much talent Dabo Swinney has stocked away in recent recruiting classes.

But that's where the concerns end, because on the other side of the ball, Trevor Lawrence, Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and Travis Etienne are all back -- a year older, a championship on their résumés and poised to be one of the nation's premier offenses. If the national championship was the final chapter for so many veterans, it might have been just the start for the young group on offense, and 2019 figures to be something special.

2018 Record: 15-0, ACC and national champion
Spring start date: Thursday
Spring game: April 6
Pro day: March 14

Position battle to watch: Edge rusher. Quarterbacks around the ACC probably shouldn't relax too much, even with all four of last year's Clemson D-line starters gone. The troops waiting in the wings are really good too. We've already heard plenty from Xavier Thomas, who was a monster as a true freshman in reserve duty last season and could eclipse the impact of the guys who came before. The more intriguing battle is on the other side of the line, where Justin Foster, a former ESPN 300 recruit, brings a veteran presence as a junior to go with ample talent, while redshirt freshman K.J. Henry also figures to push for a starting job. Henry was the No. 6 overall recruit in last year's class, and his upside is tremendous. Add in fellow ESPN 300 recruit Justin Mascoll and the emerging Logan Rudolph, and the biggest question mark on the D-line might not be who replaces the departing stars, but whether those replacements can be even better.

Strength heading into spring: Flip a coin, running back or receiver. Clemson is insanely deep at both spots. In the backfield, Etienne is the clear lead dog, but he is flanked by legit NFL prospects in Tavien Feaster and Lyn-J Dixon. The trio accounted for more than 2,800 yards and 37 touchdowns last season. But the receiving corps might be even deeper, with Ross back after a 1,000-yard campaign as a true freshman, teaming with Higgins, Amari Rodgers, Diondre Overton and Derion Kendrick, all former ESPN300 recruits, along with Frank Ladson Jr. and Joe Ngata, two highly touted freshmen aiming to be this year's Ross.

Weakness heading into spring: If there's a question on Clemson's roster, it's in the middle of the defense, where the Tigers lost Joseph and Tre Lamar to the NFL, after the duo had anchored the D over the past two years. Isaiah Simmons returns in a hybrid role, but the big question marks surround Chad Smith and Shaq Smith. The latter was a highly regarded recruit alongside Lamar three years ago, but he has seen his development limited. Still, Clemson has a history of late bloomers becoming stars, and Smith might be the next in line. Plus, it's hard to envision Brent Venables letting his position group be the weak link on defense.

Breakout candidate for the spring: Shaq Smith is certainly one to watch this spring as his role expands, and the freshmen receivers are apt to put on a show; but keep an eye on cornerback Kyler McMichael for a potential breakthrough. McMichael played sparingly as a true freshman in 2018, but he did get his feet wet. That experience could be a stepping stone for the spring, as he has asked to step in and fill the void left when Trayvon Mullen opted for the NFL. McMichael was a top recruit last season, and like so many others on defense, he finally will get his chance to shine. Venables has a history of riding his DBs hard in the spring, so if McMichael can come out unscathed, he could be ready for a star turn in 2019.

Under-the-radar storyline: OK, we've made it this far without gushing over quarterback Trevor Lawrence, but really, what's left to say? He is elite, and he's going to get better. The bigger question for Clemson might be how the depth chart behind Lawrence shakes out. Chase Brice did an admirable job in relief last season after Kelly Bryant's abrupt departure, but four-star freshman Taisun Phommachanh enrolled early and could push for snaps. The Tigers were caught a bit flat-footed with depth at the QB spot due to three transfers following the 2017 season, and rebuilding that depth starts this spring.