All options were on the table as coach Dabo Swinney contemplated a season without several key components from a Clemson team that won 11 games and finished No. 8 after winning its first BCS bowl game.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd exhausted his eligibility after setting dozens of records, Sammy Watkins opted to turn pro a year early after shattering virtually every school receiving record and Swinney said a decision by pass-rush specialist Vic Beasley was imminent.
On the other hand, offensive coordinator Chad Morris rebuffed every suitor after being mentioned as a potential candidate for jobs at Louisville, Texas and Vanderbilt and was “here today,” Swinney said Saturday during a review of 2013 and a preview of 2014.
“Big picture-wise, I think that we’re in good shape.”
Morris seemed a safe bet to return unless he accepted an offer to become a head coach. A lateral or lesser job would require a buyout of $5.2 million, $1.3 for each remaining year on a contract that runs through 2017. He becomes critical in identifying the next quarterback, though Swinney conceded he was willing to consider working more than one into the offensive scheme next fall.
“We’ve got some really good players and some great talent at that position,” Swinney said “Ideally, yeah, you’d like to have a guy that’s clear cut.
“We’ve got a long way to go before we figure that out.”
Cole Stoudt, backup to Boyd for three seasons, could enter spring practice atop the depth chart, though not without a challenge from sophomore Chad Kelly. Deshaun Watson, the nation’s top dual-threat prospect, enrolled this week, “as talented a guy that we’ve ever signed here.”
“I wouldn’t concede anything,” Swinney said. “Maybe you have two guys that bring different strengths, and you need that combination to win.
“You’ll continue to see a quarterback to be a big threat for us,” Swinney said. Between the two, Kelly is probably a more effective runner than Stoudt. Watson could be better than them all. “When the quarterback is not a threat to run the ball, you’re really playing 11 on 10.”
Aside from quarterback, Clemson faces makeovers at running back and receiver, and Swinney awaited Beasley’s decision. Projected by the NFL draft advisory committee as a second-round pick, Beasley was among the nation’s leaders in sacks and tackles for loss. Some draft analysts project him late first round as an outside linebacker in an odd-front scheme.
“I think that he’s really kind of a little bit torn,” Swinney said. “He also knows that he can greatly improve himself with another year.
“It’s just a matter of him making a decision.”
Other than Beasley, Clemson loses two starting linebackers and two corners from a defense that led the nation in tackles for loss. Regardless, he said, the front seven remains a strength, and three strong recruiting classes should make the transition easier.
“It’s hard to be nitpicky,” he said. “Our front seven was impressive. Our secondary improved.”
Efforts to upgrade the run game could be influenced by the choice at quarterback. Rod McDowell was the most dependable, rushing for a career high 1,025 yards after injuries to Tyshon Dye, Zac Brooks and C.J. Davidson depleted the position. Boyd was second in rushing with 400 including 127 in the bowl game.
“We were a little different,” Swinney said. “We were creative in how we did some things.
Brooks and D.J. Howard are expected back. Former sprinter C.J. Davidson returned from an injury during the season to play a critical role in the bowl game. Freshmen Tyshon Dye and Wayne Gallman will spice the competition. And Jay Jay McCullough began to show signs of productivity as a tight end/fullback.
“I want to see us run the football,” he said. “I think we have a chance to be pretty special in our backfield. I can see a little bit of a shift in that direction.”
The biggest blow was losing Dye to a back injury that required surgery. Swinney expects him to be at full speed by August if not sooner, and Gallman practiced well in December. Plus, former Richmond, Va., high school running back Kirk Fleming has joined the program as a walk-on after four seasons in the Atlanta Braves’ organization.
Losing Watkins and Martavis Bryant to the NFL a year early opens opportunities for Mike Williams, Adam Humphries, Germone Hopper and three talented freshmen who enrolled with Watson. Charone Peake, rated higher than Watkins coming out of high school, should be ready by August to make an impact after tearing a knee ligament.
Beating Ohio State was “a huge deal” because of the indignity of the 37-point loss to West Virginia in 2012. “It was a great moment to celebrate with those guys because a great majority of them were in that locker room two years ago.”
Despite losing only to No. 1 Florida State and No. 4 South Carolina, Swinney said he did not dwell on the rivalry game, crediting the Gamecocks for “a great run.”
“They have earned it on the field,” he said. “We’ve got to win that game. It’s that simple.”