By Ed McGranahan.
“I think that we are on the verge of great things,” Dabo Swinney said recently. “I don’t think there’s any question we have laid a great foundation in three years.
“We’ve got a chance to go build upon that foundation, and I think we can achieve our goals.”
Practice in the most formal sense begins Friday, but the work for the 2012 season began days after the team returned from Miami.
“It was hard, for a couple of days,” he admitted, though in quick order he changed defensive coordinators, the staff put the final touches on recruiting including several key players who enrolled in January and ground was broken on an indoor practice facility that should be ready by December.
Spring practice served as an introduction to Brent Venables’ defensive scheme, and a refresher in Chad Morris offense, which resulted in a number of records in its first season but sputtered at inopportune times down the stretch.
With 13 seniors, 11 juniors and nearly five dozen freshmen and sophomores, Swinney envisions competing again this season for an ACC title, and the next season and the next. If Clemson stumbles along the way, it won’t be for a lack of resources. The West End Zone and the team facilities are among the best in the game. The football staff including support personnel is bigger than ever and the talent level may be at its highest in more than two decades.
“You’ve always got to be able to turn the page. I said that to our team last year before the season. We have handled adversity well. The bigger challenge is how you’re going to handle success. We just did an okay job. Not great, not terrible; just okay. Hopefully those guys have grown from that experience.”
Swinney said a year ago he had an inkling that the program was at the threshold. The ACC title whetted his appetite and served as vindication for those who questioned whether he could do the job.
“You play a little better in a couple of spots and anything can happen. You’ve got to have a little luck along the way with injuries and stuff like that. That’s always part of any great season. We were pretty fortunate for the most part,” he said.
Swinney frequently talks about the youth of the team, particularly on both lines, yet insists he’s not uncomfortable with the retooled offensive line. Losing Mike Bellamy and Joe Craig were painful, and Sammy Watkins’ indiscretion was disappointing, but there will always be missteps.
“We’ve still got hills to climb. It’s not easy. It’s not an easy job, but I love it. I love the job. I love being at Clemson. We’re incredibly blessed to have the opportunity every single day to lead this program. I don’t take that for granted. I know where we were and where we are, and I have a great vision for where we’re going.”
Swinney scoffs at suggestions that he may be on a hot seat. Miami was embarrassing. And Clemson teams seldom lose three straight to South Carolina.
“I don’t think you can turn it up any higher,” he said. “I don’t care if you won a championship last year if you won five, this is a tough business and it’s just part of it. And at Clemson, we’re coming off the best year we’ve had in 20 years and people still ain’t happy.
“So, that’s just the way it is. I’m very confident of where we are and where we’re going.”
The team’s five chief competitive goals don’t change including the “state championship” game with South Carolina.
“All I know is, we’re about winning championships period, the end,” Swinney said. “If we can keep winning championships every year, we’re going to have a ton of success. Our state championship is a part of that.
“We haven’t hit all five of them yet. We will, and when we do it’s going to be a really, really special year. I think we’re much closer to accomplishing that than we were three years ago.”