Clemson’s Swinney looking to build on ACC title

Coach Dabo Swinney smiles when thinking about the challenges

Clemson faces this season.

He has just 11 seniors this fall, a suspended star for Clemson’s

opener against Auburn and plenty of supporters still smoldering

over the record-setting Orange Bowl flop against West Virginia.

But the fourth-year coach always looks at things with a

glass-half-full perspective.

Swinney believes his defending Atlantic Coast Conference

champions are close to achieving even greater success than they

have the past three years.

”I think that we are on the verge of great things,” Swinney

said.

Swinney said there are many hurdles to overcome, none bigger

than the perception Clemson’s a program full of problems.

Certainly, no one, including Swinney, was happy when the Tigers

surrendered a bowl-record number of points to the Mountaineers in

that 70-33 loss.

Swinney hired longtime Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent

Venables in to fix the breakdowns. He retained one of college

football’s hottest offensive assistants in coordinator Chad Morris

with a six-year, $7.8 million extension. And the Tigers recruits

for 2013 include defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, considered the

country’s No. 1 college prospect.

”I’m very confident of where we are and where we’re going,” he

said. ”We’ve still got hills to climb. It’s not easy. It’s not an

easy job, but I love it.”

The love from Clemson fans is not always a two-way street.

Swinney became the team’s interim coach in 2008 when Tommy

Bowden left in midseason. Swinney led the Tigers to win four of

their last six games that regular season, including a victory over

rival South Carolina at Death Valley that left the crowd chanting

the coach’s name.

Days later, Swinney got the fulltime gig and brought the team

its first ACC Atlantic Division title in 2009. But a year later,

Swinney was reeling from a 6-7 season – Clemson’s first losing

campaign in 12 years – and many fans questioned if the 42-year-old

coach was the man for the job.

Things turned around last fall, though, when Swinney’s hire of

Morris, a high school coach two seasons earlier, and the addition

of wide receiver Sammy Watkins ignited the offense on the way to an

8-0 start and its first ACC championship since 1991.

Again, the good times didn’t last for Swinney.

The Tigers dropped their third straight to South Carolina for

the first time in 40 years and, following their ACC title victory

over Virginia Tech, were embarrassed by West Virginia – leading to

more grumbling about Swinney.

Even with two title game appearances and that ACC championship,

Swinney knows he can’t breathe easy at Death Valley.

”This is a tough business, and it’s just part of it,” he said.

”We’re coming off the best year we’ve had in 20 years, and people

still ain’t happy. So, that’s just the way it is.”

Clemson center Dalton Freeman said the team’s drawn motivation

this offseason from what they accomplished last year and what they

didn’t.

”If you look at the ACC championship when we were at the peak,

playing as good a football as you can possibly play. We know we can

play with anybody in the country,” he said.

The bowl game, Freeman added, was case of momentum rolling

downhill and crushing the Tigers – something the team shouldn’t

forget heading into this fall. ”You need to draw motivation from

each,” Freeman said.

Things could be tougher for the Tigers this season.

They open Sept. 1 against Auburn, the 2010 national

championships, without Watkins, who was suspended two games for an

offseason drug arrest. Watkins, the All-American who set school

records with 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall, will be back

when Clemson opens ACC play against league favorite Florida State

on Sept. 22, a game that could get out of hand if the Tigers

haven’t improved their defense.

That’s what Venables was hired for. He was part of several

national championship runs at Oklahoma and left after 13 years.

Venables is searching to replace defensive linemen Andre Branch,

Rennie Moore and Brandon Thompson, who combined for 17 of the

Tigers 24 sacks last season. The lone returnee on the line is

Malliciah Goodman, who says the players have taken to Venables’

fiery style.

”He wants us to do everything as intense as he would do it,”

Goodman said. ”That is rubbing off on the defense and that’s

creating a better defense.”

Maybe the best defense is an offense that can outgun opponents,

no matter how big the deficit. Morris said the Tigers left a lot of

yards and points on the field last year despite setting school

records with 440 yards and 33.6 points a game.

Morris went to Nevada this year to study that team’s ”pistol”

offense and Oklahoma State to see how coaches freed up star

receiver Justin Blackmon despite the focus of defenses.

Morris expects quarterback Tajh Boyd, another record setter with

33 touchdown passes last year, to be more adept at leading the

attack. The Tigers will also have senior tailback Andre Ellington,

who rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns last fall.

No matter what happens, Swinney has an eye beyond 2012. ”I’m

just trying to build for the long term here,” he said. ”Worked

hard for the past three years to build a foundation here.”