GREENSBORO, N.C. — Dabo Swinney wasn’t here to talk about the past.
When we last saw Clemson’s football team in competitive action, the Tigers were getting run out of Sun Life Stadium in a 70-33 Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia, one of the program’s worst losses ever.
Naturally, the Tigers’ head coach wasn’t very interested in discussing the debacle when he met with ACC writers at the ACC Kickoff Monday inside the Grandover Resort and Conference Center.
“That game’s over. We didn’t play good,” Swinney said. “We didn’t play good on offense, defense, special teams, that’s about it. I’m not here to talk about the Orange Bowl. I’m here to talk about 2012 and the upcoming season.”
Swinney has plenty to be excited about. Monday, ACC scribes pegged Clemson for second in the ACC Atlantic Division, behind preseason league champion pick Florida State.
When Clemson begins preseason practice Aug. 3, the Tigers’ roster will be young – just 24 combined scholarship juniors and seniors – but it will also be very talented. And for the first time since 1991, it’ll be full of players who know what it means to win an ACC championship.
“The biggest thing about this team that’s unique is that it’s been a long time at Clemson since you’ve had a team coming back who’s experienced a championship,” he said. “With that, hopefully they have a clear understanding of what it takes to get there and what it’s all about, and hopefully the success and failure from last year fuels that fire to go do bigger and better things in 2012.”
Much of the season’s fate, he said, will rest with the sophomore class. Clemson has just 11 seniors, and Swinney said Monday that the Tigers’ leadership council, normally dominated by seniors, has asked several sophomores to join the group.
He said sophomores like wide receiver Sammy Watkins and linebacker Stephone Anthony, junior tackle Brandon Thomas, sophomore tailback D.J. Howard and sophomore defensive tackles Grady Jarrett and DeShawn Williams are all leadership candidates.
“We’re going to have to have some (sophomores) step up and be leaders,” he said. “Brandon Thomas is a guy doing a great job with leading from that junior group. All 11 seniors are great people, great players, and I think they have the ability to lead. That young group, we’ll see where some step forward.”
Last fall, Clemson stumbled after an 8-0 start, losing four of its final six games. Swinney said his team did “just an OK job” handling success, which he chalked up to youth and inconsistency – a program-record 29 freshmen played.
Many of those same players must improve this fall, and they’ll be playing more prominent roles. Swinney expects to start one senior (center Dalton Freeman) and one junior (Thomas) on the offensive line and one senior (defensive end Malliciah Goodman) on the defensive line.
“That’s the storyline of this team,” he said. “The development and emergence of sophomores. A bunch of sophomores will have to start in the trenches. The storyline will be how they’re going to start and develop early on.”
That’s nervewracking and exciting at the same time, he said.
With such a young, talented roster, Swinney believes his team is primed for success quickly.
“I think we’re built to make a run at Clemson,” he said. “We have 11 seniors this year. That’s it. And they’re really good players, really good people. That’s a little unnerving, you don’t have a lot of veteran leadership on this team, but it’s also exciting because you know what’s coming.
“If you continue to do a good job of leading and developing our players, there’s no reason why Clemson can’t become that consistent winner and national team people are expecting to be in the mix.”
The future, Swinney says, is exciting – and he has big goals, like winning the school’s second national title.
“That’s our expectation at Clemson,” he said. “That’s our goal. To win them all. Simple as that.”