SUNSET — Dabo Swinney doesn’t mince words. This can be a great football season at Clemson.
It’s already a good team, he said Monday.
“I believe that we’re good enough to play each and every Saturday at a high level,” Swinney said during his annual preseason golf outing at The Reserve. “I think our team understands that the margin for error to be a national championship contender is very small, but that’s not any different for anybody.
“But that’s why you want to be in that top 10, 12, 15 teams because one year you’re going to put it together. There’s going to be that year where you get that break or two that you need, some things that are out of your control (are going to) break your way and you have the opportunity to play for it.”
Swinney, in his fifth full season as coach, has most of the big pieces in place from a team that won 11 games including a dramatic win against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Clemson lost 11 seniors and a junior first-round NFL draft pick but returns four starters on the offensive line, its entire defensive line and All-American quarterback Tajh Boyd.
There are a few critical needs. Among the seniors lost were running back Andre Ellington, center Dalton Freeman and tight end Brandon Ford. Yet the area requiring the most urgency is the defensive secondary.
“If I’m sitting in the stands, that’s what I’m watching,” Swinney said.
The shelves aren’t bare for new defensive assistant Mark Reed with Travis Blanks, Bashaud Breeland, Martin Jenkins, Darius Robinson, Garry Peters and Robert Smith joined by eight freshmen, including highly regarded recruit MacKensie Alexander.
With Jenkins returning from season-long injury, Swinney counts nine “new” guys in the secondary.
“That’s probably the biggest thing,” he said
Replacing Freeman at center will be either sophomore Ryan Norton or Jay Guillermo, the triggers in an offense that averaged 90 plays per game last season. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris wants to bump the number.
Not everybody has the same affection for Rocket Rod McDowell as the principal running back as does Swinney.
“We’re not going to be a very good offense if we don’t have three productive backs, and we really need four,” he said. “He has clearly earned the right to be the starter.”
After losing Sam Cooper to an ACL injury during the spring, tight end might remain a work in progress with four principal characters, including two freshmen and sophomore Stanton Seckinger, a converted wide receiver who in one year has gone from rail thin to 235 pounds.
“That’s an area where I want to see some growth,” Swinney said.
Beating LSU, he hopes, provides the jumpstart for preparing to open the season with Georgia.
“When we get into camp, everybody senses the energy,” he said. “We can draw on that energy, but you can’t let it drain you and distract you. Hopefully, our guys have a good understanding from that.
“At the end of the day, if we can just compete consistently at a high level, we’re going to win a lot of games because we’re good enough,” he said. “We’re a good football team. If we’re going to be a great football team, our competitive consistency has to be at a high level. That was one of the things I hoped our team got out of last year.
“The thing our guys learned from last year is, if you’re going to be elite, the margin for error is very small, and everything matters. It all matters.”