Ordinarily, coaches tout “the process” of starting at ground zero and building to the summit, allowing room for error at the beginning with the possibility of marked improvement by the second week.
Clemson does not have that luxury, opening Aug. 31 against fifth-ranked Georgia.
“We’re not starting out with a game where you can maybe be a little off, make a few mistakes and just be good enough to win. This is not that type of game,” said coach Dabo Swinney. “This is the same type of game that we just played in our bowl game. The margin for error is very small. Three or four plays are going to make the difference.
“We’ve got to be clicking at a high level.”
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Reflecting the urgency, Clemson ran roughly 100 plays as offensive coordinator Chad Morris opened the playbook for quarterback Tajh Boyd and kept his foot on the accelerator.
“Our tempo was the best I’ve seen since the LSU game,” said junior receiver Sammy Watkins, who caught two passes from Boyd, both for touchdowns.
“I was very encouraged about this scrimmage,” said Boyd, who completed 12 of 18 passes for 245 yards and four touchdowns. “We’ve got three weeks until that first game and we’ve got a lot of improving to do, but I’m encouraged that we can do that.”
Other than Boyd’s interception — “his worst play of the day,” Swinney said — the first-team offense was relatively pristine, even while rolling as many as 10 through the offensive line as auditions continue for a starting five.
Indicative of the offensive efficiency was a relative absence of penalties.
“We’re moving at a little bit faster pace, and we are able to do that because of the experience we have out here,” Boyd sad. “Usually, we have a specific emphasis at each practice.
“Coach called a lot of things, guys responded and there weren’t many missed assignments,” he said. “The guys seem to have a great understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish in all phases of the game.
Typical was the dichotomy between an efficient offense and a defense still not at full strength. Defensive coordiantor Brent Venables has pressed his players to see who might flinch, which of them might not be ready for Georgia. Though he would not say who or how many, he said that it’s beginning to become evident.
With defensive backs Darius Robinson (concussion), Garry Peters (ankle) and MacKenzie Alexander (groin) continuing to recover and losing freshman corner Adrian Baker (knee) during the scrimmage, it’s made preparation a challenge
“Those guys need to practice,” Venables said. “The area that needs the most improvement just based on where we were a year ago, and another day that passes is an opportunity lost.
“That’s very discouraging.”
The defense held its own in short yardage and goal line sessions, the coaches said. Senior linebacker Quandon Christian recovered two fumbles and intercepted Boyd.
“From my perspective, when you walk away you wished you could go scrimmage somebody else,” Swinney said. “There were a lot of wins and losses on both sides.”
Offensive line and cornerback depth might require further study, but Swinney said he foresees beginning to focus on those who’ll be needed for Georgia after the second stadium scrimmage this week.
“There might be one or two spots that may go a little further than that,” he said. “Certainly, by the time we come out of next weekend, I think we’ll have a pretty good idea of who is going to start this first game.”
Another thing Swinney took away from the day was the depth of talent in his fifth full season as head coach.
“We rep three groups this time of year, and you can get thin real quick,” he said. “That was probably the best-looking Pride (third team) group we’ve had here since I’ve been the head coach — both offensively and defensively.
“That, to me, is a sign that we’ve really made some progress as a program,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of good players.”
After six days of work, Swinney will let the team “rest.” Practice resumes Monday with Fan Appreciation Day from 2:30 to 5 p.m. next Sunday.
“Whatever we decide to go with, we’ve got to know what we’re doing,” Swinney said. “You’ve got to give yourself a chance.
“You better be dialed in so you can execute your plan.”