COLUMBIA — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has turned the page on his team’s landmark 11-victory season last fall. He believes his returning players won’t rest on their laurels and are ready to chase bigger things this season.
“We’re not hoping to have a good season, we’re expecting to have a good season,” Swinney said by phone Tuesday.
The Tigers start spring workouts on March 6 with the Orange-and-White game to conclude the drills April 13. They finished 11-2 in 2012, the Tigers’ most victories since their 12-0, national championship season of 1981.
Clemson finished on a high note, Chandler Catanzaro’s last-second field goal stunning LSU at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, 25-24. The Tigers return just 10 senior scholarship players next year and Swinney acknowledged young players can easily have their heads swelled from success. But he believes his staff and his players have maintained a sharp focus that will help them grind through the offseason.
After all, not everything went the Tigers’ way last fall. They led Atlantic Coast Conference champion 27-13 in the third quarter before getting overrun by the Seminoles in a 49-37 defeat – a game that cost the Tigers a chance at a second consecutive ACC crown. There was also the team’s first home defeat in two years, a 27-17 loss to South Carolina that was the program’s unprecedented fourth straight in the Palmetto State’s biggest sporting rivalry.
Both those missteps provide plenty of fuel to fire up the Tigers, Swinney contends.
“This is a group that wants to be great,” he said.
Clemson’s offense led the ACC and was ninth in the Football Bowl Subdivision with more than 512 yards a game. The unit got a couple of major boosts in the return of coordinator Chad Morris and record-setting quarterback Tajh Boyd. Morris’ name came up with several head coach openings right after the season and he met with Texas Tech about its vacancy last December before the Red Raiders chose Texas A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury so Morris stayed put.
Boyd, a junior last fall, was leaning toward the NFL draft after Clemson’s bowl victory over LSU, but decided he wasn’t finished with college. Boyd does lose a couple of crucial teammates to Clemson’s offensive success the past two years in senior tailback Andre Ellington and receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who declared for the NFL draft with a year of eligibility left.
Ellington was a two-time 1,000-yard rusher with a burst of speed, something Clemson’s returning backs in D.J. Howard and Rod McDowell haven’t yet shown. The Tigers appear in much better shape receiver-wise with Sammy Watkins hoping to recapture his All-American showing as a freshman in his junior year this fall.
The defense comes into spring having lost play makers like defensive lineman Malliciah Goodman and linebacker Jonathan Willard, a Loris High product. But coordinator Brent Venables’ group brings in Oklahoma transfer Kellen Jones at linebacker. Jones spent last season working with the scout team and Swinney said gave offensive coach’s fits with his effort and skill. “I’m looking forward to seeing him out there,” the coach said.
Swinney’s most concerned this spring with his defensive backs. The Tigers signed eight at the position last month with all but one of the newcomers not arriving until summer. Darius Robinson, Martin Jenkins and Bashaud Breeland are all coming off injuries, while occasional starter Garry Peters will miss the first couple of spring practices because of attitude issues.
Swinney said despite their youth, the Tigers have learned how to prepare the right way – and that’s a large reason they’ve gone 21-6 with an ACC title over the past two seasons. The coaches have continued to target the right players in recruiting and those players have entered ready to work, Swinney said.
The coach noted the players understand the margin for error is small to compete for the Bowl Championship Series or reach the national title game. “So if we’ll stay committed, stay humble, stay confident and just continue to be about the right things and don’t let distractions enter our program,” Swinney says, “then certainly we have chance to be in the mix.”