Preview: It's 'prime-time' for Clemson football

Independent Mail file photo
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has won at least a share of three division titles in his four seasons with the Tigers.

Photo by Ken Ruinard, Anderson Indepedent Mail, S.C.

Independent Mail file photo Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has won at least a share of three division titles in his four seasons with the Tigers.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has a four-phase outlook on the season, which started not long after Chandler Catanzaro’s field goal sailed through the uprights to beat LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

“The first part of our journey is ‘getting ready’ from January to April,” the Tigers’ head coach said. “And May to July was the ‘transformation’ in our minds and bodies, everything. We had a lot of guys transform this summer.

“(Fall camp) started ‘prime time.’ Now until October is prime time.”

Tigers no more physical this camp

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In many ways this season — after totaling 21 wins the last two — this is prime time for Clemson football under Swinney, a year he’s looked to in building since taking over full-time in 2009.

Juniors and sophomores from the largest class he’s signed (27 players in 2011), join the group of earlier signees and top talents in the last two to make up the corps of a squad coming in with its highest-preseason ranking (No. 8) since 1988.

Record-setting quarterback Tajh Boyd has been with Swinney from the outset.

“Clemson is on the rise. I see it picking up steam,” said Boyd. “It’s like a locomotive. It’s been a pleasure to be on this team as it’s continued to grow. To it build from the ground up with the foundation that coach Swinney’s built — being a part of his first class has been an honor and a blessing.”

Boyd, the reigning ACC player of the year, improved in Chad Morris’ offense by 40 yards (339 yards per total offense) and almost a full touchdown per game (0.8; 46 total) from 2011 to 2012.

Swinney says the senior’s leadership role has expanded beyond just commanding the offensive group.

“Tajh is the leader of the team. He really is,” said Swinney. “He’s grown well beyond the leader of the offense. (Boyd) takes great pride in his performance. Takes great pride in his preparation and really has a great grasp of what we’re doing.

“He’s one of those guys that hopefully will make everyone around him better and that’s what the great ones do. He certainly has done a great job of that for us.”

Also in tow for a Tiger offense that’s posted back-to-back top-25 scoring offenses is electrifying junior receiver Sammy Watkins.

The south Florida native enters as the ACC’s active leader in receiving yards (1,927) and touchdown receptions (15), along with catches (6) and yards (83.8) yards per game.

Missing, however, is the other half of what’s been one of the more dynamic receiver duos in college football the last two seasons: DeAndre Hopkins.

Hopkins exited Clemson for the NFL’s Houston Texans with both the season and career school marks in receiving yards and touchdown receptions, but that doesn’t mean the Tigers aren’t ripe with replacements.

“We’ve got four guys that we think are great players and they’re veteran players,” Swinney said, assessing life without Hopkins. “Sammy, Charone Peake, Adam (Humphries) and Martavis Bryant — those four guys have played and been in big games. They are juniors and are in a third year in the system and that’s where it starts for us.

“Those are the guys that are going to have to get it done.”

The trio outside of Watkins still holds less career receiving yards combined (1,179) than he did by himself his freshman year (1,219), but as a quartet, the group boasts over 3,000 career receiving yards with 24 scores.

Bryant, the 6-foot-5, 200-pound T.L. Hanna product, led the nation last season with a 30.5 yards per catch average.

A by-committee approach is expected in filling the void at running back, but Rod McDowell is aiming to turn a team-best 5.4 yards per carry last season into a starring role his senior campaign.

The Tigers’ O-line is solid yet filled with competition in ’13. It returns four of five starters, but the coaching staff is waiting on some younger players to emerge and make the unit strong as a whole.

In terms of impact freshmen, all eyes are on the Clemson secondary as a place of need, especially after coming off the school’s worst pass-defense rank since 2001 (71st — 240 yards per game).

In the 2013 class, the Tigers hauled in two top-100 rated players in cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safety/nickelback Jayron Kearse in an overall eight-man defensive backfield.

With the influx of talent, Swinney is not only thinking for this season, but also for years to come.

“We really probably need to create a class within a class in that group (by redshirts),” he said. “We love these guys we hit on all of them. We’re going to be very good in the secondary for a while around here.”

The D-line, however, is expected to anchor an improved front seven and Clemson defense overall.

They return three starters, including team defensive MVP Grady Jarrett, and six linemen who played at least 230 snaps. They also take some momentum from the latter half of 2012, where the defensive line produced 20 of the team’s 27 sacks in the final seven games.

Jarrett, a junior, is the Tigers’ leading returner in tackles for loss (8.5), while end Vic Beasley is the conference’s second-best returner in sacks (8).

The linebacker corps has a mix of experience, proven talent and most of all, versatility.

Patrolling the middle is junior Stephone Anthony who stepped on campus as an outside linebacker — started in the middle last year — then was bumped back outside with a midseason surge from rising senior Spencer Shuey.

Shuey, who averaged nearly 10 tackles a start (9.8), is taking over the weakside for ’12 leading tackler Tig Willard, and fellow senior Quandon Christian is back on the strongside.

Swinney identified junior former five-star product Tony Steward — finally healthy after two knee injuries — as a fourth starter behind Shuey in the 4-3 scheme as one of the Tigers’ fastest defenders.

Way under the radar, strong-legged sophomore Bradley Pinion assumes punting duties, while steady preseason All-ACC kicker Chandler Catanzaro is back as a fourth-year starter. The Greenville native sits just four 40-yard field goals from a Clemson career record (24).

If everything comes together as scheduled, Catanzaro will be lining up for kicks in the final phase of Swinney’s master plan this season.

“If we do everything we need to do, hopefully we’ll enter that championship phase,” Swinney said. “It’s one step at a time as you make your journey.”

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