Hard to decipher preseason scrimmages

CLEMSON – Saturday afternoon, Dabo Swinney was a man conflicted.

Clemson's fifth-year head coach had just walked away from his team's first scrimmage of preseason camp, a 100-play affair in a mostly empty Memorial Stadium.

Swinney saw his share of positives. And his share of negatives.

As the head coach, that's his job – looking at the bigger picture.

"You wish you were coaching against someone else, and you might walk away with a little different feel," he said. "As the head coach, they're all yours."

Such is the problem with college football's preseason: it's all about hype, and not perspective.

Marveling over gaudy scrimmage stats is fine, but they must be taken with a Morton's factory full of salt.

Take Tajh Boyd's Saturday line: 12 of 18 for 244 yards with four touchdowns against one interception.

Pretty good, you say. But what does that say about the Tigers' secondary?

Well, consider this: Clemson had four healthy cornerbacks the entire scrimmage. Four.

Veterans Darius Robinson, Martin Jenkins and Garry Peters all missed the scrimmage, as did freshman Mackensie Alexander. And freshman Adrian Baker went down early with what is believed to be a sprained MCL. So Clemson had four cornerbacks rotate between three defensive units in Bashaud Breeland, Marcus Edmond, Ryan Carter and Jerrod Williams – a junior, two true freshmen and a walk-on.

Does Tajh Boyd tearing up an injury-riddled secondary really mean anything? (Roy Philpott)
"Marcus Edmond matched up with Sammy Watkins, and Sammy makes a play and Marcus missed a tackle. That should be a mismatch in the first scrimmage, "Swinney said. "What does he do the next scrimmage? Does he get better?

"NFL teams play a bunch of preseason games, so they can find out, the guys that get better and improve, that makes your team. Same thing for us, we've got to go against each other. So I'm excited to see Sammy make a great play, very disappointed we missed a tackle. You've got to keep a good perspective."

Naturally, defensive coordinator Brent Venables made zero excuses for his players.

"I think you've got to have perspective, but if they're lining up with the ones, they've got to play that way," he said. "We've got to help them too. So you roll up on one receiver, a one man route and you double them with a cover 2, you'd like to believe that most of the time you're going to win. But you've got to do the easy things in an easy way."

Here's the issue I have with those statements: they're fine to take in, but what value do they have?

Over his five years as head coach, Swinney has gradually lowered the curtain around Clemson's program for media members. You can't argue with his on-field success (21-5 over the last two seasons with an ACC title and Chick-fil-A Bowl win), but the lack of access makes developments difficult to decipher.

What happened on Boyd's big plays? We know Edmond missed a tackle on one big Watkins score, but was Breeland involved? Is Clemson's offense simply too powerful for its defense to stop?

The limited amount of defenders hand-picked to speak with reporters (defensive end Vic Beasley was the only representative Saturday) makes it tough: true freshmen and position coaches are off-limits.

"For those anticipating a real look at Clemson football, those three weeks cannot pass quickly enough."

Plus, the scrimmage is closed to reporters: we're allowed down the tunnel for a full view of the field only after the scrimmage wraps up.

What did we learn? That there is competition all over the field, from offensive line to tailback to linebacker to the secondary. That's the extent of it. Rarely do coaches get too higher or too low on players in August: there's always the next practice, the next scrimmage, the next piece of tape to study and learn from.

For the most part, we learn what coaches and players want to tell us: since Clemson began practice last week, the media has had two "windows" to watch practice totaling an hour. And a good 30 minutes of that "window" was watching players stretch as a group.

Virtually all NFL teams have open practices as well as four preseason games for fans to gauge progress of veterans and newcomers. And while the value of those games can be dubious at best, it's more than most major college football fans get before the final weekend in August.

So we rely on the words of Swinney and his players, and relay them to you.

"I thought from my perspective, it was a good first scrimmage," Swinney said. "We've got a lot of work to do to get ready to play three weeks from now."

For those anticipating a real look at Clemson football, those three weeks cannot pass quickly enough.

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