Swinney hopes Tigers bounce back

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Associated Press
SUNSET, S.C. — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney knows questions will follow his Tigers into this season after last year’s underwhelming record. He just hopes they don’t last long.
“Well, we’ve had one good year and one bad year,” Swinney said Tuesday. “And it’s my job to make sure we don’t have any more of those bad years.”
Swinney took the Tigers to their first Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in 2009, his first full year as head coach. And even though he lost dynamic All-American tailback C.J. Spiller, Swinney figured he had enough pieces back from that Atlantic Division-winning team to make another run at a league championship.
Instead, injuries, a poor kicking game and an offense that couldn’t score left the Tigers at 6-7, their first losing season since 1998. Clemson lost on a last-second field goal at Florida State, 16-13, was knocked around by rival South Carolina, 29-7, and were beaten by South Florida in the Meineke Bowl, 31-26.
“Usually, you count on the bowl game to take you into the season,” guard Landon Walker said. “We didn’t have that.”
After scoring the most points in its history in 2009, the Tigers were 10th in ACC total offense last season. Five of Clemson’s seven losses this season came by six points or less and Napier, the 31-year-old who was the youngest offensive coordinator in the Football Bowl Subdivision, became the lightning rod for fan frustration as the Tigers fell from ACC contention.
Walker said as the losses increased last season, the Tigers’ attitudes soured. They lost a 17-0 lead at national champion Auburn to fall 27-24 in overtime. They were riddled by Miami at home, 30-21. They were beaten 21-16 by a North Carolina team supposedly reeling from NCAA suspensions and inquiry.
“Guys wanted to win, don’t get me wrong,” Walker said. “But I could see something was different. I’m not saying we got used to losing, but it was almost we’d forgotten was it was like to win.”
Swinney vowed to make changes, and got rid of most of the offensive staff. Napier was fired, along with running backs coach Andre Powell. Longtime offensive line coach retired after 12 seasons with the Tigers to take an administrative position.
Swinney lured away Tulsa’s Chad Morris, a protČgČ of Auburn offensive leader Gus Malzahn, to charge up the Tigers while former Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell was hired to toughen up the line.
Caldwell wondered if he’d see players sulking over last year’s problems. “Their attitude was just the opposite,” Caldwell said. “They were dying to get back out there.”
Morris’ system had something to do with that. He spent spring ball preaching for more snaps, faster tempo and crisper decision making. Starting quarterback Tajh Boyd said the offense is like a coiled snake, ready to pounce and hold on once it engages. Running back Andre Ellington, who led the team witih 10 touchdowns despite a foot injury that cost him four games, is expected to be back healthy.
Swinney also delivered one of Clemson’s best recruiting classes, one that was among the country’s top 10 on several analysts’ websites. Tailaback Mike Bellamy should get on the field quickly, while linebacker standouts Tony Steward and Stephone Anthony will challenge for playing time.
“Hopefully, we can get some solid play out of the young guys,” Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said. “They’re on scholarship, too, so we’re going to put them out there and let them go.”
And that’s what concerns Swinney the most entering the fall.
He expects up to 30 first-year players, between incoming freshmen and redshirts from last year, to see action because of Clemson’s lack of depth. Swinney said his young players have potential for greatness. “I hope I’ll be here to develop them all the way through,” Swinney said.
He understands that might not happen with another losing season, although there are hopeful signs it might take a total collapse for Swinney’s tenure to end. Morris, Caldwell and Clemson’s two other new coaching hires all received multiyear deals. The Tigers are on their way to another stellar recruiting class, featuring Chad Kelly, the quarterback nephew of Buffalo Bills great Jim Kelly.
The Tigers start fall practice Aug. 5 and Swinney’s ready to put the past in the past. “My mindset is let’s get on with it,” he said. “Let’s go play.”