CLEMSON — Seldom shy about expressing himself, Dabo Swinney takes the Clemson football team to its first practice of spring today with an ambitious, unabashed vision.
On the heels of an 11-2 record, a victory against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and a No. 9 national ranking in the final USA Today coaches’ poll, Swinney wants more for this team.
“Our goal is to compete for the national championship,” Swinney said. “We want to be in the mix for the BCS Bowl every year. We want to finish in the top 10 multiple times. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Clemson returns 13 starters, including ACC player of the year Tajh Boyd at quarterback, receiver Sammy Watkins, first-team All-American in 2011 as a freshman, and offensive coordinator Chad Morris.
In three seasons as a college assistant, Morris has fashioned himself into one of the hottest commodities in the game. Clemson was top 10 nationally in scoring (6), total offense (9) and passing efficiency (4), and Boyd enters the season as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate.
Beyond Boyd, the promise offensively rides on the shoulders of four returning offensive line starters and the talent behind Watkins at receiver to replace All-American DeAndre Hopkins. Ryan Norton leads the candidates to replace all-conference center Dalton Freeman.
Rod McDowell, D.J. Howard and Zac Brooks are experienced, but auditions to succeed Andre Ellington as the principle running back won’t be closed until freshmen Tyshon Dye and Wayne Gallman arrive. And replacing Brandon Ford at tight end could be wide open and intriguing as Sam Cooper, Stanton Seckinger and J.J. McCullough develop.
If Clemson has a chance of achieving its loftiest goal, the defense must be at least as good from the start as it was at the end of last season.
Swinney believes the front seven should be one of the team’s strengths despite losing linebacker Jonathan Willard and end Malliciah Goodman.
“Our defensive line, our linebacking corps, I think that will be a big-time strength for our football team over the next couple of years,” he said.
The secondary will remain a mystery through the spring and probably up to kickoff Aug. 31.
“You’re not going to be a complete product in the secondary, that’s the only position on our team that I don’t feel like we’re just not going to know a lot this spring,” Swinney said. “We don’t have a lot of bodies here right now for spring ball.”
Martin Jenkins, Darius Robinson and Bashaud Breeland, with 14 starts between them, return from injuries. Travis Blanks moves from part-time outside linebacker/safety to a full-time job at safety. And Robert Smith should push for a job at safety. Garry Peters, who made two critical plays in the bowl game, will miss the start of spring drills to “adjust” his attitude, Swinney said.
Clemson signed eight defensive backs, including highly regarded Mackensie Alexander, a cover corner with the potential to compete immediately.
“We’re not going to know a lot after spring,” Swinney said. “We’ll be far from complete in the secondary until we get all these other guys, and it’s a really talented group with a lot of skill sets coming in.”
Five practices are scheduled before spring break, then 10, including the spring game 4 p.m., April 13.
Tigers, Bulldogs in prime time
The season-opening football game between Clemson and Georgia at Clemson on Aug. 31 will start at 8 p.m. and will be televised by ABC. The ACC and SEC made the announcement on Tuesday.
This is the first of a two-game series between the longtime rivals. Clemson will go to Georgia in 2014.
Both teams finished in the top 10 of the final USA Today poll last year. Georgia was fourth with a 12-2 record while Clemson was ninth with an 11-2 mark.
Both schools figure to be ranked in the top 10 in preseason polls with the return of their starting quarterbacks. Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Georgia’s Aaron Murray both ranked in the top five in the nation in passing efficiency and touchdown passes last year.