By Ashley Denny.
CLEMSON, SC- Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney spoke with the media on Tuesday prior to the start of Clemson’s spring practice. Here’s what Swinney had to say about what he’s seen from his young team, the latest on Mike Bellamy, Tony Steward’s medical redshirt status, and which son of an NFL great has decided to give up football.
“I’m excited about spring ball, I’m one of those guys that loves Spring Ball actually, no pressure to play a game it’s just going out with your guys and building a new team,” Swinney said. “You go into the spring with objectives and until you go out there and start working with them you really don’t know how far you can get them in 15 days. One of the things that I’m really excited about is that last year we had 31 guys who did not participate in spring practice. We had 27 freshmen and some guys that were hurt so we were waiting on 31 guys to join our football team in the summer. This year we have 12 freshmen that will get here in July and 2 guys that are hurt, Tony Steward and Rashard Hall. A great majority of our team has been able to go through the offseason program and be able to use this valuable practice time during the spring. We have a lot of growing up to do on the offensive and defensive lines. That’s the big question mark, not necessarily a question mark but the major point of emphasis that we have on this football team. We have talented guys there, just not many that have played a lot of football at this level. It’s a great opportunity, should be an incredibly competitive spring, we’ll spend time working against each other and trying to separate those guys up front, there’s a lot of candidates and competition, it’s going to be exciting, very competitive. We’ve got a lot of bodies on both sides of the ball, we’ve got to get a lot of guys work and I hope we can come out of spring feeling really good about our two deep up front. I think we have good skill guys, at cornerback, running back, receivers and tight ends. I love our linebackers, we didn’t lose anybody. We got our kicker back, excited to develop Lakip this spring; he’s going to have a good future with us. Catanzaro is coming off an all conference year, our punter situation is the biggest question mark coming into spring, Pinion is here and I think he’s very talented; Benton is back and will go in as the starter and let them compete during spring.”
As for the Tigers’ utilizing the pistol formation this season after a trip to Nevada, Swinney laughed off the speculations.
“That’s the funny thing about the world we live in, everyone has their speculations,” Swinney said. “We’re going to work on the things we did well and try to improve the things that we did not do well, and one of the things is during the offseason you’re always studying and trying to get better. Everyone says we’re going to the pistol because we went out and studied with Nevada and that’s what they’re known for. We ran the pistol some this fall but we just needed to learn a little more about it. So we’re going to do what we did last year but hopefully do things better.”
The Tigers’ made an offseason hire of defensive coordinator Brent Venables and Swinney couldn’t be more pleased with the move after watching him interact with both the players and staff members.
“He’s great,” Swinney said. “He’s fired up about working with them every single day, he’s been everything I thought he’d be and more, I’m just really excited about having him on our staff.”
What does Swinney want to see out of the defense this spring under Venables?
“First thing we have to get everyone on the same page,” Swinney said. “Making sure we develop our identity, get back to fundamentals and emphasize our position fundamentals and making sure that we’re simple enough that everyone knows what we’re doing and we have a chance to play fast and fly on the ball. Develop depth over there, find our best eleven, we have question marks surrounding our front, so we have to find who our best front will be. Is it moving a guy from end to tackle or moving a tackle to end? What’s our situation, we have to access that because there are a lot of unknowns. We have one senior with a lot of experience in Malliciah Goodman but the rest are a sophomore who have played enough to get their ears wet but that’s it. We have a lot of questions there. We’re not starting necessarily at ground zero but we have a lot of teaching to do on the defensive side this spring.”
The offensive line is another question mark for the Tigers’ heading into spring as they return only two out of five starters in center Dalton Freeman and swingman Brandon Thomas.
“We have a lot of openings, Dalton Freeman is an all conference type of player that we’re fortunate to have back,” Swinney said. “Brandon Thomas has been the MVP of the offseason; I’m so incredibly pleased with what I’ve seen from him. The light has come on for him. He played well for us at times last season, did some good things but now with a lot of guys moving on, he’s embraced a leadership role. He’s been great this off season. He brings flexibility to our line because he can play tackle or guard, really play either one effectively. We have to find the best five guys, if another guard or backup center deserves to be in the top five, Brandon can play tackle. He’ll be in at guard or tackle; I’m really excited about Shatley too. This is a great move for him and our team. He looks totally different on that side of the ball from an athletic standpoint. He goes from being an okay athlete to a very good athlete and he’s strong powerful and smart. He’ll start off at right guard for us. The question is who will be our tackles? And right now, Giff Timothy has played a little bit, had a good off season. Shaq Anthony had a good off season. We’re very excited about Joe Gore and Isaiah Battle; those would be the top four guys that we have to find out about at the tackle position. We’re not waiting on any offensive linemen, they’re all here. It will be a competitive situation and guys just have to step up and separate.”
Dabo also spoke on Tuesday about coaching turnovers and how difficult a thing to deal with being let go can be for a head coach.
“It’s a very difficult thing to deal with,” Swinney said. “When you have to make a change on your staff it’s not easy either. When you make a change it’s hard, unless you’re dealing with a bad situation or bad person. At the end of the day it is a business and it’s just part of it. I haven’t been let go except for when my head coach at Alabama was let go and the new head coach didn’t keep any of us. So I’ve had to pack up my things and leave before but have never been fired, hopefully that never happens. It was difficult to accept since I’d been there 13 years but looking back it was the best thing to happen to me because I probably would have stayed there forever. It forced me to be successful somewhere else and keep growing.”
Since Swinney has been at Clemson the tight end position has been an important part of his team, and with Dwayne Allen gone this season who will be the one to take on Allen’s major role in 2012?
“Brandon Ford, we’re really excited about him.” Swinney said. “He made some big plays this past season, but unlike Dwayne he developed into a tight end. Now he’s a 240 pound guy with great ball skills. He’s made a ton of progress the past two years and I think this is his year. When this things over, if he does what I think he’s capable of doing, he’ll be another one of those guys that will play on the next level. Behind him we’re excited about Sam Cooper and Darrell Smith, a great freshmen coming in that we’re excited about and redshirt Eric McClain.”
One of the big questions this off season has been about Mike Bellamy, who had a hard time adjusting his freshman season and also was plagued with off the field issues. After being suspended for both the ACC Championship game and Orange Bowl, Swinney says Bellamy is back with the team and making progress.
“He’s been doing okay,” Swinney said. “He’s one of those guys you pull for; he’s a likeable guy and knows the rules. So far he’s doing what we ask him to do. He’s not perfect, which none of us are but he’s trying to really improve himself on and off the field. For a young guy that’s all you can ask at this stage. He’s had a good offseason, picking up weight and getting stronger. I’m excited about where he could be as long as he stays on track. My goal for him is to come in here in August for camp at around 186 pounds, which will be up from 160 something when he got here. He’s made a lot of improvement; we’ve challenged him in a lot of areas and so far so good.”
Swinney found out earlier last week that linebacker Tony Steward’s medical redshirt request had been denied by the NCAA after Steward tore his ACL midway through last season.
“They denied it, which is really a shame but that’s the way it is,” Swinney said. “He technically played in more games than it allowed but he didn’t play many snaps. The good news is that he’s doing very well; Danny Poole said he feels like he may be released by May to join the guys full speed. He didn’t get released until July last year and we had to limit him in camp. He’s got a great attitude and tremendous work ethic. He’s going to be a great player and we’ll see where he is this summer. We have the flexibility if he has a set back where we can redshirt him later on in his career if we had to but right now he’ll go into the season as a sophomore.”
Swinney believes the Tigers’ have some talent at linebacker and they’ve only gotten better.
“They’ve come a long way, that group has gotten better and better,” Swinney said. “Tig Willard was our solid as a rock guy from the beginning, he was the most consistent, and he’s got another year and will be a big factor again. Corico Hawkins is a leader for us, will give us everything he has. He can win for us no doubt. Quandon Christian is the guy that needs to come on this spring. He didn’t have the type of season as a sophomore that I anticipated, he’s talented but it’s about him putting it all together. All of the young guys are talented. Stephone Anthony is an All American in the making, ability, maturity he’s got everything. BJ Goodson is coming off a redshirt, really excited about him. Justin Parker, he’s another guy that it’s time for him to show up and be who he is because he’s talented. We all know who Tony Steward is and what he’s capable of, it will just be a matter of time before we see the true talent that he is. Lateek Townsend, Brent’s excited about him. Everyone’s excited about him; he brings a hard edge to him and energy. Got a little bit of experience last year, just enough to be dangerous. We’ve got a good group to work with and I’m excited to see the competition unfold.”
In the aftermath of the Orange Bowl, Swinney looks at it as motivation for this season but he’s also looking to start fresh.
“It’s a bit of both, obviously its motivation because bottom line we stunk it up the last time we played. That’s a motivating factor going into the offseason,” Swinney said. “But you also have to move on and erase the past, it’s a new team and although the 2011 team did a lot of good things, they weren’t great but good enough to win the ACC. We weren’t good enough to be undefeated, win a BCS bowl or the National Championship but we did win the ACC for the first time in 20 years. We can’t let one game make you lose sight of what was accomplished.”
What does Swinney want to see out of his quarterback Tajh Boyd this spring?
“He’s got to become a better game manager and work on his ball security,” Swinney said. “Bottom line is he’s got to improve in those areas, he did a lot of good things but led our team in turnovers. He gave up a bunch of sacks on his own. Now he has a whole season’s worth of tape for him to study. He’s got to become more consistent, he’s become the leader of our team but can still grow in that. He’s got to keep improving in his overall knowledge of the offense, going into year two he ought to have more command of it, know where the check down is, it’s got to be second nature for him. I sure am excited to see him get back out there he’s got good weapons to work with and such a work ethic, intensity and will to improve that not everyone has, that’s why he’s going to be a good player.”
Another player that Swinney has been impressed with so far is freshman Travis Blanks who has shown already his work ethic and maturity.
“You don’t find many guys like Travis he’s a young guy but smart, way wise beyond his years and mature,” Swinney said. “He’s over here all the time watching tape; he’s here on a Saturday back pedaling on a practice field. He’s focused on being a great player for us and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see him get in the mix. He’s very talented; his body type is a little different, has a lot of length to him and is very physical. Could play corner, safety, and is physical enough to play nickel for us. Brewer gives us that flexibility too; we’re excited to have Travis here now going through spring practice.”
The only departure that Swinney had to talk about on Tuesday was that of redshirt linebacker Colton Walls, son of Carolina Panther great Wesley Walls.
“Colton Walls has decided that he doesn’t want to play football anymore,” Swinney said. “So he is the only guy who won’t be participating in spring ball.”