More than 30 years since its only national championship, two decades removed from a period of incomparable success, Clemson fans still are waiting for an encore.
Dabo Swinney enters his fourth full season as coach with a clear understanding of the expectations and a firm belief that Clemson can recapture that glory.
“I think that we are on the verge of great things,” Swinney said days before Clemson opens preseason camp this week.
“I’m very confident of where we are and where we’re going,” he said. “We’ve still got hills to climb. It’s not easy. It’s not an easy job, but I love it.”
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Returning shiny nuggets from a team that struck gold with the school’s first ACC championship in 20 years, Swinney must rebuild his offensive and defensive lines, find a replacement for the best tight end in the nation and flush the memories of a dark night at the Orange Bowl with a roster comprised of 13 seniors, 11 juniors and nearly five dozen sophomores and freshmen.
“A lot of young talent on this team is going to have to step up and play critical roles for us,” Swinney said. “That probably will be the story line throughout the season.”
While it may be a contributing factor, the scrutiny will be more on Swinney’s ability to move the program forward with whatever’s available.
Clemson won seven of its first eight games last season with a first-year starter at quarterback and a new offensive scheme, then lost three of the last four, including a third straight to state-rival South Carolina. A decisive win over Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game was followed by a 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
Swinney fired defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and sold Brent Venables on leaving the University of Oklahoma for a home on Lake Keowee. With next-door neighbor Chad Morris back for a second year as offensive coordinator and quarterback Tajh Boyd in his second season as starter, Swinney has a wealth of offensive skill returning, including receiver Sammy Watkins — a first-team All-American as a freshman — and running back Andre Ellington.
However, the Tigers must assemble a new line which graduated five full-time and part-time starters and get more efficient production from Boyd, who threw nine of his 12 interceptions after the eighth game. Center Dalton Freeman was first-team all-conference and left tackle Brandon Thomas started 10 games at guard and tackle. Redshirt junior Tyler Shatley was moved from defensive nose guard to offensive right guard for spring practice. Sophomores Kalon Davis and Giff Timothy were starters at left guard and right tackle out of spring practice, but eight freshmen and redshirt freshmen will receive serious consideration during camp.
Despite his declining efficiency over the final third of the season, Boyd had a season for the ages at Clemson with records for attempts, completions, passing yards and touchdowns.
“He’s been cheered for, he’s been booed,” said Swinney. “His skin’s a little thicker. He’s been humbled a little bit.
“It’s not theory any more. He can play. Now it’s about becoming a great quarterback.”
Other than the line, the next great loss was Mackey Award winner Dwayne Allen to the NFL a year early.
Ellington brings 1,178 rushing yards to the table for his senior season, but durability is a concern. Losing Mike Bellamy to academics opens the door for freshman Zac Brooks, a January enrollee, to leap sophomore D.J. Howard and junior Rod McDowell.
Watkins was arguably the best freshman in America. Charged with possession of marijuana and a controlled substance during a traffic stop in May, Watkins owes penance to the football team and may miss a game or two.
“I think we got six guys that could start for anybody in the country,” Swinney said. DeAndre Hopkins caught 72 passes for nearly 1,000 yards, sophomores Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant were equally hyped during the recruiting process, senior Jaron Brown caught 31 passes and Adam Humphries proved to be productive and dependable as a freshman.
Morris visited Oklahoma State — for tips on how the Cowboys deployed All-American Justin Blackmon — and Nevada — for a closer look at the “pistol” formation which should get Ellington into the line quicker.
“We left so many hidden yards and hidden points out there,” said Morris of his first season. “You’d come in and watch your game tape and go ‘wow.’ ”
Venables should benefit from the foundation Steele constructed. Though he has one starter returning on the line, Venables has plenty to work with across the board. There’s some experience at end with senior Malliciah Goodman and Corey Crawford but little or no depth. Venables also needs to find replacements at tackle and nose guard.
Linebacker could see a complete overhaul with sophomores Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward, but there needs to be a place for seniors Corico Wright and Tig Willard.
Blessed with abundant talent and a measure of flexibility in the secondary, Venables brings a zone concept to the table rather than Steele’s man coverage scheme. Rashard Hall, who led the team in tackles despite playing the season on an injured knee, returns at safety after graduating a year ago. Sophomore Bashaud Breeland should be special, and senior Xavier Brewer can play all over the field.
Swinney insists he’s not looking over his shoulder at the Orange Bowl or South Carolina. A wall in the team meeting room lists the five goals each season — winning the opening game, the division title, “state championship,” ACC championship and BCS bowl game. However, there’s no denying the past.
Swinney scoffs at suggestions that he’s a candidate for the so-called “hot seat.”
“I don’t think you can turn it up any higher,” he said. “This is a tough business, and it’s just part of it.
“We’re coming off the best year we’ve had in 20 years, and people still ain’t happy. So, that’s just the way it is,” he said. “We’re about winning championships period the end. If we can keep winning championships every year, we’re going to have a ton of success. Our state championship is a part of that.
“I think we can achieve our goals. We haven’t hit all five of them yet. We will, and when we do, it’s going to be a really, really special year.”