Monday, January 13, 2014 9:54 AM
Tigers improve defensively, but need to run the football more in 2014
by David Hood
Senior Writer

CLEMSON – The Clemson football team finished 2013 with the same record as 2012, but head coach Dabo Swinney said Saturday that his team improved in several areas.

The Tigers finished with an 11-2 record and a win over Ohio St. in the Orange Bowl, a game that saw Clemson’s defense shut down Braxton Miller and seal the win with a late interception. Swinney said it was that kind of defensive improvement that helped his team make strides in 2013, and called the difference “extraordinary.”

“We improved on the areas that we needed to get better on this year,” he said. “Obviously, we needed to get better defensively. I don’t know that great improvement is the correct word. Extraordinary improvement is more fair for the type of improvement we made defensively.

“Defensively, very, very proud of what we’ve done. Yes we still have some areas to improve, but you are talking about a team that led the nation in tackles for loss, a team that was second in the nation in three-and-outs defense – that’s pretty tough.”

Swinney said the improvement on the defense started with a deep front seven.

“I know y’all thought I was crazy back in the fall when I said that our front seven was going to be very good,” he said. “Nobody knew anybody’s name, but now everybody knows who Grady Jarrett is. Everybody knows who Corey Crawford is. Everybody knows who Vic Beasley is. A young Shaq Lawson emerged. Our front seven was impressive and we get most of those guys back. Our secondary improved. It’s still not where we need it to be, but improved greatly. We knew we were going to have to develop some guys at safety and that we were going to take some lumps at safety.

“Everybody can get excited about the future that we have at that position. Those guys are going to get better - Jayron Kearse, Jadar Johnson, Ronald Geohaghan. We’ve got some really good young talent that’s emerging. I love that we’ve got Martin Jenkins back. He played with one arm all year. We got Garry Peters back to give us a couple of veterans back at corner and then we redshirted four corners. I like our personnel. It’s going to be exciting.”

The offense put up similar numbers despite the loss of running back Andre Ellington and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

“We were still very good offensively, and I knew we would be. We were a little different in some areas. We didn’t have Ellington, so there was a little bit of a transition,” Swinney said. “We didn’t have as deep of a pool at running back as I’d like to because of injuries. Zac Brooks had a hard time staying healthy. D.J. (Howard) got banged up a little here and there. Hot Rod (Roderick McDowell) was money. He was solid all year long.

“Tyshon Dye – we really felt like he was going to help us, but he got hurt during camp. Jay Jay McCullough really developed. He was guy that wasn’t really ready for the role we wanted him to have, but he really came along. Maybe, y’all didn’t see it, but we’ve seen it. We were still really good offensively and did a lot of good things and played to our strengths.”

However, he wants to see the Tigers become more of a run-oriented team next season.

“I want to see us really run the football. We ran the ball well against Ohio State, who is top 10 in the nation defensively against the run. We ran the ball well against South Carolina,” he said. “We were creative in how we did some things. We have a chance to be pretty special in our backfield. It will be a little bit of a shift in that direction, if you will, but we will see. We are what we are. We do what we do.”

He then said that he thinks the quarterback will have to be a factor running the football.

“I think you will continue to see the quarterback be a big factor for us,” Swinney said. “I just believe that when you’re quarterback isn’t a threat to run the ball, then we are really playing 11 on 10. The quarterback is a great equalizer and really stresses the defense. It puts a lot of pressure on the defense. That element has got to improve from where we’ve been and I think it will.”

Swinney said that Clemson was among the nation’s leaders in a lot of categories, but staying at the top offensively will only happen if the offensive line finds a way to replace Brandon Thomas and Tyler Shatley.

“We were top 25 in just about everything. There were only a few teams that finished in the top 25 in scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense, total defense – us and Florida State,” he said. “It’s hard to really be nitpicky, but there are obviously some things that we have to get better at. Offensively, we lose a couple of really good ones on the line. (Isaiah) Battle really emerged.

“Shaq Anthony started coming on. We’ve got a couple of guys like (Eric) Mac Lain and Joe Gore, that this is a huge year for them. (Jay) Guillermo, I feel good about him. I feel good about a young (Tyrone) Crowder, Ryan Norton, Kalon (Davis) and (David) Beasley. We’ve got a lot of good pieces, but we’ve got to sort all of that out. It’s going to be a lot of fun watching them compete.”

The Tigers will also have to find a way to reduce the amount of turnovers in big games.

“If we’re going to get better, we’ve got to cut the turnovers down,” Swinney said. “If you look at the national championship teams and what they had. Honestly, that [turnovers] is what kept us from getting to Pasadena. In our two losses, we had 10 turnovers – against the number one team and the number four team and you don’t even have a chance to win those games when you’re not taking care of the ball. We’ve got to really take another step there. There are a lot of things that go into that and that’s why we practice.”

David Hood can be reached at davidhood@tigernet.com