New look, same expectations for Clemson

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Dabo Swinney says he’s not concerned about the quarterback position at Clemson, but that doesn’t mean he has an answer on who’ll be the starter. He has three candidates for the job, but no clear-cut favorite.

At wide receiver, there’s more mystery. He’s lost three stars to the NFL in the past two years, and that made for some slim pickings during practices this spring.

For Swinney’s Tigers, this is uncharted territory. For the past three seasons Clemson had been defined, as much as anything, by its star quarterback, Tajh Boyd, and its immensely talented receivers, led by Sammy Watkins. This spring, Swinney has had to turn the page, but he’s not interested in revamping his expectations. This year, he insists, is not a crossroads for Clemson.

“Maybe we’ve got to refocus a little bit, but I don’t see it as reloading or rebuilding or any of that,” Swinney said. “It’s just next man up.”

During the Boyd-Watkins era from 2011 through last season, no ACC team had a more prolific offense (486 yards per game), a more potent passing attack (311 yards per game through the air) or moved at a faster pace (79 plays per game) than Clemson, and the Tigers used that dynamic offensive attack to win an ACC title (in 2011), an Orange Bowl (in 2013), spent 46 straight weeks in the AP top 25, and won at least 10 games in each season.

But as Clemson looks ahead to life without its two biggest stars on offense -- not to mention starting tailback Roderick McDowell and left tackle Brandon Thomas -- Swinney doesn’t see a changing of the guard. Instead, he sees as veteran a roster as he’s had with the Tigers.

Last year’s depth chart featured just 10 seniors, Swinney said. The 2012 team had 11. This season, 19 seniors dot the roster -- it’s just that the bulk of them are on the side of the ball that, for much of the Boyd-Watkins era, was viewed as a weak link.

“This will be the most complete defense that I’ve had here, led by six seniors up front,” Swinney said. “Any time you have a chance to be dominant on defense, you have a chance to win a bunch of games.”

It’s an interesting dynamic, Swinney said. When defensive coordinator Brent Venables arrived in 2012, he inherited a young, untested unit that took time to coalesce. Now, Venables' group will likely do some of the heavy lifting early in the season while offensive coordinator Chad Morris and Co. work out a few kinks on the offensive side.

“You look at what’s happened over the last three years, and it’s been the opposite,” Morris said. “But we don’t want to rely on anybody else to control our destiny, and I think our guys are going to be a lot better than people expect.”

But even if the offense clicks early, the game plan figures to be new, too. While Boyd and Watkins blossomed in recent years, the running game often took a backseat for the Tigers. The split was particularly pronounced last season, when injuries in the backfield left Morris to lean more heavily on Boyd. Clemson’s running backs accounted for just 333 rushes last year -- about 32 percent of the Tigers’ total plays.

That formula figures to be flipped in 2014, as a deep stable of running backs offers a myriad of options for Clemson. Injured veterans are returning to action, while redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman has coaches drooling. While the QB situation remains in flux, Swinney said a focus on the ground game actually fits the approach he prefers for the offense.

“It may very well be that we end up running the ball more,” Swinney said. “But to be honest, that’s what we always want to do. It just -- last year, we got a little bit more skewed because it was what we had to do to win games.”

Of course, it’s spring, and that makes it a bit easier to put a positive twist on the new regime. Still, replacing the likes of Boyd and Watkins is no easy task, and with Georgia and Florida State looming in the first month of the season for Clemson, the coaching staff has its work cut out for it.

But that, too, is part of Boyd’s and Watkins’ legacy, Swinney said. The past three seasons weren’t simply about wins and losses. It was about building a culture at Clemson, and now this year’s senior class is just eight wins away from becoming the winningest in school history.

That says a lot about where Clemson is as a program, Swinney said, and that means the bar for 2014 won’t be set any lower than it had been with Boyd and Watkins leading the charge.

“Offensively, we’re not changing the standard,” Swinney said. “The expectation is the same. We expect to be one of the best offenses in the country. I’m not sure yet who’s going to be pulling the trigger, but I think we’re going to be really, really good.”