By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
When Dabo Swinney walked into the team room last month for the first official meeting of 2014, he had to take a second look.
What he noticed was that the first two rows in the meeting room were field with seniors – a situation that has not occurred in the previous five seasons he has been the head coach at Clemson.
“I have had one row and then juniors mixed in,” Swinney said. “It is a different team. We kind of flipped it. That is just a result of where we were several years ago. When we won the league in 2011, we had 42 freshmen and redshirt freshmen and those guys have kind of matured on through the process.
“Now we have this outstanding senior group and with that comes an expectation and a mentality that these guys know how to work, they know what it takes, they have paid the price and have been in close games.”
In fact, they are undefeated in those close games. The Tigers current crop of seniors are 6-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less, including last month’s 40-35 victory over No. 7 Ohio State in the Orange Bowl.
“They have played on big stages and have been through your system, your off-seasons and they have the right kind of mentality. They are mature,” Swinney said. “This is a much more mature team. I hope that leadership will resonate within the team and help us develop some of these young guys.
“We have had to rely on a few guys, but now hopefully we can broaden that out and have more leadership than we have had in the last couple of years from a numbers standpoint.”
Though it hurts to lose a Tajh Boyd on offense or a Spencer Shuey on defense, Swinney feels his program is at the point where they should be able to replace those elite level players with other elite level players.
Cole Stoudt—who has backed up Boyd the last three years—will be the most likely candidate to start at quarterback, while highly recruited guys like Chad Kelly and Deshaun Watson—the nation’s top duel threat quarterback in this year’s class—will also push for playing time.
The same list of talented players, like Ben Boulware and others can be found on the defensive side of the ball when it comes to replacing Shuey. In other words, the Tigers are loaded with talented depth at every position.
“That’s the objective,” Swinney said. “It has taken a while to get here, but we have very good quality depth – very competitive depth. It’s hard to replace experience. It’s easier to replace the talent.
“We are losing Tajh Boyd. That is a great player. He is very talented, but we have some other very talented guys on this roster. We can replace that. The experienced part of it, that is the harder thing, but as long as we continue to bring in that type of talent – we are going to be fine.”
Swinney and the rest of the coaches brought in top of the line talent again this year. ESPN rated Clemson’s 2014 Class as the nation’s 12th best. In all, the Tigers signed one five-star player—Watson—and 12 four star players.
It was the fourth straight year Clemson signed a top 15 recruiting class – one of only seven schools in the country that has done so.
“That’s what good programs do,” Swinney said. “Young guys are able to play a lot more now. They are ready more than they used to be. The offensive line is still hard, but all the other positions I think young guys have a chance to play early.
“If we keep bringing in the right kind of talent we can continue to be successful and reload as opposed to be rebuild.”