Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was in an equal-opportunity frame of mind as his Tigers kicked off spring practice with a two-and-a-half hour session at their new indoor practice facility Wednesday afternoon.
"The main thing is getting back focused, starting over with a new group of guys," said Swinney. "We started with fundamentals, technique and day-one installation. We start the spring with the idea that nobody knows anything and give everybody a fair opportunity to go compete.
"We've got a lot of young guys who are really just getting their first shot, and we've got some guys who've been in our second and third group and hopefully are ready to take another step."
Swinney was pleased to get his Tigers back on the field, but described the practice as just 'okay,' and said the team wasn't as sharp, overall, as he had hoped to see. "The enthusiasm and energy and effort were good," he said. "But we just weren't quite as crisp as I'd like have seen us be on day-one. But we'll come back and do better on Friday."
With Clemson being widely projected as a top-10, championship contender, Swinney says he understands the optimism and enthusiasm of the Tigers' fans as preparations begin for the 2013 season.
He shares the optimism, but from a different perspective.
"When you look at where we were this time last year, in particular in the trenches, we were replacing both our offensive line and defensive line," he said. "Now, a year later, all those guy have a season under their belts and they've won 11 ball games. That's the biggest reason for optimism.
"The other thing is that we've got a veteran quarterback. To have a player like Tajh Boyd coming back, and having won as many games as he has, creates a lot of optimism."
While the Tigers have a veteran group to build around, Swinney said there are team dynamics that develop only over time.
"The biggest thing I think a lot of people are excited about is that we have a lot of guys back," Swinney said. "All that's great. But it's a new team with new chemistry and new leadership. You have to go pay the price. It's a new journey, and we have a lot of work to do between now and August 31."
Among the visitors to the Tigers' first practice was the coaching staff from Troy and New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan, who arrived early for Clemson's Pro Day. Ryan's son will be a walk-on for the Tigers next fall.
Back on the field on Wednesday were wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who missed the Tigers' bowl game because of study hall-related issues; Sammy Watkins, who missed all but one play of the bowl game because of an ankle injury; and Martin Jenkins and Justin Parker, who redshirted last fall after undergoing surgery.
It was the first Clemson practice for four early enrolling freshmen - defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Ebenezer Ogundeko, defensive back Jadar Johnson, and tight end Jordan Leggett.
Senior Rod McDowell worked in drills as the Tigers' first-team tailback, but Swinney said he foresees plenty of chances for D.J. Howard and Zac Brooks, as well.
"Replacing Andre Ellington is a challenge, for sure," said Swinney. "But I think anybody who watched us play last year would agree that Rod McDowell showed a lot of great promise. I'm excited to see Rod have a new role. If we can keep D.J. healthy, he'll be fine, and we're looking for Zac Brooks to take another step forward.
"We've always tried to play three backs - my first year we had C.J. Spiller, Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington. When you feel like there's not a big drop-off, you can do that. I think you'll definitely see us be a little more evenly distributed this year. We'll see how it goes this spring. Maybe somebody will just completely separate, but I'm expecting our strength to be more in numbers."