The Clemson Tigers kicked off what might very well be its most important Spring Practice in the history of its program on Wednesday.
Following a solid 2012 including a huge victory over the LSU Tigers in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, there hasn’t been this much roaring around Death Valley since Danny Ford was roaming the sidelines with his National Championship ring in the early 1980s.
And this is something Head Coach Dabo Swinney understands and wants his players to focus on in March.
“We’ve raised the standard a little bit around here,” Swinney said after the first practice. “We are always taking a look at ways to get better. But today just was okay. We will have to have a little bit better day today. The enthusiasm was good, the energy was good, but it was not as crisp as I would like to us on day one. We want them to be confident, and then ramp it up this summer when that other posse gets here. We are way ahead system-wise, and that makes it fun because you can talk just football and not scheme. We are challenging ourselves and challenging those guys too.”
It is refreshing for Swinney to know that he has the likes of a Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins on offense who have been there and done that. But the truly calming force he alluded to is that this is the first time in his tenure as head coach that Swinney and the Clemson coaches are not having to teach either the offense or defense a new scheme.
And that is what makes this Tiger team so interesting for the 2013 season.
But despite this level of experience and familarity, Clemson still has some questions they need to answer quickly in order to build the confidence Swinney eluded to in his statements.
Priority No. 1 is getting the offensive line established. Brandon Thomas, David Beasley, Ryan Norton, Tyler Shatley and Giff Timothy will get the starting nod for now with Isaiah Battle trying to crack the top five. The coaches love the versatility of this line for the most part as everyone can shift around, especially Thomas.
“We have a lot of flexibility (offensive line), some guys that can cross-train a little bit,” Swinney said. “We have some guys that can move around. (Isaiah) Brown is not going to be that guy. He will be a guy that if he is the left tackle, then that is what he will be. But we have some other guys that will cross-train, and I am excited about that.”
Question No. 2 to be answered is who will be the main force to replace Andre Ellington in the backfield? Rod McDowell will get the opportunity to move from his role as back-up to the featured back. If McDowell cannot handle the duties the Tigers will look to often injured D.J. Howard to shake of the pain. So far those are two unproven options at this point. Behind them it is Zac Brooks and signees Wayne Gallman and Tyshon Dye. That is a lot of greenhorns who are going to have to carry a lot behind Boyd in 2013.
And finally No. 3 on the list is the defense. If Clemson can come up with anything on the defensive side of the ball it will be an amazing year for the Tigers. There will be a number of position battles and Swinney wants it to be a very flexible defense as well.
“We are kind of rolling Stephone Anthony, Spencer Shuey and Tony Steward at that WILL spot right now,” Swinney said. “Pretty much leaving Anthony at MIKE. Shuey is the guy we will swing at WILL and MIKE, and leaving Steward at WILL right now. That could change but that is how we are starting right now. We are confident in Anthony just getting comfortable right now. Shuey is cross-training right now, and Justin Parker is also working in there at MIKE backer.”
So a lot of things to be excited about and to watch for sure this spring in Clemson.
But an interesting omen for the first day of Spring Practice was Rex Ryan watching the opening day of drills. Ryan’s son Ryan Ryan (yes, Ryan Ryan) will walk on this fall at Clemson.
Take that for what it is worth. Good or bad.
M Shannon Smallwood is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the US Basketball Writers Association.
Follow him @woodysmalls.