SENECA — Dabo Swinney likes to tell his players that “the windshield is bigger than the rear-view mirror” for a reason.
“It matters what’s behind,” Swinney says, “but it’s much more important what’s in front.”
This philosophy cuts both ways for Clemson this summer. Sure, the Tigers are coming off a 10-4 season and their first ACC championship since 1991. But they’re also trying to overcome the sting of the 70-33 Orange Bowl embarrassment at West Virginia’s hands, one of the worst defeats in program history.
Swinney’s message as practice begins in two weeks? Look ahead. 2012 is all that matters now.
“Whether you won 10 last year or six last year, at Clemson the expectation is that you’re supposed to win. Last year’s over,” he said following his media golf outing Tuesday at Cross Creek Plantation. “Everyone’s got short memories around here. That’s over. We’re moved on. We’re really happy we were able to have that great experience, and I’m really happy for our seniors they were able to be in that locker room, years before when we came up short in Tampa and really be able to finish the deal.
“To put those rings on their fingers, accomplish something that hasn’t been done in a long time, that was a great experience, something we’ll be able to learn from. There were things we didn’t do well, a lot of areas where we have to improve. Our eyes are forward.”
Clemson is likely to be a top-15 team when the first preseason polls are released, but that doesn’t matter to Swinney. A year ago, the Tigers didn’t receive a single vote in the Associated Press preseason poll and rose as high as fifth nationally following an 8-0 start.
More important, he said, are his players’ attitudes and expectations.
“It’s our process we’ve gone through since January,” he said. “This is a new team and our goal is to be the best, the very best we can be. If that’s to be undefeated, I don’t know. But that’s our goal, to be the best we can be.”
A key part of that mission will be the progress of junior quarterback Tajh Boyd, a first-team All-ACC performer after throwing for 33 touchdowns and 12 interceptions as a sophomore.
Boyd struggled down the stretch, throwing nine touchdowns against nine interceptions in his final six games. Footwork and decision-making were issues he attacked hard this spring and summer.
“I saw him the other day and he looks great,” Swinney said. “He’s worked hard on conditioning. He’s a better player at 222 (pounds) than 232. It’s maintaining that commitment, growing in knowledge. That’s the biggest thing. He’s played in some big, big games, made big plays, got a championship ring on his finger. It’s not theory about what he can do.
“He’s really becoming a great quarterback, and not just a good player. To become a great quarterback, you have to be consistent game-in, game-out, become the game manager he has to be.”
Tuesday night, Swinney clarified his position on Sammy Watkins’ status. Watkins was arrested in May on drug charges, and is expected to receive his punishment in the next several weeks.
“I’m not trying to pin myself into any sort of corner, but I have a pretty good idea as far as the minimum and maximum punishment, and it’s ultimately up to him what it ends up being,” he said of Watkins. “As far as which games … he’s going to sit. It’s a matter of how much and when.”
Before the outing began Tuesday, Swinney had been asked if Watkins could play in the season opener against Auburn.
“There’s certainly a chance anything could happen,” he said. “We’ll wait and see and talk about it further.”
Translation: if Watkins does face punishment, it could be for a quarter or a half in the Georgia Dome.
Watkins is going through unspecified requirements this summer laid out by Swinney following his arrest.
“The only thing I will say is he’s gone above and beyond the things required of him,” Swinney said. “I’m not surprised by that. This is a young man who’s got some rebuilding to do. He’s damaged a little bit of trust. All you can do is respond. He’s responded very well, done things we’ve asked him to do.
“And if he continues to do that, again, we’ve got a little time left before camp actually starts with some of the things we’ve asked him to do. If he continues to handle himself like he has, we’ll render the punishment.”
Last fall, Watkins authored one of the best seasons ever by a true freshman receiver. He caught 82 passes for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns, adding 33 kick returns for 826 yards, including an 89-yard touchdown at Maryland.
He was a consensus national freshman of the year, and became the third true freshman ever to be named an AP first-team All-American.
However, he was not on the preseason watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top wide receiver. Clemson sports information director Tim Bourret said that he was not listed due to Biletnikoff policy that excludes players who have been arrested in the offseason.
Bourret said that Watkins would be eligible to be added to the list once his situation is resolved and plays well enough to be included.
Swinney added that sophomore linebacker Tony Steward, a former five-star signee who is coming off his second ACL tear in as many years, has been released to play, is practicing without braces and expects to contribute this fall.
"This isn't just a player. This is a great, great player,” Swinney said. “He's one of the best in America, and we need as many of those guys as we can get. He's still Tony Steward.”