Seldom less than confident, coach Dabo Swinney presented tangible evidence for optimism as the Clemson football team prepared for the first practice of spring.
Even with the loss of 14 starters from the nation’s 15th-ranked team – including nine from the nation’s top defense – Clemson returns experience at virtually every position except punter. That includes a quarterback with the earmarks of a thoroughbred, plus depth at running back, tight end and in the secondary.
“I think our frontline guys have got good experience,” Swinney said Friday during a preview of the spring. “We just don’t have the experienced depth we’ve had the last year or so.”
If there is a broad concern, it would be in identifying new leadership to replace the 28 lettermen, more than half of which could check in at an NFL camp this summer.
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“We lost some great leadership,” he said, “some tough, tough battle-tested guys. That’s what we’ve got to develop in a hurry.
“Every opportunity we get, we’ve got to develop the chemistry, the leadership, the toughness of some of these young talented guys. It’s critical we do that.”
One unexpected setback was the loss of junior offensive lineman Jay Guillermo to what Swinney characterized as a personal medical issue. Guillermo pushed starter Ryan Norton all season and was assured a starting role this spring.
“Really disappointed for him,” Swinney said. “I don’t anticipate him being with us this spring.”
Otherwise, the offensive line includes six lettermen, five with significant experience, and a highly regarded freshman class. “That entire room is going to be transformed,” Swinney said.
The standards haven’t changed though the perspective was adjusted on defense.
“We were the standard,” Swinney said. The goal, then, is “how do we continue to sustain some of that success?”
During a self-evaluation, Swinney said they identified needs for improving efficiency in the red zone and cutting down on sacks.
“We’ve got 15 days. We’re not going to get it all done,” he said, “but we have got to make progress.”
Most notable this spring, Swinney pointed out, was the arrival of 15 early enrollees from the 2015 freshman class.
“Our football team is going through spring practice, and that isn’t always the case in college football,” he said. “It gives us a unique opportunity.”
Though sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson will not practice, his mission during the spring will be to assume a larger leadership role and help mentor junior Nick Schussler and new freshmen Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel.
“He’s just killing it,” Swinney said of Watson. “I’m really pleased with the progress he’s making.”
A few will miss time with injuries, including defensive tackle D.J. Reader, who dropped a weight on a big toe, but others are returning, including running back Zac Brooks and tight end Jordan Leggett. Both also are expected to assume leadership roles.
“We’re ready to roll. March 2nd can’t get here soon enough,” Swinney said. “I like our football team.”