By Steven Bradley
CLEMSON — Dabo Swinney views each football season as a journey of its own with the prior campaign having little significance for the one ahead.
“Every year it’s just a process where you’re starting over,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter. You just go back to work.”
And his Clemson team, coming off its first 11-win season in 31 years, will go back to work in earnest Wednesday, when it is slated to hold the first of 15 spring practices culminating in the annual Spring Game on April 13 at Memorial Stadium.
But even if the previous season was its own separate journey, Swinney admitted the Tigers’ success in 2012 — as they achieved their first top-10 ranking in a final poll since 1990 — provided equal parts momentum and expectations moving forward.
“We’re not hoping to go have a good season, we’re expecting to have a good season,” Swinney said.
Having only graduated 13 seniors, Clemson has plenty of key pieces returning from that team, including first-team All-American quarterback Tajh Boyd, but this year’s spring practice will still be rife with competition at a number of positions.
One of those spots is the role of Boyd’s backup, where Swinney said Chad Kelly had impressed during his redshirt season and would get the opportunity to push the incumbent, Cole Stoudt.
“Cole right now is clearly our No. 2 guy,” Swinney said. “But I think it’s going to be an interesting battle.”
At running back, the Tigers must replace Andre Ellington, who finished his career as the fourth-leading rusher in school history. But Swinney said the emergence of Rod McDowell last season eased any concerns he had about the position going forward.
“We know a lot about the guys we’ve got and are confident,” he said. “Like you saw in the bowl game, we had no problem handing the ball to Rod McDowell against LSU, and he performed at a high level for us when we needed him. He was one of the real positive stories from our team last year.”
Swinney pointed to returning players D.J. Howard and Zac Brooks as further reasons he felt good about the running back position going into the spring and also indicated former track athlete C.J. Davidson would have a chance to help the team.
With the departure of the school’s all-time leading receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, who left after his junior year to enter the NFL Draft, Swinney is hopeful Sammy Watkins can return to the form that made him an All-American as a freshman before a down season, by his standards, a year ago.
“Sammy is just one of those guys who’s really grown into a very solid leader for this team, and I don’t have any doubt he’s going to do everything he’s got to do to get himself ready to have a great season,” he said.
Swinney also addressed several other positions during a Feb. 26 teleconference to preview the start of spring ball.
At center, Ryan Norton will begin the spring as the starter, with Jay Guillermo, Reid Webster and converted defensive tackle Tra Thomas in the mix behind him.
At linebacker, the Tigers will open the spring with a combination of Spencer Shuey, Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward at the MIKE and WILL spots, while rising senior Quandon Christian is back at SAM linebacker.
“I think we finally have created the depth and class division that we need to have to be able to be special at the linebacker position again,” Swinney said.
The secondary is another area on the squad where playing time is available with the loss of a trio of players with multi-year starting experience in Rashard Hall, Jonathan Meeks and Xavier Brewer.
While Clemson made the defensive backfield a priority in recruiting by signing eight players who play those positions, only one of those eight, safety Jadar Johnson, is already on campus. Compounding matters, Swinney said cornerback Garry Peters will sit out the start of spring ball.
“He’s going to miss a few practices to start out spring ball just simply because … his attitude needs to be better,” Swinney said.
Along with Peters, corners Bashaud Breeland, Darius Robinson and Martin Jenkins are all returning from injuries, while Robert Smith and Travis Blanks will open the spring as the starters at safety.
“We’ve got six (experienced) guys there going into the spring, and then everything after that is not going to be a complete product in the secondary,” Swinney said. “That’s the only position on the team that I feel like we’re just not going to know a lot in the spring until we get the rest of those guys to join us in the summer — with the exception of having Ronald Geohaghan here and Jadar.
“We’ve got those two guys, but we’ll be far from complete in the secondary until we get all those other guys — and it’s a really talented group with a lot of different skill sets that will be coming in.”
With that, Clemson will be a young team again in 2013. After having 13 seniors on the roster a year ago, the Tigers will only have 10 scholarship seniors this season.
“It is a young team, there’s no doubt about that,” Swinney said. “But it’s a bunch of guys that’s won 21 games, so they know how to win — but more importantly they know how to prepare to win. That’s the process they understand because of what they’ve been through the last couple years. This is a group that wants to be great.”