Practice for the 2013 college football season at Clemson begins Friday, though it may be argued that preparation began 56 months ago when Dabo Swinney was named coach.
For the first time, Swinney will have an entirely hand-picked staff and roster with — considering the program’s steady ascent during the first four full seasons — an extraordinary opportunity.
Picked No. 8 in the first USA Today coaches poll, favored to win a second conference championship in two years and with a third-year starting quarterback likely to receive consideration for the highest postseason honors, Clemson should know shortly if it faces choppy sea or calm water.
As Aug. 31 approaches, there are several storylines that should receive the most attention.
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1. FINGER ON THE TRIGGER
Four offensive line starters return, and there should be plenty of depth, particularly if sophomore Isaiah Battle forces the issue at left tackle, but Dalton Freeman was a fixture at center for more than three seasons before leaving the job to either redshirt sophomore Ryan Norton or redshirt freshman Jay Guillermo.
Freeman and quarterback Tajh Boyd were in lockstep in Chad Morris’ no-huddle shotgun. Morris wants to accelerate the offensive speed by nearly 10 percent, so Boyd needs a center with a gunfighter’s cool and a chess master’s visionary skill.
2. BOMBS AND BULLETS
When C.J. Spiller was a senior, Swinney said he wasn’t going to look back and regret not giving him a chance to influence the outcome of every game. That’s generally his approach this season, but Boyd needs help.
Watch a replay of the LSU game if there’s any doubt about Boyd’s ability to load the team on his back, but he can’t be expected to take that kind of pounding the entire season and deliver the same results.
Sammy Watkins ought to be capable of sharing the heavy lifting.Disappointed and unfulfilled by last season, Watkins returns fit and focused. Boyd intends to use him as the safety blanket much as DeAndre Hopkins was last season, but Watkins’ skills are vastly more linear, which opens all sorts of options for Morris.
For the offense to be fully effective, Morris needs a dependable run game. Limited by injury and buried on the depth chart, Rod McDowell has the quickness, vision and instincts to be a dynamic — through smallish — back. If freshman Tyshon Dye quickly adapts to the transition from high school, Clemson could have its best running back since Spiller.
3. HORSE SHOES OR HAND GRENADES?
In his second season as defensive coordinator any place other than Oklahoma, Brent Venables looks as relaxed and confident as any manic former linebacker can facing a schedule that opens and closes against top 10 SEC opponents. Venables earned his money the first season by taking a largely untested group and finishing third in ACC scoring defense, 22nd nationally in sacks.
The front seven, with experience and depth at every position, should be a strength with Stephone Anthony — Venables’ alter ego at middle linebacker — and Vic Beasley, a lightning quick end with the potential to have Clowneyesque impact.
4. THROUGH AN ORANGE-TINTED SCOPE
Boyd seems comfortable as the face of the program, the lightning rod and unchallenged leader of the team. Nevertheless, with the program’s expectations as high as any time in at least five years, managing the message becomes more critical.
Since Swinney took over Dec. 1, 2008, he’s worked at managing potential distractions and controlling the message by minimizing access to his players and staff. Even without Twitter and Facebook until January Swinney understands they’re not living in a void.
“Don’t buy the lie,” he tells them.
Five years ago, Clemson opened against Alabama in the Georgia Dome, highly favored and ranked in the top 10. Alabama was on the fringe of the radar. Two months later, Swinney was interim coach.
That December he recruited Boyd, who dropped a commitment to Tennessee to consider Ohio State and Oregon. Boyd was one of 12 players to sign with Clemson the next February.
And, thus, it began.