Dabo's Big Four: position question marks will help determine story of Tigers' season

Swinney will be closely watching defensive secondary, offensive line, running backs, tight ends when practice begins

Clemson running back George Johnson breaks a tackle by Clemson defensive back Travis Blanks during the Orange-White Spring Football Game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

Photo by Sefton Ipock

Clemson running back George Johnson breaks a tackle by Clemson defensive back Travis Blanks during the Orange-White Spring Football Game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

A week from today, Dabo Swinney will put his Tigers on the field together for the first time to begin month-long preparation for the 2013 season.

As always, he'll be looking to see who's paid their summer dues in terms of physical conditioning. He'll be looking for signs of self-initiative and emerging leadership. He'll be looking for evidence that players have put in the work needed to take their skills to the next level, whatever that means for each individual.

As be begins putting together the pieces of the team that will face Georgia on August 31, he'll also be playing special attention to four positions where questions, answered or unanswered, will help spell the story of Clemson's season.

Defensive Secondary

"The big thing for me is our secondary," Swinney said. "If I'm sitting in the stands, that's what I'm watching. There are a lot of question marks coming out of last season.

"To be fair to those guys, we were very thin going into last season, and then we just get decimated by injuries. But compared to where we were at this time last year, we have nine new pieces - eight signees and Martin Jenkins, who was out all year. So we have nine new guys to work with, out of 15 on scholarship.

"I'm really excited about having the type of competition at that position that you have to have on the practice field to create the edge and really develop guys, and hopefully create the depth that we need to sustain the year."

Offensive Line

"I feel good about our offensive line," said Swinney. "We lost Dalton (Freeman), and I'm not excited about that. The guy was tremendous - very consistent physically and snapping the ball, and was such a coach on the field for us. That's hard to replace. But I think we've got good players.

"We've got some guys who aren't quite ready, like Isaiah Battle. I wish he was ready to just take the job, but he's not ready. Maybe he'll be a great backup for us. Maybe by mid-season he'll have matured a little more. Who knows? I think we have a lot of guys who are going to provide some competition and depth as we go through the season."

Running Back

"Another area that is going to be fun watch is running back," Swinney said. "I love the guys that we have. But on the outside looking in, there are probably some question marks there.

"Is Hot Rod (McDowell) going to step up and be an everyday, consistent guy? I think he will. I think he's ready for it. Is D.J. (Howard) going to stay healthy? Is Zac Brooks going to take that next step? I think the answer is yes, yes, yes. But you have to go do it. And then is there a young guy or two who can get in the mix there? We'll see."

Tight End

"The other thing is tight end," Swinney said. "We lost our really salty veteran in Sam Cooper. People don't really have a great appreciation for the job that Danny Pearman does, first of all, in coaching those guys. That's probably, outside of quarterback, the most difficult position to play. It's unbelievable the amount of football that those guys have to learn.

"Then you lose Sam, who was smart and crafty. We were at level-3 with him. Now we're back at level-1, and we need to be playing at level-3 right out of the gate with (Stanton) Seckinger and (Jordan) Leggett, who's a freshman right out of high school.

"That's an area where I really want to see some growth during camp. Stanton is 235-pounds now. I saw him the other day, it's unbelievable - his neck just grows right into his shoulders. I'm excited about all those guys, but we've got a lot of work to do there."

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