Next Man Up on Offense
Head coach Dabo Swinney is faced with a couple of challenges no other coach at the FBS level must address in 2017. First, his team won the national championship in 2016 and must deal with the challenges that naturally follow that accomplishment.
Second, on the offensive side of the football, he must replace a 4,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard receiver and a 1,000-yard rusher, the only FBS coach in the nation who must replace that level of production in those three areas. No more Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, Wayne Gallman and Jordan Leggett. And don't forget Jay Guillermo, the guy who started every play at center and made offensive line calls.
But we said the same thing about Clemson's defense after the 2014 season when we lost eight starters from a defense that led the nation in 11 different statistical categories. How could the Tigers replace Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward? Well, we had Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd and Ben Boulware waiting in the wings.
That 2015 team did just fine with some second-team defenders from 2014 stepping up. Now, that is the case for the offense…next man up.
Exceeding Expectations Six Years in a Row
Clemson has equaled or exceeded its postseason AP and USA Today rankings in comparison to its preseason rankings each of the last six years. That was quite an accomplishment in 2016, as Clemson was No. 2 in the preseason of both polls and had to finish No. 1 to exceed the preseason rankings.
Dabo Swinney is the first coach in history with a six-year streak in that area. John Cooper (Ohio State) and Bill Snyder (Kansas State) had five-year streaks.
What are the chances Swinney can do it again in 2017? Well, it is going to be easier than last year because most national media I talk to have the Tigers somewhere at the bottom of the top 10 entering the 2017 season. It is actually similar to the 1982 season after Clemson won the 1981 national title. Clemson was ranked No. 11 by AP and No. 9 in the coaches poll in the preseason of 1982.
Not Defending Anything
Dabo Swnney's approach to the 2017 season is the same whether the Tigers are coming off a losing season or a national championship.
“We don't look at it as defending a title, we are attacking another,” said Swinney at the beginning of spring practice. “This team will have its own journey. It is a new year with new personnel and new coaches. It is a new challenge with new team chemistry. We have a windshield mentality. Last year was terrific and we celebrated that season in front of 70,000 people in Death Valley a week after the championship game.
“Our goal is to be the best we can be each year, and that never changes.”
One of the keys to Clemson's championship run last year and a key to any season is building leadership, and that is something that is developed during the offseason.
“We had great leadership last year. They were a committed group who wanted to make Clemson the best team in the nation.
“We lost many of those players, but I see the same type of people in those we have returning. They were here last year and know what it takes.
This year's team must replace 23 lettermen, including 12 starters, seven on offense, four on defense and the punter. The squad will be young, as the roster entering spring practice had just seven scholarship seniors.
But that group has been battle tested, playing 30 games over the last two years and winning 28, including nine wins over top-25 teams and six over top-10 teams. Fifteen of the wins came away from home as well.
Who Is Going To Be the Quarterback?
The burning question of the spring will continue to be the most often asked question to Dabo Swinney all summer…who will step under center for the Tigers in 2017?
Having watched just about all the spring practices and all the scrimmages, it is a close competition, with four players in the hunt. Swinney made it clear at the beginning of spring practice that junior Kelly Bryant was the starter.
After the Spring Game, he said, “If we played tomorrow, Kelly Bryant would be our starter. But we don't play tomorrow.”
And that sums it up. The competition will continue over the summer and into August camp. It may continue until the week of the opener against Kent State.
Each of the four had their moments in the spring. In the first scrimmage, Bryant took the No. 1 offense on a 75-yard drive against the No. 1 defense by connecting on 4-5 passes for 70 yards. His running ability is unquestioned.
In a stadium scrimmage in March, Hunter Johnson completed five of his first six passes for 110 yards and a touchdown and drew praise from Swinney and the offensive staff. And Tucker Israel completed 13-19 passes in the Spring Game. He also had a scrimmage where he started 6-6 passing for 61 yards.
So the best way to describe the quarterback race at the current time would be to bring back the phrase that ended each Batman television show in the 1960s…“To be continued.”
The Cupboard Is Not Bare
While everyone talks about what Clemson lost from its national championship team, there are still some outstanding players on the 2017 squad. This opinion was confirmed in March when ESPN's college football “experts” released their top-50 players for the 2017 season.
Four Tigers were rated on that list, tied for the most in the nation with Washington. Alabama and Oklahoma had three apiece.
Clemson is the only school in the nation with two of the top-10 players. Christian Wilkins (No. 8) was the highest-rated Tiger. A junior in 2017, Wilkins was a first-team All-American as a sophomore defensive end. He had a team-high 13.5 tackles for loss and 10 pass breakups, a record for a Clemson defensive lineman.
Just two spots below Wilkins was defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. As a freshman in 2016, Lawrence led the defensive line in tackles and had seven sacks, tied for the most ever by a Tiger freshman. Lawrence was a unanimous freshman All-American in 2016 and was the ACC Defensive Freshman-of-the-Year.
Offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt was rated as the No. 30 overall player in the nation. Hyatt has started 29 of Clemson's 30 games over the last two years. He was a Third-Team All-ACC selection in 2015 as a freshman and a first-team choice in 2016.
Wideout Deon Cain was rated No. 47 on the list of top-50 players. As a sophomore last year, he had nine receiving touchdowns, second on the team behind Mike Williams, who had 11. Cain was 19th in the nation in yards per reception as well.
New Coaches on Defense
For the first time in three years, Dabo Swinney was in the market for some assistant coaches during the offseason. Dan Brooks decided to retire after over 40 years in the profession and Marion Hobby accepted a position in the NFL.
Swinney selected two coaches with ties to the Alabama program for his new mentors on defense. It has led to a bit of a restructuring, in that Mickey Conn is coaching the secondary with Mike Reed and Todd Bates is in charge of the entire defensive line. Previously, Brooks handled the defensive tackles and Hobby the defensive ends.
Conn, a teammate of Swinney on Alabama's 1992 national championship team, was on Clemson's staff in 2016 as senior defensive analyst. He came to Clemson from Grayson (Ga.) High School, where he started the program in 2000 and coached for 16 years. He had a 137-48 record and took the program to seven region titles. He won at least 10 games in eight of his last nine seasons, including a 13-1 record in 2015.
Conn led the Rams to the state championship in 2011, when one of his running backs was Wayne Gallman, who just finished his career fifth in rushing in Clemson history. Ryan Carter and Nick Schuessler were also developed under Conn at Grayson.
A 2005 Alabama graduate, Bates just finished his third season at Jacksonville State as defensive line coach. In his three seasons, the Gamecocks were 33-6 overall and 23-0 in the Ohio Valley Conference with three conference championships. It marked the first time an OVC team had three perfect conference seasons in a row.
Jacksonville State was fourth in the nation at the FCS level in total defense, allowing 275 yards per game. The Gamecocks were also second in pass efficiency defense, fifth in rushing defense, seventh in sacks, seventh in interceptions, seventh in scoring defense and eighth in tackles for loss.
A Real Spring Game
The climax of the spring was obviously the Spring Game in Death Valley on April 8. A Spring Game record crowd of 60,000 attended, and it contributed to the most game-like atmosphere I have ever seen for a Spring Game.
“We would like the thank our fans for turning out today,” said Dabo Swinney. “We don't play exhibition games, so the more opportunities we have to play in game-like conditions, the better it prepares our team.”
It was also the most game-like Spring Game because Swinney split the teams evenly and allowed tackling of the quarterbacks. After going through Spring Game stories, box scores and thinking back, I concluded it was the first time we had full hitting on the quarterback for the Spring Game since 1992.
To fully evaluate the quarterbacks, it was a good decision by Swinney. It was also a good decision because no one suffered a serious injury. The ability to show mobility and success on read-option plays is a key to the Tiger offense, and to really see what a quarterback can do, you have to be able to tackle the quarterback. It is also the best evaluation of the defense.
Swinney and the staff obviously divided the teams evenly, as the score ended 19-14 in favor of the Orange team.
One of the highlights of April 8 was the awarding of the national championship rings to the seniors, a ceremony that took place during halftime. It was one more opportunity for Dabo Swinney to hug the senior leaders of that special 2016 team and one more opportunity for fans to cheer some of Clemson's greatest players.
The rings are incredible, rivaling anything I have ever seen presented to a Super Bowl champion.
“Jostens did a phenomenal job producing our national championship rings,” said Swinney. “We have dreamed about getting these rings for a long time.
“One of our slogans this year was to ‘give a little extra.' Well, Jostens went a little extra in producing these rings. The detail on each ring is unbelievable, and we are very appreciative.
“The box, complete with the schedule, combined with the three rings, tells the story of this special season. It is a story 25 years from now, everyone involved with our program will be able to relive with great pride each time they open this box.”