Clemson's Swinney says veteran Tigers want more

Apr. 26, 2013 @ 06:25 AM

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says his team's experience the past two years could lead to big things this fall.

The Tigers are coming off their best back-to-back seasons in three decades. They won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 2011 and reached a BCS game for the first time in school history during a 10-4 season.

Clemson followed that up by going 11-2 in 2012, notching their most wins in a season since going 12-0 during the national championship year of 1981.

Swinney said the players carried that momentum into spring practice, which wrapped up earlier this month.

"I think we had a very productive spring, a good spring," Swinney said Thursday. "It has a chance to be a great spring if we take the things that we've learned, apply them this summer and come back more knowledgeable in a lot of areas."

For the first time in a while, the Tigers enter next fall with plenty of top-flight experience. The team's spring roster included 44 seniors or juniors, a luxury Swinney's staff hasn't had in recent seasons.

That hasn't stopped Clemson from moving forward, the 21 victories over the past two seasons are the most since the Tigers in 1981 and 1982 accomplished the same thing.

The post-spring depth chart has 10 upper classmen listed as defensive starters and nine on offense. The place kicker is senior Chandler Catanzaro, whose last boot was a 37-yard field goal as time ran out to beat LSU, 25-24, at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl on New Year's Eve.

"They've won 21 games the last two years and they've been through the battles," Swinney said. "They have the experience to draw on now."

Perhaps the most important upperclassman to Clemson's chances next fall is senior quarterback Tajh Boyd. The ACC's reigning player of the year passed up a shot at the pros for a final season with the Tigers.

Boyd has passed for 7,724 yards and 69 touchdowns the past two seasons. He's among those on plenty of preseason Heisman Trophy lists. Boyd didn't play in Clemson's spring game, but has worked on things like footwork and throwing technique to make himself even more dynamic than he's been.

"I think we've got a great deal of potential," Boyd said. "But that's where the offseason comes into effect, how hard we work and how we transform our team. I think we have a chance to be special."

Also anticipating a return to form is junior wide receiver Sammy Watkins. He was an All-American as a freshman in 2011, but his production slipped because of an early-season two-game suspension and injuries and illness that cost him two additional games. Watkins also slipped back in the receiver rotation with the emergence of DeAndre Hopkins, a junior who set an ACC record with 18 touchdown catches.

Hopkins gave up his senior season in January and is a likely early-round NFL draft pick.

The two areas where Clemson's youth may show up on offense is at center, where sophomore Ryan Norton expects to take over for longtime offensive line leader Dalton Freeman, and at tight end after junior Sam Cooper tore a knee ligament at the spring game. The Tigers list sophomore Stanton Seckinger as the starter at tight end. Seckinger is backed up by a pair of freshman in Jordan Leggett and Jay Jay McCullough.

"Big loss," Swinney said. "Athletically, we're in good shape, but we just don't have any experience at that position."

Clemson's defense, a source of concern most of last season under first-year coordinator Brent Venables, is also filled with players who've had some time on the field.

The front seven, which had to be rebuilt in 2011, returns nearly intact with juniors Vic Beasley, Corey Crawford, Grady Jarrett and Josh Watson. The secondary features several players back from injury, including Martin Jenkins, Darius Robinson and Bashaud Breeland.

Swinney said having so much experience made spring go more smoothly and gave the coaches the chance to build on the talent that was there instead of having to double back to teach the basics.

"There's a lot of competition," Swinney said. "Hopefully, these guys will have the right mindset, pay the price this summer and come back and do some good things this year."

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.