ACC: Dabo Swinney

Opportunity missed for Clemson, ACC

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
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Dabo SwinneyAP Photo/David GoldmanDabo Swinney and Clemson will try to move on after a Week 1 loss to Georgia.
Before Todd Gurley ran roughshod over his defense, and before Jeremy Pruitt thwarted his offense yet again -- long before Saturday’s stumble at Georgia even kicked off, in fact, Dabo Swinney was preaching the message that one game wouldn’t define Clemson’s season. And of course, that’s true. In fact, Saturday’s 45-21 loss between the hedges won’t even define Clemson’s September, with No. 1 Florida State still looming in a few weeks.

“Every goal that we have is still in front of us,” Swinney said after the game. “We’re 0-1, and we have a long way to go. The season starts tomorrow. That’s the mentality that we have.”

But of course, the season started Saturday, and it started with a loss, no matter how Swinney wants to frame it.

Swinney is an optimist. It’s his nature. It’s how he shrugged off a thumping by Florida State last season by explaining that the lopsided score wasn’t indicative of the true talent difference between the two teams. It’s how he made peace with yet another loss to South Carolina last season, selling the notion that Clemson was the better team, undone by just a few too many turnovers.

And so Swinney was back to work Sunday, 11 games still left on the schedule and a litany of “what if” moments already in his rearview mirror.

If Clemson could’ve just tackled better, Gurley might not have run for 198 yards and three touchdowns, utterly embarrassing the Tigers’ defense for the second straight season.

“Todd Gurley was the best player on the field, and it wasn’t close,” Swinney said. “He’s a special player.”

It was Gurley who returned a kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown to even the score at 21, and if Clemson could’ve brought him down before he reached the end zone, things might’ve been different.

All offseason, Swinney lamented the kicking game as his biggest concern, even with the losses of Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, and of course, Ammon Lakip missed his lone field goal try that could’ve sent the Tigers to halftime with a lead. If only there hadn’t been so many dropped passes, so many mental errors in that first half, maybe that missed kick wouldn’t have loomed so large, anyway.

Clemson’s average starting field position in the second half was its own 17, and Swinney said the offense became too conservative while pinned deep in its own territory. If only that field position had been better, perhaps there wouldn’t be lingering questions today about Cole Stoudt and an offense that looked sharp early but disappeared late, mustering a woeful 15 yards and just one first down in the second half.

It’s Week 1, after all, and the “what ifs” are as meaningful a statistic as anything. But no matter what happens in the next 11 games, Week 1 did matter for Clemson and for the conference.

Yes, Gurley is a special player, but Clemson will face more of them, starting with Jameis Winston on Sept. 20. That the Tigers knew just what to expect from Gurley and still were incapable of slowing him down isn’t an aberration.

Yes, a few plays swung the game, but that’s how it goes against great teams -- and indeed, Georgia may be a great team. In fact, the Bulldogs will move forward with eyes on the College Football Playoff, and even if Clemson manages to upend Florida State later this month, it may find itself on the outside looking in thanks to those few bad plays between the hedges.

Yes, the field position was a problem. Adversity strikes in every game, but a team is measured not by the size of the obstacle but by its response. Clemson had none. For the second straight year, a Pruitt-coached defense appeared to have all the answers for the Tigers' up-tempo scheme.

Swinney said he’s learned more about his team from those rocky 60 minutes than he might've expected to learn in four weeks of a normal season, but there are still so many questions.

The offense had its moments, but Clemson had nine three-and-outs, and 12 of its 15 drives lasted six plays or fewer. That vaunted defensive line recorded just a single sack, while Georgia ran for 328 yards -- the most the Tigers’ defense has surrendered to a non-option team since Swinney took over as coach. Whether Stoudt’s line -- 16-of-29 for 144 yards and an INT -- was indicative of poor performance or too many drops by his receivers is of little consequence. Clemson needs to improve in both areas. Deshaun Watson looked impressive on one drive, perplexed on another, and the impact the freshman will make this week remains frustratingly unclear.

And then, of course, there’s the biggest question: What does it all mean for the ACC?

Fair or not, Clemson bore the weight of this new system, in which each team is evaluated within the context of its conference. A win over Georgia would've meant credibility for the endlessly discredited ACC. The loss removes perhaps the biggest safety net the conference might've had on what promises to be a razor-thin line it must walk for the next three months.

Florida State looked flawed against an unranked Oklahoma State team. NC State, Syracuse, Georgia Tech and North Carolina all struggled, to some degree, against FCS-level competition. And Clemson lost by 24 points to Georgia in a game that probably was far closer than the score indicated. The problem, however, is that no one knows whether the playoff selection committee will remember how close the Tigers came when it’s time to make a decision on who’s in and who’s out.

A lot can happen in the next 11 games, and Swinney is right to focus on what’s ahead. But the path to the playoff grew more narrow with Saturday’s loss, and for all the data Swinney accumulated and for all the film there is to study, there’s really only one thing that’s certain.

“All we know about our football team right now,” Swinney said, “is we’re not going to win them all.”

Grady Jarrett overlooked no more

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
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Grady Jarrett's looks are deceiving. He’s a squat 6-foot-1 and, on most days, he’s pushing 300 pounds so that when pads and a helmet supplement his physique, he looks about as wide as he is tall, the type of interior lineman opposing rushers need a road map to find their way around.

But it’s an optical illusion. Strip away the pads and the jersey and there is a chiseled warrior underneath, an athlete in the strictest sense.

"I saw him the other day with his shirt off, and he’s ripped," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.

[+] EnlargeGrady Jarrett
AP Photo/ Richard ShiroAccording to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, the determination showed by Grady Jarrett, left, has made an impression on the entire team.
Indeed, Jarrett, the senior defensive tackle for the No. 16 Tigers, is meticulous about his body. He watches what he eats. He trains methodically. He monitors his sleep schedule. He is, as Swinney concluded, "completely committed."

Yet, it’s Jarrett’s body that has been the evidence critics have used against him again and again, starting with the team he is set to face in Clemson’s season opener Saturday, Georgia. Jarrett, who grew up in Conyers, Ga., wanted to play college football at Georgia, but the Bulldogs simply weren’t interested.

"You always know about Georgia growing up," Jarrett said. "You see the 'G' everywhere. But they didn’t really want me like that."

It was easy to dismiss Jarrett as too short, too slow, too ordinary, and when he was coming out of high school, there were plenty of schools that fell for that illusion.

ESPN ranked Jarrett as the No. 80 defensive tackle in the nation. He was the 22nd-ranked player in Clemson’s 2011 signing class, which included receiver Sammy Watkins and linebacker Stephone Anthony and four other defensive linemen. Mississippi State was the only other Power Five school to show much interest, never mind the 198 tackles, 63 for loss, and 27.5 sacks he accrued in his final two seasons at Rockdale County High School.

"The perception of me from a lot of people coming up through recruiting wasn’t really good at all," Jarrett said. "And it’s something I used to take personally."

But Clemson didn’t buy into the illusion. Swinney watched the film, saw how Jarrett used that undersized physique to create leverage against opposing linemen. He saw the pedigree, that Jarrett was the son of former NFL linebacker Jessie Tuggle, that he was a protege of Ray Lewis, a man Jarrett refers to as an uncle. He saw the drive of a player everyone else said was too small carrying a massive chip on his shoulder.

For Swinney, Jarrett was a hidden gem.

Of course, back then, Clemson needed all the help it could get on defense. In Jarrett’s freshman season he played just 61 snaps. The Tigers’ defense was a disaster, culminating with an embarrassing 70-33 thumping at the hands of West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. But the Tigers’ D and Jarrett were both works in progress, and Swinney knew the finished product would be special.

As a sophomore, Jarrett worked his way into the starting lineup. He recorded 10 quarterback pressures, 8.5 TFLs and helped the Tigers’ defense move from 85th in the nation in TFLs to 30th. A year later, he was even better, making 83 tackles, including 11 behind the line of scrimmage, for a defense that led the nation in TFLs.

Jarrett wrestled in high school, and he used those skills against his opposition. He turned his undersized frame to an advantage, a short guy in a game where getting low is optimal.

"He’s probably one of the lower athletes I’ve gone against," said Clemson center Ryan Norton. "He’s very athletic, and his pad level is unbelievable."

Slowly but surely, the perceptions of Jarrett began to change, and those teams that dismissed him so easily were forced to take notice.

"People see what I can do now," Jarrett said. "I feel like it was up to me to change that perception. I believe I have, and now I’m trying to capitalize off it."

Even after two strong seasons, however, Jarrett toils largely in the shadows. In a conference loaded with top defensive tackles last season, Jarrett wasn’t considered on the same level as Aaron Donald or Timmy Jernigan. Even in his own locker room, Anthony and Vic Beasley get the bulk of the defensive hype.

But the people who know him, who know the program -- they understand.

"If I was going to start a program right now, I’d pick Grady Jarrett first and build everything else around that guy," Swinney said. "He’s that impactful. His worth ethic, his drive, his ability to hold other people accountable and lift others up, and that chip he has on his shoulder -- he’s special."

To hear his coach and teammates talk, Jarrett is the best player in the country no one seems to know about, and that is a label he’s happy to embrace.

Jarrett isn’t flashy. He doesn’t want to be. Instead, he is focused on every minor detail, determined to get it all right. On a team that boasts nearly two dozen seniors, on a defensive front that includes eight seniors in the two-deep, that work ethic has made Jarrett the unquestioned leader.

"When he says something, everybody’s attention is drawn to Grady," said Beasley, an All-American who led the ACC in sacks last season. "He’s a very vocal leader, and he just does it by example also. He’s good in the classroom and on the field. He keeps us going. He’s that main guy on the defense that gets us hyped and keeps us going."

It’s a role Jarrett has embraced this season. In truth, he’s not quite sure how it came about. He simply showed up, did his work, spoke out when he needed to and listened when the others talked. It came naturally, but it feels good to finally get the respect he's deserved.

"If your peers look to you for guidance, that’s the ultimate respect," Jarrett said. "Being able to go to Vic or Stephone and they take to it, that’s really humbling for me."

As Jarrett gets set to kick off his senior season against Georgia’s explosive ground game Saturday, he insists he is not out for revenge, not hoping to prove a point to another team that rejected him. He has all the love he needs now.

But there is that tinge of bitterness, that knowledge that this is his last chance to remind the school down the road from his boyhood home that it missed out on something special.

"There’s always a little extra incentive," he finally relented.

But there’s more ahead, plenty of other last chances to make his mark before his college career ends and a fresh round of evaluations by scouts and coaches and critics begins. There is so much more he wants to accomplish.

There is a sense of desperation to this season, Jarrett said, and that is something his coach doesn’t mind hearing.

Still, Swinney was never one of the critics, never fooled by the illusion. The chip on Jarrett’s shoulder drives him, so Swinney won’t knock it off. Still, he knows this isn’t the end for Jarrett. It’s the beginning.

"He’ll play for a while on the next level," Swinney said. “I know he’s not sexy looking. He’s not 6-3. But he’ll outplay all of them guys."
Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson told the two freshmen quarterbacks he signed in February they would have every opportunity to win the starting job.

That was not an empty promise. The Deacs needed to replace their departed senior quarterback, and they had no experienced players on their roster. Why not give the freshmen a shot?

Sometimes they rise to the challenge, like John Wolford. Clawson started hearing reports about Wolford from his upperclassmen before fall practice even began. They told him, “That freshman is really good.”

Once practice began, it became pretty clear he was more than good. Clawson decided early in camp that Wolford would be his starter, beginning tonight at ULM (7 p.m. ET, ESPNU). He is not the only coach who has gone that route.

Three true freshmen quarterbacks have an opportunity to play in Week 1, the most in the ACC since 2010. Brad Kaaya earned the starting job in Miami, while Deshaun Watson is expected to play when Clemson takes on Georgia on Saturday.

According to research gathered by the ACC office, this could be the first time in league history that two true freshmen quarterbacks open the season under center.

Watching a youth movement unfold at the position is not unexpected. The ACC lost nine starting quarterbacks to either graduation, the NFL draft or transfer. Only Jameis Winston, Anthony Boone and Terrel Hunt return as unquestioned starters.

In Wake’s case, the Deacs have turned to true freshmen quarterbacks the last two times they had to make a decision. Tanner Price started nine games for Wake Forest in 2010 and never relinquished his starting job. But he did not open the season as the starter.

Wolford will be the first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener in school history.

“He gives us our best chance to win,” Clawson said. “He is our best quarterback, so I can’t worry about whether he’s a freshman, sophomore, junior, senior. In a perfect world, you always love to have the guy be in the system one or two years before he plays. But we’re going to put the guys out there who give us the best chance to win. And he clearly won the job. He’s playing at a high level. I don’t think those things suddenly disappear once you play a game.”

Both Clawson and Miami coach Al Golden have described their new starting quarterbacks as very even-keeled, an important quality to have considering both players have to make their first career starts on the road.

Clawson said Wolford is “the same person every day. There’s not a lot of reps where you’re shaking your head saying, ‘What's he thinking about?' He is as ready as any true freshman I've been around.”

Miami faced a different situation than Wake Forest. The Canes had hoped to start senior Ryan Williams, but he tore his ACL in the spring and is not healthy enough to play. Redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen was next in line, but he is serving a suspension. Kaaya beat out senior transfer Jake Heaps during fall practice and will start Monday night against Louisville.

“I think that's probably where we got the most confidence from him, just his overall depth and understanding of what we were trying to get done and his ability to get us in the right play at the line of scrimmage. Without that, it would be hard to name him the starter, but he certainly demonstrated to us all training camp that it wasn't going to be too big for him.”

Clemson, meanwhile, plans on starting senior Cole Stoudt but coach Dabo Swinney says Watson will play. What type of role Watson will have remains to be seen. What Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris plan to do with Watson provides a level of intrigue we are unaccustomed to with this offense.

When Swinney was asked whether he knew when Watson would go into the game, he smiled and said, “When we put him in, that's the perfect time to put him in.”

Stoudt is actually the last true freshman to play quarterback at Clemson, back in 2011. The last Clemson true freshman quarterback to start a game was Nealon Greene in 1994.

Watson may bring intrigue, but he has to wait a few more days to get his shot.

Wolford gets the spotlight tonight.
On first glance, the announcement that backup offensive tackle Shaq Anthony has decided to transfer from Clemson may not seem like much.

But when you combine it with the news that running back Zac Brooks is lost for the season, the Clemson run game has now taken on added questions headed into the season.

The Tigers already had to replace starting All-ACC tackle Brandon Thomas, starting guard Tyler Shatley and 1,000-yard back Roderick McDowell. While Anthony was previously suspended for the opener against Georgia, there are no certainties with the offensive line nor the run game in Week 1.

Especially since Clemson struggled to produce consistency in that area last season. Especially since Clemson will need an effective run game to help take pressure off new starting quarterback Cole Stoudt and a new-look group of receivers against what should be an aggressive Georgia defense with familiar foe Jeremy Pruitt taking charge.

Brooks is the bigger blow in the short-term, because he would have contributed heavily against Georgia. Plus, he was the top returning rusher from a year ago and one of the veterans in the group with experience in big games.

But at least Clemson has the luxury of having depth at the position, a group coach Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris have talked up since the spring. Conceivably, the Tigers should still be able to play four to five backs once they settle on a rotation and still be just as good as they would have been with Brooks in the mix.

That, of course, is dependent on the offensive line, too.

So in the long term, the Anthony loss could loom much larger. Clemson has little in the way of depth at tackle with Anthony gone. The Tigers will now be relying on Joe Gore, pretty raw at the position with just 124 snaps over the past two seasons, and Isaiah Battle -- who has been banged up during camp. Anthony was listed as the backup to both players.

Gore has been one of the bright spots this fall, and would have most likely started against Georgia with Anthony suspended. But now there is no margin for error moving forward. The hope is that Gore steps into the right tackle spot without any issues. But if either Gore or Battle gets hurt, the Tigers could be in trouble. Kalon Davis, projected to start at guard, has also played some tackle during the fall so he would be one potential option as a backup at the position.

It all adds a bit more intrigue to what happens with Clemson this season.
The focus has largely been on the new quarterback and returning defenders at Clemson so far, but what has Dabo Swinney most excited for 2014 might be the backfield.

A year ago, the plan was for the Tigers to employ a handful of runners in key roles, but after injuries ravaged the depth chart, Rod McDowell became the default option in nearly every situation, and while he did an admirable job, Clemson still ranked 73rd in yards per carry. Carries by running backs accounted for just 32 percent of Clemson’s offensive plays last season -- 10 percentage points less than division counterpart Florida State.

But as the Tigers get set for their opener against Georgia, the plan for a more dynamic running game appears set for 2014, and Swinney couldn’t be more pleased with the weapons at his disposal.

[+] EnlargeWayne Gallman
AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail, Mark CrammerRedshirt freshman RB Wayne Gallman is turning heads in Clemson's camp.
“I think we’ve got a really deep group and a bunch of guys that deserve to play,” Swinney said. “The competition and diversity we have there is going to help us be very strong at that position.”

Redshirt senior D.J. Howard (5-foot-11, 205) is the nominal starter at this point, but he has been injury prone in his career and could quickly be upstaged by younger runners with more upside. Still, Howard is perhaps Clemson’s best pass blocker, and his knowledge of the system means he’ll have a secure role if he stays healthy.

Zac Brooks, who projected as the best receiver out of the backfield, injured his foot and is out for the season, but there are other weapons down the depth chart. C.J. Davidson (5-10, 200) suffered a knee injury last season that limited his production, but Swinney said he might be the “most explosive” of Clemson’s veteran runners.

“He’s just a powerful change-of-direction type of guy,” Swinney said.

But the real emerging star might be redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman.

As the injuries piled up last season, one of the toughest decisions the coaching staff had to make was whether to keep Gallman (6-1, 205) sidelined. In the end, Swinney erred on the side of caution, keeping the redshirt on Gallman in order to get him ready for 2014. Now, Clemson is ready to enjoy the rewards of that patience.

Coaches and teammates have raved about Gallman’s progress throughout this offseason, and Swinney said he can’t remember being around a running back who practices with as much energy.

“We’re having to slow him down because he just plays so fast and violent,” Swinney said. “Things just get hit when he’s out there.”

Swinney said Gallman is learning to corral that energy and doing a better job of playing within Clemson’s system, but the coaching staff is eager to unleash its secret weapon on the rest of the ACC this fall.

“He’s going to be an exciting player to watch,” Swinney said.

Swinney said coaches are still deciding the future of the Tigers’ two true freshmen -- Adam Choice and C.J. Fuller, both 5-9 and 215 pounds -- but he loves the physicality both bring, and there’s a chance at least one will see work this season.

Of course, the focus on the tailbacks also comes from the loss of last year’s quarterback, Tajh Boyd, who racked up 154 carries -- just 35 fewer than McDowell. With less mobile senior Cole Stoudt prepared to take over the offense, the conventional wisdom suggests the tailbacks will need to pick up the slack.

Swinney said that might not be the case, however.

“We’re going to run our quarterback,” Swinney said. “That’s the nature of what we do. We feel like it gives us an advantage when the quarterback is part of the run game, and that part won’t change. Cole is definitely undervalued as a runner, and I think he’s going to be way better than people think.”

True freshman QB Deshaun Watson will be a big part of the offensive blueprint, too. Swinney has already said that Watson will play -- though not start -- this season, and it would make sense to let the freshman get his feet wet as a runner and red-zone threat early in the year.

“He’s gifted when it comes to running the ball,” Swinney said, “so you’ll see that.”

Still, for all the talk of running with the quarterback, this will be a slightly different look for the Tigers this fall, and that could be a good thing. With so much shuffling of personnel elsewhere on the offense, a dynamic backfield could be just what Clemson needs to push through a grueling early season schedule.

Of course, before that plan comes into focus, Swinney said, his tailbacks need to prove they're ready to carry the load.

“Hopefully we’ve got a couple of these backs that kind of demand through their performance that we call [plays] a little bit different,” he said. “But that’s up to them to prove that.”
Boston College coach Steve Addazio remembers an era when players wanted to redshirt as true freshmen to better prepare them for the final four years of their college career.

"Now it's 'I want to play,' " Addazio, 55, said. "If you're talking about not playing them early, the majority are like 'What do you mean?'"

So, the ability to play or possibly even start as a true freshman has become a regular sales pitch for coaches from the Power Five to the Group of Five. It's certainly a tool in the belt for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. Last week, Fisher alluded to the number of freshmen All-Americans he's coached the last four seasons. Twenty-four hours later, it was on the program's official recruiting Twitter page.

"The last [four] years we've had 14 freshmen All-Americans," said Fisher, condensing multiple outlets' freshmen award teams into one, concise Florida State propaganda poster. "If you come in ready to play, we're willing to put you on the field. It's critical for guys to come in saying 'When I'm the best, I'll play.'"

Fisher has the goods to back up his claims, even if the numbers are obviously skewed to best represent his program. But how does his résumé compare to those coaching some of the country's other top programs?

I tried to come up with a way to accurately discern which schools play the most freshmen and decided true freshmen letterwinners was the simplest and most effective way to crunch the numbers. To earn a letter, a player has to actually play consistently through the season. The disclaimer is each program can use different benchmarks when awarding letters, but there is never going to be a perfect way.

I began with Florida State's, looking back at the 2011-2013 classes. To properly quantify the data from Florida State, I decided I'd look at the five schools ranked highest in the preseason polls that have had its coach in place at least five seasons. Oregon's Mark Helfrich was offered an exemption because he was promoted from within and is in his sixth season with the Ducks. Coaches in place at least five years was the stipulation since an incoming coach might be susceptible to playing the prospects he recruited or having a number of transfers that could open up starting or rotational spots.

The criteria: Each class was looked at and the total number of signees was pared down to just those who enrolled as members of the football team in the fall. Junior college signees were excluded, as were any recruits who were academically or medically disqualified before playing a game. That explains why the total number of freshmen for our purposes might look different than what might be seen on RecruitingNation. Any true freshmen who spent a year at a post-graduate or prep school was also excluded. Redshirt freshmen were disqualified, too.

Bottom line is if the player was not a part of the football team the fall following his high school graduation, he was excluded.

Nearly all of the data was collected after poring through media guides and archives, although the communications departments at some of the schools were also helpful providing numbers and deserve recognition.

So, here is the actual data:

 

It is hardly a coincidence that Fisher and Alabama's Nick Saban, who mentored Fisher at LSU, have identical percentages of true freshmen earning a letter. Fisher and Saban arguably have been the two best recruiters over the last few cycles, and, the data shows those two are not going to keep young talent off the field simply because of age. Nearly half of the true freshmen at Alabama and Florida State lettered over the last three seasons.

Mark Dantonio has built Michigan State into a national title contender in a different manor, relying on experience. Only 12 percent of true freshmen lettered over the last three seasons. Recruiting to Michigan State is not the easy task it is at some other top-10 programs, and the Spartans are not recruiting as many ESPN 300-level players as the likes of Alabama and Florida State.

It should be noted Michigan State, Oklahoma and Oregon don't have quite the recruiting base Alabama and Florida State do.

Inquiring minds want to see how that 45 percent stacks up to some of the other top programs in the country, so even though they did not fit the criteria I looked at a few other schools with coaches in place at least five seasons and lately in the top half of the rankings. LSU was worth a look considering it's Les Miles' 10th season in Baton Rouge and, like Fisher and Saban, has recruited exceptionally well for a long period of time. Mark Richt is in his 14th season at Georgia and, like Miles, usually has a highly-regarded recruiting class. Steve Spurrier is in his 10th season at South Carolina and has steadily improved the Gamecocks' class to the point that the 2015 class is No. 5 nationally. Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson from a perennial disappointment into a two-time BCS bowl participant. And Ohio State and Texas A&M, mainly because it's worth seeing how third-year Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer fares considering he frequently voices his preference to avoid redshirting. Kevin Sumlin is also in the process of trying to build an SEC power that can compete with Alabama and LSU in the SEC West.

 

For the Buckeyes, out of the 69 true freshmen to land in Columbus, Ohio, from 2011-2013, 31 lettered -- the same 45 percent. Looking at just Meyer's two seasons, however, he is decimals ahead of Fisher and Saban at 46 percent (21 out of 46), thanks in large part to 14 freshmen letterwinners in his first season.

Georgia's Mark Richt has a percentage of nearly 50 percent, but the Bulldogs' numbers might be the most skewed. Along with South Carolina, the Bulldogs had several recruits that either did not qualify or spent time at a prep school or junior college. Also, Georgia's long list of dismissals and transfers is well documented, and all of the departures has opened up spots for freshmen to earn immediate playing time.

It is Miles, though, who plays a higher percentage of freshmen than all of the others. Twelve true freshmen lettered for LSU in both 2012 and 2013, and another nine earned a letter in 2011. There were a total of 65 applicable freshmen to enter LSU during that span and 33 of them lettered. That's a percentage of 51 percent.

Certainly the numbers will fluctuate year to year, and coaches at every single program are playing freshmen more frequently than ever before. When taking into account the timeline is over three years, LSU averages just one more freshman letterwinner per season than Alabama and Florida State. For our intents and purposes, though, the data shows which top programs consistently play the most freshmen in this new era of freshmen phenoms.

And, uh, FYI, Alabama has 19 ESPN 300 players prepping for their freshmen season this fall. LSU has 16, and Florida State isn't far off with 13 of their own.
Two years ago, the Clemson defense was mocked, and Vic Beasley was quiet. He had work to do, playing time to earn.

A year ago, the defense was ignored, and Beasley was quiet. He had a job to win, a reputation to build.

Now, the Tigers' defense is the centerpiece, the foundation for a new-look Clemson team built around a dominant pass rush led by a consensus All-American who's let his play do all the talking. And once again, Beasley is laying low.

"That's just who he is," said head coach Dabo Swinney, "and I don't think he changes his stripes."

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesVic Beasley led the ACC in sacks last season with 13 and ranked fourth in the nation in tackles for loss with 23.
There's been a fundamental shift in the perceptions surrounding Clemson this year, as the offense looks to reload after the departures of Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, and the defense is poised to dominate just two seasons after an epic Orange Bowl disaster that had defined the unit's image ever since.

But if perceptions have changed, Beasley's approach hasn't. He's quiet, contemplative, focused -- still out to prove something no matter how full the bandwagon has become.

"Last year, we had a big chip on our shoulder. The year before, we had a chip on our shoulder," Beasley said. "We're looking to do the same thing this year."

All Beasley did last season was lead the conference in sacks (13), finish fourth in the nation in tackles for loss (23) and help Clemson's defense become the country's most disruptive by a wide margin, recording a total of 123 tackles behind the line of scrimmage -- 12 more than any other school.

So, yes, the haters have largely disappeared, but Beasley is still out to prove something, to leave a legacy that can't be diminished by even the most ardent critic.

"I feel like there's no reason we shouldn't be the top defense in the country," Beasley said. "I feel like I could [be a Heisman contender], but my goal for this year is to win a national championship."

It's some bawdy talk from a guy who doesn't do much talking at all, but whether Beasley wants to embrace this bold new era or not, the truth is, the spotlight is on him now.

"He's tried to be more of a vocal leader," Swinney said. "Vic leads by example, but when he does say something, people are going to listen."

The luxury for Beasley -- both on and off the field -- is that he's not alone, Swinney said.

Sure, it's Beasley getting the bulk of the All-America hype after he chose to return for his senior season, but the Tigers' defense is loaded with seniors, and the likes of Stephone Anthony and Grady Jarrett don't mind doing the bulk of the talking.

In fact, that's the real difference this year, Swinney said. It's not so much that the highest-profile stars are on the opposite side of the ball, but rather that it doesn't always have to be the stars doing all the talking.

"We had a couple very strong personalities and flashy guys [last year]," Swinney said. "But this is more of a business-as-usual, blue-collar bunch of guys that respect each other."

They'll help supplement Beasley on the field, too, and that's good because the All-American defensive end figures to get plenty of respect -- and attention -- from opposing linemen this year.

And that means Beasley doesn't need to do much talking. He just needs to do what he's always done. He needs to show up, do his job, and leave his mark.

"He's a handful, that's for sure, but he opens other things up for the those other guys," Swinney said. "All he's got to do is go play and do his job."

ACC morning links

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
8:00
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The Roanoke Times reports that Michael Brewer is now considered a co-starter with Mark Leal at Virginia Tech.

Frank Beamer says Brenden Motley is due to return to practice following a back injury next week, but with the Hokies scrimmaging Saturday, all indications point to a two-man race with the winner likely being decided this weekend. Beamer says he wants a decision made sooner than later so the team has time to build a rapport with the new starter.

I talked with Beamer on Wednesday, and he spoke highly of Brewer’s ability to grasp the system in a hurry and command the huddle.

“His personality, who he is, it lends himself to that,” Beamer said. “He’s a take-charge guy, likes being in control. It lends itself to him coming in and feeling at ease with the position he’s in.”

Beamer praised Brewer’s accuracy, too, but he said the key for either QB will be more consistency from the receivers when it comes to route running and drops. And on the subject of the receivers, Beamer absolutely raved about freshmen Cameron Phillips and Isaiah Ford.

“Those are two guys that are going to really help our group,” Beamer said. “They’re two athletic guys.”

A few more links:
  • Dabo Swinney was none too happy with his team after its scrimmage Wednesday, telling reporters, “I thought we hit the wall.” Probably not worth reading too much into the outburst. Good coaches always pick at least one practice to publicly call out their team, and as we hit the midpoint of August, it was probably time for Swinney to give Clemson a minor wake-up call.
  • Sports Illustrated has its preseason All-America teams out, with 14 ACC players making first- or second-team status. Only the SEC (16) had more. A few ACC names not on the list that we wouldn’t be surprised to see at year’s end? Clemson’s Grady Jarrett, FSU’s Karlos Williams and Ronald Darby and Miami’s Duke Johnson.
  • Speaking of Johnson, he looked 100 percent as Miami scrimmaged for the first time, writes the Miami Herald. The QB race, however, remains as murky as ever, with Jake Heaps and freshman Brad Kaaya doing battle Wednesday.
  • With Telvin Smith and Christian Jones gone, Terrance Smith is taking command of the Florida State linebacking crew, writes the Tallahassee Democrat. Smith has 69 career tackles. Reggie Northrup has 55. The rest of the linebacking corps combined has just 71.
  • NC State QB Garrett Leatham wasn’t even one of the top 20 walk-ons to make it into fall camp a year ago. Now, writes the Charlotte Observer, he’s got a scholarship and the No. 2 spot on the Wolfpack’s depth chart. Good for Leatham, of course, but it does suggest just how critical a healthy Jacoby Brissett will be for NC State in 2014.
  • Duke checks in at No. 24 on USA Today’s college football countdown. Their “dream season” scenario for Duke is an 11-1 campaign with the lone loss coming to Virginia Tech. Of course, the Blue Devils beat the Hokies in Blacksburg last year while mustering 198 yards of offense and failing to convert a third down. So, it’s all relative.
  • Breaking news of your impending transfer via Instagram is apparently a thing now, as freshman receiver Corey Cooper announced he was leaving the Orange, writes Syracuse.com. Can recruiting via Tinder be too far off?

Swinney plays pool ... sort of

August, 12, 2014
Aug 12
2:45
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Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is generally game for anything.

Want to get in a game of trash talk? You got it.

How about a game of pool? Sure.

How about a game of pool where you pretend to be the pool table?

Wait, what?

Swinney and the Tigers football team got a visit from world champion billiards player Loree Jon Jones on Tuesday. Jones, a Clemson fan who owns a retail billiards business in Greenville, S.C., decided to do one of her cool pool tricks right off Swinney's face as the team gathered around to watch. Swinney lays across the pool table, with a ball over his mouth. Jones takes her pool cue, gently taps the ball and what do you know? The ball lands in the corner pocket.

A jubliant Swinney rejoices. Mark that one off the bucket list.

 

ACC morning links

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
8:00
AM ET
Good morning!

First thing's first: Starting today, links will be the first post each week day to get you started with everything you need to know across the ACC. So say good bye to lunchtime links and hello to morning links.

What's sizzling this Monday morning?

We're talkin' about scrimmages, media days and fan days that provided a few bits of headlines and newsworthy notes over the weekend.

First up: Florida State held its media day Sunday, and, well, there was a bit of unnecessary drama. The Seminoles asked fans, via Twitter, to submit questions to Jameis Winston using the hashtag #AskJameis. Predictably, the questions devolved in a matter of minutes. Search the hashtag, and you will find maybe five usable queries. The rest were on the order of crab legs, butter preferences for said crab legs and Winston's other legal entanglements.

As my fellow SNL fans are asking right about now, "Who are the ad wizards who came up with this one?"

Meanwhile, Clemson held its first scrimmage of the fall Saturday with some drama of its own. The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, reported that quarterback Cole Stoudt sustained a minor leg injury when a defensive lineman rolled up on his leg. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris said afterward he was unaware of an injury. The intrigue! Clemson returns to practice this morning so perhaps there will be more clarity. In any event, Dabo Swinney said both Stoudt and Deshaun Watson performed well in the scrimmage, which was closed to the media.

While on the subject of quarterbacks, watch out for Wake Forest true freshman John Wolford, now in the mix with Kevin Sousa and Tyler Cameron for the starting quarterback job. In the Deacs' scrimmage Sunday, Wolford scored on a 12-yard run and went 7-of-14 for 122 yards with an interception. Cameron, meanwhile, only threw for 52 yards, going 6-of-13.

In Atlanta, coach Paul Johnson limited quarterback Justin Thomas to one series and held out Zach Laskey from the weekend scrimmage for precautionary reasons.

And in one of the bigger injuries so far during fall practice, NC State coach Dave Doeren announced at media day that starting linebacker M.J. Salahuddin is out indefinitely with a knee injury. Salahuddin needs surgery and could end up taking a redshirt. It's a tough break for NC State, lacking in experienced depth at just about every position on the field. The Wolfpack simply cannot afford to lose veteran players like Salahuddin.

Now here's a quick look at other headlines:
It’s an August ritual. Each summer, one team is crowned pageant champion right after the swimsuit competition while no one bothers to wait for the talent show, where often the preseason No. 1 doesn’t measure up.

Florida State is the 2014 sweetheart, but this year it is certainly warranted. It would be hard to argue that. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner is protected by a line of five seniors, and the defense is in its second season running the same scheme -- after finishing No. 1 in scoring defense last year. Las Vegas does not see anybody tripping up Florida State en route to the College Football Playoff. Oddsmakers give Florida State the best chance of any team to finish the regular season undefeated.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesPutting a pass rush on Jameis Winston is a big key to beating No. 1 Florida State, says Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.
Forgive the rest of the ACC if they’re not kneeling at the feet of the Seminoles, though.

“It’s not far from the outhouse to the penthouse,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “When you’ve done this as long as I have, you see anybody can win.”

Easier said than done, Dabo. Florida State is the reigning national champion, returns starters at several key positions and can reload at the others. But Swinney's Clemson team, which might pose the biggest threat to the Seminoles on Sept. 20, can point to the last four preseason No. 1 teams in the USA Today Coaches Poll. All have failed to crack the final top five, and from 2010-12, none finished the season better than No. 11.

Clemson, which was trounced 51-14 in Death Valley last season, realizes this season that the key to beating Florida State rests on the defensive side of the ball. Pummeling the Seminoles begins with pummeling its elite quarterback, Jameis Winston.

“We got to get to Winston. I feel like if we pressure Winston, he’ll throw us the ball,” said Tigers defensive end Vic Beasley, who finished second to Winston in the ACC preseason player of the year voting. “We can get him to make turnovers.”

Syracuse coach Scott Shafer was skeptical of the Florida State hype last season. Then he walked onto the field Nov. 16 for a game that ended with the Orange on the wrong side of a 59-3 demolition. He knew he was in trouble before the game when he was matching jersey numbers to names and realized many of the players he was in awe of were redshirts.

However, Shafer will preach to his team on Oct. 11, when Syracuse hosts Florida State, that the more physically gifted team doesn’t always win. And Shafer will use personal experiences to impress it upon his players. He was on the staff at Stanford when the Cardinal upset 41-point favorite USC on the road in 2007.

“The great thing about football is that the football is oblong and does funny things, and on any given Saturday, you have an opportunity to try to steal and win a game,” Shafer said, “and that's what we're going to try to do."

For Swinney, the goal is not to upset Florida State. He wants Clemson to uproot Florida State from its perch above the ACC Atlantic Division. That begins with recruiting players who can match Florida State physically, and Swinney is doing that at Clemson. The Tigers have hauled in a recruiting class ranked in the top 13 in every year since 2011, and his 2015 class ranks No. 2 in the country so far.

With a defense that could be the best in the conference this season, though, Swinney is not ceding the ACC to the Seminoles this season just yet. Swinney is aware that any team that plays Florida State is going to have to play close to a perfect game, which begins with maintaining possession. In last season’s loss, Clemson turned the ball over four times, which led to 24 Florida State points. Two of the turnovers came inside the Seminoles’ half of the field.

“That’s a recipe for disaster. We've got to correct that. That’s a huge part of our plan to win,” Swinney said. “You've got to have big plays against them, you've got to take care of the ball, you've got to be sound in special teams.”

Fisher said he subscribes to the theory that more games are lost rather than one, pointing to one team’s miscues as often the driving factor of the opponent’s success. It comes down to who plays the most consistently through all four quarters. Fisher said “the streets are full” of players who can play at a high level for a play or two, but “there’s 70, 80 plays in a game.”

“That’s the thing about sports we all love,” Fisher said. “We think we know, but there’s still all the unknown.”
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris arrived on campus over three years ago with one goal -- transform the Tigers into a sleek, high-tempo scorin' machine.

Three years in, he has done that, raising the offensive bar higher than it has been in decades. You think Clemson, you think offense. Players like C.J. Spiller laid the groundwork, but Morris helped foster that identity through Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins and all the rest.

So what happens now that the players who sent offensive expectations soaring are gone? How will outsiders react if Clemson starts winning with -- egad! defense?

#Faints.

[+] EnlargeDabo Swinney
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images"We can win 10-7, and I'd be just fine with that," Dabo Swinney said. "But I still think when it's all said and done, we'll be one of the better offenses out there."
Nobody inside Clemson expects to take a step back offensively, but the truth is, the defense is the strongest part of the team going into the season. Clemson will absolutely have to rely on that group more than it has in years past.

There is nothing wrong with that ... unless you are a program known for running 80-plus plays and scoring at will.

Then, winning with D is as fun as winter in the North Pole.

Just ask Boston College coach Steve Addazio. He knows all too well what happens when an offensive juggernaut fails to meet expectations. Rewind to 2010, when he was still offensive coordinator at Florida. Tim Tebow was gone, and the offense plummeted.

All of a sudden, a man praised for his offensive acumen turned the Florida offense into an “embarrassment.” The Florida fan base, spoiled first by Steve Spurrier’s Fun N Gun and then Urban Meyer’s version of the spread, wanted Addazio canned.

He left on his own accord to become Temple head coach, after Florida averaged 29.9 points per game. The defense fared better than the offense that season, but shoulders shrugged. Florida is not a program that scores fewer than 30 points a game, fans wailed!

Apparently it is, because the Gators have failed to average more than 29 points since Addazio left. Will Muschamp has tried to win with defense, but fans have a hard time grasping that notion. Even in 2012, when Florida won 11 games, the season felt like a disaster because the offense was so miserable to watch.

It makes you wonder what would happen if schools like Oregon and Baylor all of a sudden won with defense. Would that draw more praise or questions on the order of what is wrong with your offense? Flip the script. What if Michigan State all of a sudden started winning games with an offense that averaged 45 points per game?

Fans, and even commentators to an extent, expect teams to fit a certain script. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney knows this all too well. At the ACC Kickoff, he said he would love to not have to score 45 points per game because his defense was leading the way but acknowledged the double-edged sword there. Inevitably, folks would say the offense fell off The Hill.

“It wouldn't hurt my feelings at all to be known as a great, great defense and the best defense in all the land,” Swinney said. “We can win 10-7, and I'd be just fine with that. But I still think when it's all said and done, we'll be one of the better offenses out there. We've got good personnel, and I think it's going to come together just fine.”

Fine enough to continue to rank in the top 25 in scoring? Clemson averaged fewer than 25 points per game just once under Swinney -- back in 2010, his only losing record as Clemson coach. That season, Clemson had a much better defense, the only time in his tenure that has been the case.

Swinney ended up hiring Morris after that year ended, and the offense has dominated. But he also brought in one of the best defensive coordinators in the country in Brent Venables after the Orange Bowl disaster in 2012. Since then, the defense has made marked improvement.

This should be his best group yet, and the players know it. They are ready to lead this team.

The question, then is this: Is everybody else ready for that?

Clemson Tigers season preview

August, 5, 2014
Aug 5
10:30
AM ET
 

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC 

Previewing the 2014 season for the Clemson Tigers:

Key returners: DE Vic Beasley, DT Grady Jarrett, LB Stephone Anthony

Key losses: QB Tajh Boyd, WR Sammy Watkins, RB Roderick McDowell

Most important 2014 games: Aug. 30 at Georgia, Sept. 20 at Florida State, Nov. 29 vs. South Carolina

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesAll-ACC defensive end Vic Beasley returns to the Clemson defense for his senior season.
Projected win percentage: 72.5 percent

Over/under Vegas odds: 8½ wins

Instant impact newcomers: QB Deshaun Watson, CB Mackensie Alexander. Coach Dabo Swinney has repeatedly said Watson will play this season behind starter Cole Stoudt. Simply put, Watson’s athleticism makes him too valuable to leave on the bench, and the belief is he will get better as the season goes on. Alexander, a redshirt freshman, is listed among the starters on the depth chart and is expected to have a breakout season.

High point from 2013: Beating Ohio State 40-35 in the Discover Orange Bowl. The season-opening win against Georgia was big too, but the victory over the Buckeyes was one of the best under Swinney. The game was intense, competitive and thrilling and featured one of the best single-game performances of the season from Watkins.

Low point from 2013: Losing to Florida State 51-14. Clemson was the preseason choice to win the ACC but saw its conference championship hopes vanish after an embarrassing loss to the Seminoles. The Tigers were never even in the game, falling behind 27-7 at halftime. Boyd had three turnovers in one of the worst games of his career.

Best-case scenario for 2014: Watson emerges as one of the best freshmen in the nation, answering all questions about an offense supposedly in transition. His emergence, combined with a top-five defense, helps propel Clemson further than everybody predicts. Clemson ends up with a winning record against its toughest triumvirate (Georgia, Florida State and South Carolina) and snags a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: The offense has a tougher time than expected replacing Boyd, Watkins, McDowell and Martavis Bryant, failing to generate much production. The defense is not as good as advertised, thanks to inconsistency at linebacker and in the secondary. Losses to Georgia and Florida State mean a 1-2 start, and things only get worse with additional losses to Louisville and South Carolina. Clemson finishes with fewer than 10 wins for the first time since 2010.

They said it: “I personally believe, when it's all said and done, we're still going to be one of the best offenses in the country because I love the personnel we have. That's what makes college football fun. Everybody looks at what has left, and they make an assessment because they don't really know who these guys are that are coming in. Good players have to lead and new guys emerge, and we've got good personnel and good candidates to fill some of those voids.” -- coach Dabo Swinney

FSU No. 1 in coaches' poll

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
12:50
PM ET
Surprise, surprise -- Florida State is the preseason No. 1 team in the Amway Coaches Poll.

The Seminoles received 56 of the 62 first-place votes as they enter 2014 looking to repeat as national champions.

Clemson and North Carolina were the only other ACC teams to be ranked, coming in at Nos. 16 and 23, respectively. For those keeping track, that means UNC is the only team from the Coastal Division to be ranked in the poll. This comes after Miami was chosen by the media in Greensboro, North Carolina, last week as the preseason Coastal favorite, in the same poll that saw Duke receive the most first-place Coastal votes. It is worth repeating again: This division race is wide open.

Notre Dame, which begins its football affiliation with the ACC this fall, checks in at No. 17 in the coaches' poll.

Miami leads the ACC contingent in the "others receiving votes" category of the coaches' poll, coming in at No. 34 overall. Right behind the Hurricanes? Duke and Louisville, at Nos. 35 and 36, respectively. Virginia Tech comes in at No. 40 while Georgia Tech is No. 48.

Half of the ACC's coaches vote in the poll: Frank Beamer, David Cutcliffe, Larry Fedora, Jimbo Fisher, Al Golden, Paul Johnson and Dabo Swinney. Notre Dame's Brian Kelly votes as well. Shockingly, all eight of those coaches saw their teams receive votes.

Video: Swinney talks winning, having fun

July, 29, 2014
Jul 29
12:30
PM ET
video Clemson Tigers coach Dabo Swinney talks about the importance of having fun, building a consistent winner, and expectations for this season.

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