Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney spoke to media on Sunday as he previewed the fourth-ranked Tigers game against No. 18 Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game on Saturday in Orlando, Florida.
DABO SWINNEY: Well, just, again, really proud of our team for the type of season that we’ve had, and certainly the finish that we had last night, just an incredible performance in all phases. But for us, it’s all about trying to win our conference, and that’s what we work toward all year long, and to finally have that opportunity and to have a chance to be a part of this game is special, especially for our second year in a row to have a chance to go compete for the outright championship is, again, a great opportunity and something our players have worked very, very hard for.
We’re appreciative of that and looking forward to going down to Orlando. I know that’s going to be a great venue, and I’m glad all that got worked out to where we could have a great place like that to play this game, and look forward to competing against Virginia Tech.
I’ve always had great respect for Virginia Tech and the type of program they have, their fan base. I’m certainly really happy for Justin and the job that he’s done in the first year. For them to be back in the championship game I think is just an incredible accomplishment, and I knew when they hired him that it wouldn’t take long for him to get them back to this point.
Look forward to a great matchup and competing in it.
Q. You mentioned that you’ve had respect for Coach Fuente for a while. What was it about what he was doing at TCU that led to that interview, and what’s the relationship been like since then?
DABO SWINNEY: It’s been good. I did not know him prior to kind of zeroing in on him as a candidate that I wanted to talk to about our offensive coordinator job here back in 2011. I really had kind of done my homework and research and kind of independently, and then confirmed it with some people that I trusted, and I kind of got it down to three guys, and Chad Morris and Justin were the top two that I wanted to actually bring in and meet with and then kind of go from there.
I just had a lot of respect for the job he had done and watched him closely. I believe they were in the Rose Bowl that year, if I remember correctly. But just I thought he had done a great job with the development of their quarterback, and I think it was Andy Dalton, and then we had played them, as well. We had played them the year before here at Clemson in a really tough, hard-fought game.
That was really it, and obviously the success. But really just a great guy. Enjoyed meeting him and his wife.
After that, obviously we ended up hiring Chad, but he and I became friends, kept in touch, and the next year he got the Memphis job, and we just kind of stayed in touch in that regard. I would shoot him just an encouragement text from time to time or he might send me one and then we talked a little bit about some recruiting. I had a couple players that had an opportunity that we had recruited here and for whatever reason was looking for another place to go, so I reached out to him a couple different times on a couple different players that had opportunities to go and play for him.
Again, good, healthy relationship, and then got a chance obviously to spend some face time with him once he got into this league and we had some of our spring meetings and stuff. But just a great guy, heck of a football coach, and he’s going to do a fantastic job at Virginia Tech.
Q. I think it’s only twice as a head coach, but you’ve faced Bud Foster when you were an assistant there, too. What stands out about Bud Foster’s defense, and I don’t know how far you’ve gotten into looking at it for this week, but just what are the characteristics of his defense?
DABO SWINNEY: Yeah, well, our support is pretty deep into it. I’m just kind of getting going.
But I know what I’m going to see because I don’t ever look forward to going against Bud Foster. He just does an unbelievable job. You know, again, I’m just kind of diving into those guys, but the one thing that I know I’m going to see is a group that’s going to play incredibly disciplined. They’re going to play hard, with great effort. They’re going to play physical and tough. They’re going to tackle well, and they’re going to play with a relentless mindset, and that’s their DNA. You think about Bud Foster’s defense, that’s who they are. So we know that — and then he’s got some unique things, some things that he does that are kind of unique to him.
We know that we’re going to have our hands full. We’re going to have to play well. That’s the way a championship game is supposed to be. They’re in the game because they’re of a heck of a football team, and they’re a champion, as well. Bud is a guy, again, that really there’s not much to add. He’s well-respected all across this country, and since I’ve been here, I think we’ve competed against him three or four times, and it’s always a handful to deal with a Bud Foster defense.
Q. Any updates on John Simpson from last night or anyone else who’s in the infirmary?
DABO SWINNEY: John is good. Really, as I said last night, we were very concerned, but there was no fracture, and I would say we’re pretty optimistic looking at him today at how he responded today.
I think it scared him more than anything initially. Very hopeful. The rest of the guys, I think, are in pretty good shape.
Q. A South Carolina player said the pregame altercation last night stemmed from an unnamed offensive lineman from Clemson using a racial slur. Were you aware of that? Have you asked your team about it, or how is it being addressed?
DABO SWINNEY: Yeah, I was made aware of that. Obviously everybody was talking about that, and that’s a shame, and absolutely I asked my guys about that. To a man, absolutely false, and I believe my guys. I know the character of our team, and that’s really all there is to say about it.
Q. I know you guys have a number of veteran, older leaders on that defense, but Christian Wilkins feels like he kind of fits into that mold with seniors even though he’s only been there for two years. What kind of impact has he had beyond just on the field but just the way he handles himself in the locker room, the way he goes through practice, his leadership skills? How has that impacted your team and the defense specifically?
DABO SWINNEY: Well, I think it’s exactly as you just said. You know, he’s a young guy, but really last year as a true freshman it was like he was a senior. Just that’s his persona. That’s his personality. Just how he handles himself, how he practices, the example he sets. Obviously he has a lot of — gains a lot of respect because of how he plays the game. He’s obviously very talented. But it’s all the other stuff. His maturity is way beyond his years, and it was that way last year. And you’re right, I mean, it’s like coaching a senior, and at times it was that way last year. It really was.
This year he seems like he’s been a veteran since the day he got here. That’s how he’s handles himself. Really special guy.
Q. I assume you see that stuff on the recruiting trail, and that’s part of why you recruit a guy, but were you at all surprised by just how quickly he acclimated himself, and not just that he had those skills but that he was willing to put himself out there as a freshman or sophomore around older guys so quickly?
DABO SWINNEY: I really wasn’t from a personality standpoint just because that’s just how he was in the recruiting process. The only surprise, I guess, was, again, you never know until you start coaching a guy how is he going to transition, and he played at a very small school, a private school up there in Connecticut, Suffield Academy, and now all of a sudden you’re coming to Clemson, and the practices are going to be very different, the competition at practice, so you don’t really ever know how is a guy going to transition mentally and physically.
As far as personality-wise and all that, I was very confident that he was going to be impactful the moment he got here, but his football IQ and his ability to transition mentally and physically was seamless. I mean, it was just amazing to me how quickly he made the transition to this level, because again, he hadn’t really played against that type of competition that he was going to see here, and it was an easy and smooth transition. That was probably the biggest surprise, and just because you don’t really expect that from a true freshman, even when they’re really, really talented, there’s usually a little bit of transition time, but with him it was literally like the day he got here, you just knew, wow, this guy is special.
Q. Following up on injuries, what was the diagnosis on Richard Yeargin’s knee, and are you hopeful he will be able to play on Saturday?
DABO SWINNEY: Yeah, we are hopeful. It was a meniscus, so it was actually the best-case scenario, so he should be back very quickly. I would say, as I said here on Sunday, I’ll know more probably by Tuesday, but I would say it’s possible. But definitely a hundred percent full speed ahead once we get in postseason after this game.
He’s doing very well.
Q. And who were the players of the game from last night?
DABO SWINNEY: Players of the game was Chad Smith on special teams; did a heck of a job. I think he had three tackles on kickoff. And then Ben Boulware was our player of the game on defense, and then offensively it was everybody that graded a winner. Everybody that graded a winner was the player of the game.
You talk about an incredible performance, just unbelievable. 83 percent completion percentage, rushed the ball for 250, 622. The guys just played outstanding all night long, 40 1st downs and dominant on 3rd down and in the red zone. It was hard for us to pick one player, so we chose the entire offense, everybody that graded a winner.
Q. I wanted to ask, you obviously coaches say winning isn’t easy, and what you guys were able to do last year, to come back and do it this year, what does it mean for you to win the Atlantic again and to be back in the ACC Championship game?
DABO SWINNEY: Well, it’s rare air. This is the first time that I’ve had that’s been able to do this, to be in back to back ACC Championship games, and we haven’t won back to back ACC titles in 28 years, so it’s not easy to do. It’s really difficult. So I’m just proud of our guys. It is, it’s very hard to win, especially to win consistently when you get everybody’s best, and for the past several years that’s exactly what we’ve done and what we’ve gotten from our opponents.
You know, it takes a great commitment on the players’ behalf from a preparation standpoint. It takes great habits and great culture, and we have all those things in place here, and that’s why we’ve been able to be so consistent, and obviously we’ve got good players, but it can’t just be good players. You’ve got to have teamwork and intelligence, and you’ve got to have great commitment.
I’m just proud of our guys and the leadership that we’ve had, so it’s a special time. It’s our sixth 10-plus win season in a row, and we want nothing more than to get our 16th ACC title. That’s what it’s all about for us. You work all year, and it comes down to these four quarters. We talk about the playoffs; every game is a playoff. Every game of the season is a playoff. You’re trying to win your division. Every game matters. You’re trying to win this conference. Every game matters.
And now it comes down to these final four quarters, and you’re either going to be the champion or you’re not.
We’re just honored to have the opportunity.
Q. Along those lines, how would you describe how Deshaun Watson after he had a great season last year, how he came back this year and handled everything throughout the season to get you guys to where you are this week?
DABO SWINNEY: I think he’s had a better season. I really do. I think he’s the best player in the country. It’s amazing what he’s done. I mean, it really is. You can just take a look at the last three games, he threw for 580 against Pitt, then he comes back at Wake and just lights out and completed 81 percent of his passes yesterday, six touchdowns, and had a dropped touchdown and another touchdown that was a PI. And he did that in two and a half quarters. He’s just an unbelievable football player. He’s an unbelievable preparer, incredibly high football IQ guy, and has a will to win that’s just special. I mean, he is the ultimate winner and just really proud of him. He has done a fantastic job leading this football team this year, and we’re right where we want him to be. That’s where we wanted to be, in the ACC Championship game. We wanted to be in the hunt for the National Championship and the playoffs and all that stuff, and that’s where we are.
You know, nobody is going to give you anything. You’ve got to continue to earn it each and every week, and that’s what this team has done, and it starts with No. 4. He’s been a great leader for us.
Q. This kind of relates to two questions ago, the one you just answered, but not so much from Xs and Os but from the standpoint of message to your team and how you handled your team. What were the differences, if any, in how you had to coach this team as opposed to last year’s group where you guys were a little bit more off the radar?
DABO SWINNEY: I don’t think we were off the radar. I think we were preseason top 10 or top 12 last year, so we weren’t really off the radar. We had a lot of people that felt like we were one of those teams that had a chance. Again, you have six 10-plus win seasons, you ain’t off the radar. You get everybody’s best shot. We certainly had not been No. 1 in the country, but I think that was a different dynamic, and that’s one of the things I was proud of that team last year was we were No. 1 from the first CFP poll all the way until the end of the game, the Alabama game, when we didn’t win. But I thought that they showed a lot of maturity in how they handled it last year. It was a great experience for our team with all the stuff that comes with that and going to the playoff and then the National Championship and the expectations. All that stuff was a good experience for those guys.
The biggest thing to me last year, we had to play 10 straight, and we were a very thin team last year, especially defensively, as far as just the type of depth that we had. We did not have very much competitive depth, and it really wore on us. I didn’t think we played very well in November last year. We won, but we did not play our best football in November. We were a team that was giving it all they had, but we did not accelerate and sprint through the finish line.
You know, we had too many games in November that — and even in the championship game, the ACC Championship game, we had big leads and let people come back, and I think, again, we played 10 in a row, so we were kind of low on gas, and we didn’t have a great competitive depth to really have the type of edge at practice every day that I like to have. This team is very different.
This team has been very easy to coach. Very easy to coach. Unbelievable leadership, and I think, again, it goes back to when we started this spring, a total different mindset just because they had an experience to draw on that no previous team had. They’d had a 14-1 season, but we lost the wrong game. Alabama was 14-1, too, but they won the National Championship. They lost the right game.
That was a tough pill for everybody to swallow going back to work in the spring but in a different mindset, I think a different understanding of knowing what it takes, not just thinking that you know what it takes, and also knowing that you’re good enough. The leaders of this team have been incredible, and then our schedule has been good as far as we haven’t had to play 10 straight.
Our open date this year fell at a good time. You know, we’ve caught some breaks as far as being able to keep some guys healthy, but we’re still a very young team, and we’re playing two true freshmen at tackle. We had our starting tackle who’s not with us right now, and so we’ve had to go with a true freshman, and then Anchrum, the other true freshman. Those two guys have stepped up and done a nice job.
This team has had its own challenges, but they’ve handled it well.
Q. Do you think dealing with — I know you said you guys have been in the spotlight for quite some time with all the success, but having been No. 1, having gone to the National Championship, being preseason No. 2 I believe it was, was one of those challenges dealing with the scrutiny that was going to come and even the additional spotlight on top of what you guys were even used to?
DABO SWINNEY: Yeah, I think it was easier this year, a lot easier. I thought it was tougher last year just because our guys — and it was — we had finished in the top 10 three out of the four years or whatever, but it was a different deal. When you’re every week and having all these productions and you’re the No. 1 team and all that, you’re playing 10 straight, there were some dynamics that we had to manage last year that aren’t on this team, and I’m just really proud of how they responded.
But to me, again, this has been a much easier task. These guys have embraced that target all year long, all year long, and they’ve found ways to win, and now as we get into this run here, we’re playing our best football, and that’s what we need to be doing.
Q. Clemson and Virginia Tech haven’t played since 2012; is that an advantage or a disadvantage for either team?
DABO SWINNEY: I don’t — it’s no advantage either way. This is 2016 version of Virginia Tech and Clemson, and it’s all about these four quarters. Who we were in 2012 or whatever has no impact on this game.
Q. I may be using the wrong word, and correct me if I’m wrong, please, but now that the pressure is off of the undefeated season like you had last year, is it easier to get the players going?
DABO SWINNEY: I mean, really no. These guys have been easy to get going all year. I mean, they really have. I know that the easy answer would be, oh, yeah, man, we lost one and now we’re really ready to go, but these guys have been ready to go all year. We were ready to go for the Pitt game. We just made a few mistakes and they — we did a lot of good things in that game. We’ve been ready to go, had a great week of practice, but I do think that, as I’ve said a couple times, sometimes a little bit of failure is good for you, if you’re made of the right stuff, and these guys are.
Q. You were able last night to call a time-out, put all your seniors or people that are leaving on the field to get that last hurrah from the Death Valley crowd. How nice was that?
DABO SWINNEY: Well, it’s very unusual to have an opportunity to do that, especially in a rivalry game. But it happens all the time in baseball and basketball and stuff. But it was special. To be at home and to be able to kind of throw those guys out there and just let them kind of tip their hat to the crowd and just let the crowd celebrate them one last time, they had been out of the game for a while, so to be able to put them back out there and again, just tip our hat to them and let them know how much we appreciate them, it was a special moment and something they’ll never forget.
Again, unusual that you even have that opportunity, but it was all about honoring our seniors. It had nothing to do with trying to disrespect an opponent or something like that. This was all about our seniors and our guys, and being able to just — their neck, as they came off the field and just thank them for the great run that they’ve had. I mean, that was their 46th win, which ties the all-time record here at Clemson. They’ve got a chance to be the winningest group ever in school history next week.
So it was a special moment. Last game, at home, in the Valley, and a bunch of impactful young people that have come to Clemson, and they’re leaving it as a better place. Just a chance to thank them.
Q. You’ve had to answer a lot of questions this year about what’s wrong with the offense, but as we sit today, you’re ranked eighth nationally in total offense, ranked 12th nationally in total defense. Do you feel like this team is starting to put it together like you did for that run at the end of last year?
DABO SWINNEY: Yeah, I mean, that’s what I always tell people. Everybody wants to judge a season on a play or two or a game here or there. I mean, you judge a season on the totality. I always tell you guys, when we get to November and December, then we’ll kind of see where we are because it all matters and it all counts, and it’s hard. Some of these teams that are so great in September and October, they’re nowhere to be found in November. You’ve got to play the whole season. You’ve got to play the whole season. You take the good and the bad and you just keep working. You keep working to get better each and every week, and we’ve had a heck of a year. I mean, this is the best team I’ve had since I’ve been here, and as I’ve said many times, the easiest and the funnest, but this is the best team, and they’ve been that way all year.
It’s a little frustrating from time to time because these guys, I think, sometimes they’re held to a little different standard than some of these other teams out there, and I don’t know what some people are looking at. But these guys have played well all year.
Yeah, when we’ve had some games that maybe were a little closer than we would have liked them, well, that’s because we had an enormous amount of turnovers or an enormous amount of drops or penalties or whatever, and those are things that can get you beat. But the fact that we’ve been able to overcome the majority of that is a credit to the heart of our team. You just keep playing, and these guys, you know, this is — yeah, we want to be playing our best ball right now, not in September, not in October. We want to be playing our best ball right now, and I’m really happy where we are. But as far as statistics and all that, it’s been an incredible season. You know, all you’ve got to do, if you’re into that stuff, you can just look at the numbers and compare it to last year, whatever, that this team is better. We’re better in every phase.
Q. Deshaun has put together an incredible month of November. What would your message be to Heisman voters out there? I know you’re obviously focused on the ACC Championship and making it to a playoff, but what would the message be about your quarterback?
DABO SWINNEY: Well, I think, first of all, how you win, how do you lead your team to victory, and there isn’t a better winner out there than Deshaun Watson. He’s the best player in the country. I mean, just that simple. He’s the best quarterback. He’s the best player in this nation.
What he has done here at Clemson is amazing. It’s absolutely amazing. What he did last year, what he’s done this year, you know, if you really just study some of the drives that he’s put together this year, I mean, and not pay attention to the people that have taken shots at him because we had 12 drops in our first two games and four touchdowns and so what’s wrong with this and that and not pay attention to the obvious but want to create something that’s not there, and that’s kind of what it’s been all year when it comes to Deshaun.
This guy has been amazing. I mean, I go back to the Pitt game. I’ve never been around anything like that. 70 passes and you complete 70 plus percent, 72 percent of your passes, incredible, and then follow it up these last two weeks and last night he’s like 81 percent completion, against — South Carolina was 17th in the country in pass defense coming into that game. 17th in the country. You know, he goes out and completes 81 percent of his passes, six touchdowns, and should have had eight, and his ability to impact the game with his mind, his ability to impact the game with his legs, there’s just nobody else out there. This guy is special.
And I know I’m biased and he’s my guy, but he’s all of those things, plus he is an unbelievable winner. Bottom line, to me that’s what it comes down to, and I’m just really, really proud of the season he’s had, the leadership that he’s provided, and I don’t get a vote in all that stuff, but to me it’s an easy decision.
Other people have their reasons for what they think, but that’s what I think. I’ve got a right to my opinion, too.