Swinney excited about start of spring practice

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Tajh Boyd will get a lot of time with the first string offense in spring practice while starter Kyle Parker plays baseball
Tajh Boyd will get a lot of time with the first string offense in spring practice while starter Kyle Parker plays baseball

CLEMSON – In speaking with members of head coach Dabo Swinney’s coaching staff throughout the two months since Clemson’s victory over Kentucky in the Music City Bowl, there has almost been a sense of quiet optimism from a group of coaches that are beginning their second full season together.

Almost all of the off-season love for the ACC Atlantic Division from the national media has gone to Florida St., their big recruiting class, and new head coach Jimbo Fisher, with many assuming that replacing C.J. Spiller, Jacoby Ford, Michael Palmer, Ricky Sapp, Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor will be too much to overcome.

However, Swinney met with the media on Thursday to talk about his second spring practice as the head man, which begins Sunday, and more of that optimism came out as Swinney discussed him team, and said he feels like there were more questions entering last season, a season that saw the Tigers advance to the ACC Championship Game, than this season.

“First of all, as we have evaluated the program and what we’ve accomplished this year, it’s really easy to see we’ve come a long way,” Swinney said. “I’m proud of the accomplishments of our staff and team. Last year, we had more questions than we had answers. There wasn’t a lot of optimism or hope with us, to be frank. New head coach, defensive coordinator, offensive coordinator, several new assistants.

“We didn’t know who the quarterback was. Lot of question marks on our offensive line, lost three defensive tackles, two NFL safeties and two wide outs in Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham. Our starting punter and kicker. With all that we lost James Davis and we lost seven games. We had a lot of questions going into spring practice. Can C.J. be an every down guy? Can Jacoby hold up? I’m really proud of this program. It’s a work in progress, a process.”

Swinney said that Sunday can’t get here quick enough as the staff starts to put their stamp on the 2010 Tiger football team.

“I’m real excited about getting onto the field and starting with this 2010 team,” he said. “We’ve answered a lot of questions this year. We’re at a different point with this team. We’ve been through the fire. It’s not new. We know how we want to practice, what we want to practice. Last year, we signed 12 [in the recruiting class]. We feel good about this class we’re bringing in here. Minimally, we should be better. We should be a smarter team, staff. That should show from day one.

“If we can do the job the right way, it will help us play at a high-level every week. It’s a focus area for us. We’re good enough. As we evaluate all of the film, we’re pretty pleased with all of the information. We’ve got to take a little bit more pride in our consistency. If we can do that, we can have a very good year.”

The Tigers were just a minute and 20 seconds away from winning that ACC Championship Game, but Tech’s Jonathan Dwyer scored a touchdown from 15 yards away to give the Yellow Jackets the win. Swinney said that the loss, however, should help the 2010 team in knowing what it takes to be a champion.

“For this team, we talk about a standard of excellence, staying up to our commandments,” he said. “The daily focus, attention to details, effort, being all in. Everybody on this team, with the exception of our new guys, they understand championship caliber. They can all take themselves back to that sick feeling of being a minute or so from ACC Champions.”

On special teams, the Tigers lose the game-breaking abilities of Spiller and Ford, but have punter Dawson Zimmerman back. Kicker Richard Jackson also returns, but could face stiff competition for the starting job from Spencer Benton and Chandler Catanzaro.

“Some of our team-type objectives this spring, special teams wise, I’m pleased with coverage, protection and returns, we’ve got good people on this roster,” Swinney said. “We’ve got to be more consistent at punter and kicker. That’s a big area from us that we’ve got to learn from this season. That was the first season for Dawson, Richard Jackson and Spencer. Catanzaro, this is his first year. Our returners, we had two guys who were here for a long time. Marcus Gilchrist is going to be a good one for us. We lost some good, solid special teams players, like Michael Palmer and Kevin Alexander.”

On defense, the Tigers lose Sapp, Alexander and the two corners, but Swinney said the Tigers should be better heading into the second year of coordinator Kevin Steele’s scheme. Swinney also hinted that this spring could see some players switching positions, much like happened last spring when Marcus Gilchrist moved from corner to safety [and could move back to corner this spring].

“Defensively, it’s about tackling, toughness and takeaways,” he said. “We should be a smarter team on defense, hopefully we’re not busting assignments with our guys this spring. You have to build a foundation. I hope we can go to the next level, from a mental standpoint. One area we need to improve in is our red area defense. Fundamentals, technique. Our eyes, hands and feet. Who are our best 11? That’s one thing we did last spring. We have guys we might move around, to get the best 11 on the field.”

Offensively, the Tigers struggled through the first four weeks of the season in 2009, but took off from that point, and Swinney he hopes to see more of an offensive balance in 2010.

“Offensively, it’s about teaching progression in our core concepts. We have an installation schedule that reflects what we’re trying to do in practice. Our tempo, hopefully we can improve there. My philosophy on offense is to be committed to balance. That helps you in the long run, as opposed to dominate in one or the other. I think that’s helped us to improve drastically. We went from 90th or something in rushing to 40th.”

The Tigers return four starters on the offensive line, quarterback Kyle Parker, two running backs in Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper that saw extensive action last season, and a tight end in Dwayne Allen that also played a lot of snaps. However, the leading returner Tiger receiver is Xavier Dye, who hauled in 14 catches last year, and Swinney said he knows all eyes will be on the receivers in the spring and the fall.

“Wide out is going to be our ‘quarterback’ question,” he said. “We lost some good players, but I’m excited about the guys we have on campus. It’s no different than it’s been in years past, when you’ve lost good guys. We have guys who were highly productive and recruited, but haven’t had much a chance because they’ve been behind good players. You’ll see some even distribution among the wide outs this year. It’s starting over from scratch. I think Xavier and Terrance [Ashe] are veteran guys who bring a lot to the table. I’m really excited about our young players, like Jaron Brown, Brandon Clear, Marquan Jone - he’s been backing up Grisham and Jacoby. Bryce McNeal, Brandon Clear, Brandon Ford and some good ones coming in.”

Swinney said he likes what he sees on his offensive line, which loses one starter, guard Thomas Austin.

“Offensive line wise, for me it’s about our tackle situation,” Swinney said. “I want to develop Matt Sanders as a center, as well as a guard. We feel good about Dalton [Freeman] as a center. [Ben] Ramsey can snap, and Mason Cloy can play center. It’s important we develop Matt Sanders at center. The tackle position, at this time last year, we had major questions, concerns. Landon Walker had a really good season. He grew up a ton. He’s going to be a junior; he’s been in a lot of battles. Chris Hairston is an outstanding football player with a good future in front of him.

“Behind him, what we saw in David Smith is very encouraging. He’ll probably be in our starting lineup at guard. This spring, we’ll have him in our first five at guard to have our best five on the field.

We’ll rest Chris from time to time and let David play tackle with the ones. We’re going to try to develop Brandon Thomas this spring; there will be a lot of eyes on him. Same thing with Phillip Price - the tackle area is a big area we have to improve.”

Parker has started out the baseball season on a high note, leading to speculation that a fat contract from a major league baseball team could lure him away from the gridiron in the fall, and Swinney said he knows that a lot of eyes will be on the development of redshirt freshman Tajh Boyd, especially considering that Parker will some football practices in order to play baseball.

“It’s a big spring for Tajh Boyd,” he said. “We’ve documented how we feel about him. He’s got to grow this spring. We’ve got to make him a viable option to go and win a football game. There are not the demands on Kyle Parker this spring. He’s going to be at 11 practices. There’s going to be four or five practice where Tajh gets the first team reps. When he hits fall camp, hopefully he’s mentally at another level and ready to go compete. Michael Wade is slash. He’s going to play some quarterback, some safety, some nickel, and special teams. We have a lot of confidence in Mike Wade, but he’s got to keep his hand in the quarterback situation.”

Swinney said that if the Tigers are to make a trip back to the ACC Championship, it will all start with the work put in during the next few weeks.

"We've got to have 15 great days of preparation," he said. "Bottom line."

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