MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JANUARY 04: Head coach Dabo Swinney (C) of the Clemson Tigers gets set to lead his team onto the field against the West Virginia Mountaineers West Virginia Mountaineers during the Discover Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium on January 4, 2012 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
The 2012 campaign is finally here, at least unofficially. With what has seemed like a never-ending offseason, perhaps because last season ended on such a sour note, Clemson football is once again back. The key question marks heading into the season are in the trenches, both on the offensive and defensive lines. With just 48 career starts returning on the offensive front and only one starter returning on the defensive front, Swinney's club is going to have to rely on young players to step up, and step up early and often. With an enormous test to start the season against Auburn in the Georgia Dome, the lines are going to be tested immediately, and we'll find out the kind of development Morris and first year coordinator Venables are about to instill in August camp.
The 2011 season, despite a trouncing in the Orange Bowl, was by and large very successful. Clemson captured its first ACC crown in 20 years, doing so in impressive fashion against Virginia Tech. Dabo has gotten this team back to where it belongs, at the top of the ACC standings. It's now time to try and match the 2011's team success and build off it.
"Whether you won 10 last year or six last year, at Clemson the expectation is that you’re supposed to win. Last year’s over," Swinney said following his media golf outing Tuesday at Cross Creek Plantation. "Everyone’s got short memories around here. That’s over. We’re moved on. We’re really happy we were able to have that great experience, and I’m really happy for our seniors they were able to be in that locker room, years before when we came up short in Tampa and really be able to finish the deal.
One of the biggest stories this summer has been the uncertain status of All American Sammy Watkins. As Clemson fans patiently wait for a ruling to come down from Swinney regarding his suspension, its hard not to be optimistic after hearing the head coach speak today. As an Alabama grad, Swinney's distaste for Auburn isn't hidden, and I'd be surprised if Sammy is suspended for the first game of the season.
"I’m not trying to pin myself into any sort of corner, but I have a pretty good idea as far as the minimum and maximum punishment, and it’s ultimately up to him what it ends up being," he said of Watkins. "As far as which games … he’s going to sit. It’s a matter of how much and when."
"The only thing I will say is he’s gone above and beyond the things required of him," Swinney said. "I’m not surprised by that. This is a young man who’s got some rebuilding to do. He’s damaged a little bit of trust. All you can do is respond. He’s responded very well, done things we’ve asked him to do.
On to the offense as a whole. Chad Morris has to be one of the most likable guys to grace the Clemson football fields in some time. A fan favorite and a coordinator that demands excellence from his unit, it's hard not to share his confidence about the possibilities of this offense, despite there being a lot to replace along the offensive line. Last year's offense was enormously successful for the majority of the season and it appeared that the only time Chad's offense could be stopped was through its own miscues. With all of the weapons back minus Allen, it will be interesting to watch the development of the QB, WR, and RB positions with another year under Morris's tutelage.
"Our goal is to be the No.1 offense in the country. We’re going to coach them that way," Morris said. "If (players) don’t want to be that, they’ll find themselves over there doing something else. But they won’t be a part of us. We can do that, the sky’s the limit for this group."
"We didn’t go fast enough, but we did go fast," he said. "We want to lead the country in total snaps. We’ve done some things this offseason that are going to help that, to increase our snap total. We worked on those things in spring ball, it benefited us. I’m excited about coming into fall camp, seeing the work they put forth in the summer and seeing how that works out."
"I fully expect us to be faster than we were at any point and time last year. We did (reach that speed) at times, but for whatever reason, we weren’t quite as effective as we wanted to be. Even though we snapped the ball second-most in the country, we could have gone so much faster. It goes back to hidden yards we left on the field, and hidden points we left on field. We hope to capitalize on it this year."
Both offensive and defensive line coaches were also made available to members of the media today, and both coaches know the tremendous obstacles their units face heading into 2012.
"Youth isn't an excuse. They know that. I wish I had played them more last year. I've always said I want young people to play when they're ready to play, not because they have to play. We played with Rennie and Brandon more than we wanted to. I like to play a lot of people. But right now I feel good about where we are. They've had a great summer.
I think they've picked up where we left off in the spring. We can't go back to where we were day one of spring practice. We have to go on. So that's my challenge to my guys. And then to be able to throw a D.J. Reader or a Carlos Watkins in that mix, that helps. I feel good about progress. They're young. And you can't buy experience. We have to go good against good as much as we can afford to."
"I talked to Chad Morris this morning, and I feel like we have seven or eight we can go to battle with."
On Tyler Shatley:
"He is making tremendous progress and will do big things for us. Oh my goodness. He caught on quicker as a first-time player in my system than any player in my 30 years. That tells you how hungry he is, and how important it was to him to catch up."
Good news on the Shatley front. From our vantage point, he has the hunger and drive that we desperately need along the offensive front if we are going to be competent running the football this year. On the defensive front it appears Clemson is really going to need to likes of freshman like Carlos Watkins to step up if this unit is going to have any sort of success stopping the run. It will likely be Venables biggest test heading into the season: getting productivity out of his front four to allow the more veteran LB and DB units to excel.
If this team is going to model its success of last year we are going to have to see both lines mature quickly. While Clemson had question marks at the star positions last year and continuity along the lines, the opposite is true this year. With August camp almost upon us, we're going to find out if the young lines are ready to start the journey towards an ACC repeat.