Dabo Swinney previews spring practice

CLEMSON - Head coach Dabo Swinney met with the media Thursday to preview spring practice.

Here's an edited transcript of Swinney's opening statement from Thursday.

First of all, as we have evaluated the program and what we've accomplished this year, it's really easy to see we've come a long way. I'm proud of the accomplishments of our staff and team. Last year, we had more questions than we had answers. There wasn't a lot of optimism or hope with us, to be frank. New head coach, defensive coordinator, offensive coordinator, several new assistants. We didn't know who the quarterback was. Lot of question marks on our offensive line, lost three d-tackles, two NFL safeties and two wide outs in Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham. Our starting punter and kicker. With all that we lost James Davis and we lost seven games. We had a lot of questions going into spring practice. Can C.J. be an every down guy? Can Jacoby hold up? I'm really proud of this program. It's a work in progress, a process.

I'm real excited about getting onto the field and starting with this 2010 team. We've answered a lot of questions this year. We're at a different point with this team. We've been through the fire. It's not new. We know how we want to practice, what we want to practice. last year, we signed 12. We feel good about this class we're bringing in here. Minimally, we should be better. We should be a smarter team, staff. That should show from day one.

If we can do the job the right way, it will help us play at a high-level every week. It's a focus area for us. We're good enough. As we evaluate all of the film, we're pretty pleased with all of the information. We've got to take a little bit more pride in our consistency. If we can do that, we can have a very good year.

For this team, we talk about a standard of excellence, staying up to our commandments. The daily focus, attention to details, effort, being all in. Everybody on this team, with the exception of our new guys, they understand championship caliber. They can all take themselves back to that sick feeling of being a minute or so from ACC Champions.

Some of our team-type objectives this spring, special teams wise, I'm pleased with coverage, protection and returns, we've got good people on this roster. We've got to be more consistent at punter and kicker. That's a big area from us that we've got to learn from this season. That was the first season for Dawson, Richard Jackson and Spencer. Catanzaro, this is his first year. Our returners, we had two guys who were here for a long time. Marcus Gilchrist is going to be a good one for us. We lost some good, solid special teams players, like Michael Palmer, Kevin Alexander.

Defensively, it's about tackling, toughness and takeaways. We should be a smarter team on defense, hopefully we're not busting assignments with our guys this spring. You have to build a foundation. I hope we can go to the next level, from a mental standpoint. One area we need to improve in is our red area defense. Fundamentals, technique. Our eyes, hands and feet. Who are our best 11? That's one thing we did last spring. We have guys we might move around, to get the best 11 on the field.

Offensively, it's about teaching progression in our core concepts. We have an installation schedule that reflects what we're trying to do in practice. Our tempo, hopefully we can improve there. My philosophy on offense is to be committed to balance. That helps you in the long run, as opposed to dominate in one or the other. I think that's helped us to improve drastically. We went from 90th or something in rushing to 40th.

Wide out is going to be our ‘quarterback' question. We lost some good players, but I'm excited about the guys we have on campus. It's no different than it's been in years past, when you've lost good guys. We have guys who were highly productive and recuited, but haven't had much a chance because they've been behind good players. You'll see some even distribution among the wide outs this year. It's starting over from scratch. I think Xavier and Terrance are veteran guys who bring a lot to the table. I'm really excited about our young players: Jaron Brown, Brandon Clear, Marquan Jones—he's been backing up Grisham and Jacoby. Bryce McNeal, Brandon Clear, Brandon Ford and some good ones coming in.

Offensive line wise, for me it's about our tackle situation. I want to develop Matt Sanders as a center, as well as a guard. We feel good about Dalton as a center. Ramsey can snap, and Mason Cloy can play center. It's important we develop Matt Sanders at center. The tackle position, at this time last year, we had major questions, concerns. Landon Walker had a really good season. He grew up a ton. He's going to be a junior, he's been in a lot of battles. Chris Hairston is an outstanding football player with an good future in front of him. Behind him, what we saw in David Smith is very encouraging. He'll probably be in our starting lineup at guard. This spring, we'll have him in our first five at guard—to have our best five on the field. We'll rest Chris from time to time and let David play tackle with the ones. We're going to try to develop Brandon Thomas this spring, there will be a lot of eyes on him. Same thing with Phillip Price—the tackle area is a big area we have to improve.

It's a big spring for Tajh Boyd. We've documented how we feel about him. He's got to grow this spring. We've got to make him a viable option to go and win a football game. There are not the demands on Kyle Parker this spring. He's going to be at 11 practices. There's going to be four or five practice where Tajh gets the first team reps. When he hits fall camp, hopefully he's mentally at another level and ready to go compete. Michael Wade is slash. He's going to play some quarterback, some safety, some nickel, special teams. We have a lot of confidence in Mike Wade, but he's got to keep his hand in the quarterback situation.

The objective is to get better. We've got six months ‘til we kick it off. We've got to have 15 great days of preparation.

From a running back standpoint, you saw a lot of Andre, Harper, and now you'll have McDowell, what about this spring for them in continuing to try to define more what they do? The linemen kind of have to have a silent communication with the running backs. How do you kind of look at that for the spring?
Swinney: The great thing about C.J. Spiller, he was so dynamic and did so many things, we played three backs all year. It's not like C.J. was getting 28 carries a game and the other guys were fighting for five, between them. We played three guys. We were committed to that. They all warranted touches. They have all been used in different roles. You lost C.J. Spiller, he's a great player, but Andre Ellington had the highest yards per carry average on the team. Jamie Harper had the longest touchdown run from the line of scrimmage—the longest rushing touchdown. We're really, really excited about Jamie and Andre. It's their time, kind of like it was C.J.'s time last year. Those two guys are special backs. There's going to be a lot of eyes on Rod McDowell this spring, because we've got to have a third guy. Jamie Harper has phenomenal hands. He's got as good or better hands than C.J. That's an area where Andre needs to improve. That's an area we've challenged him a little bit to grow this spring, in development of his consistency catching the football. We're excited about what we've got and what we've got coming in.

What about Harper and his weight? Are you trying to trim him from where he was last season? Is that where you want him?
Swinney: I'd like for him to be 225-230. I think that's about where he's going to play. You go out there and watching him in our all in drills, he's as quick as anybody out there. He's as explosive as anybody out there. If you lined up and ran a 40 with everyone out there, he'd probably be one of the top five guys finishing. He can run. It is something that you want to stay on top of. You hope to see him take that pride in his most valuable asset, which is his body. He's done that and hopefully he'll continue to buy in to what we've asked to do from a physical standpoint. He's done well.

Several questions about quarterbacks. Tajh, if his learning curve is accelerated and he does, is there a chance if he would push Kyle by fall?
Swinney: You never know. Competition is competition. Never say never. I feel pretty good about Kyle Parker. He won nine ball games. He's a special athlete and has a great feel for what we're doing. Certainly, he's got to continue to compete and perform. I think Tajh's talent speaks for itself. He's got a ways to go. He's got a lot of ground to makeup before he's competing with Kyle. That's fine. That's just part of it. Certainly, he's got the ability to compete with anybody once he gets his foundation and his feet underneath him.

With Wade trying to do both things, how crucial is it to get your eventual number three out of McElveen and Ogle?
Swinney: I saw coach McKissick at a clinic down at Myrtle Beach last week. Donny is coach's grandson. I told him it's a big spring for Donny Mac, and Ogle. We don't really have a lot of evaluation on those guys, as far as film goes. When we have Kyle and Tajh with us, then Mike Wade is going to work on the defensive side of the ball. It's going to be a great opportunity for Donny and Ogle to show what they can do, say, ‘Hey, don't forget about me.' Those are things we've got to find out. I don't know. How they transfer and what they've learned, how they've transferred from the meeting room to the practice field, how they're processing it. Throwing on time. Proper fundamentals. We've got a lot to learn with those guys. I'd love to be able to say at the end of the day, we've got a fourth guy…Who is that? I don't know yet.

How is Kyle's spring going to be different than last year spring's?
Swinney: I'm going to tell you. Looking back on it, there just really wasn't any other way to do it, to be honest with you. Looking back on it, that boy was under a lot of pressure last year. He had a tough academic schedule Monday through Friday. He's competing with a guy who's as strong a competitor you can find in Willy Korn. He's having to learn a system. He's kind of where Tajh is, having to learn a system, the pressure that comes with that. He couldn't miss anything. He had to be at every meeting, practice—it wasn't optional. He's competing over in baseball at a high level, and the pressures that come with that, of wanting to perform well. The media and all this stuff. Then, he comes to practice. Every rep is highly scrutinized. He's trying to earn the respect of his teammates, prove to them he can be the guy. He's trying to prove to the coaches he can be the guy. He'd play on Tuesday night and be at a 6 a.m. meeting. He really was grinding for that time frame. This year, it's night and day. He's thrown 20 touchdowns, won nine ball games, he's been on the road and won in overtime, clinched a division title as a freshman quarterback. He's a leader, asserted himself as a leader, got the command and respect that a quarterback should have. Players and coaches respect him. He's a lot more relaxed. He knows it, understands it, he's got a lot of things he's got to get better at, improve upon. He's got a great working knowledge of what's going on. He's very smart, sharp football player. High football IQ guy. He doesn't have Monday/Friday classes. Those are maybe going to be his catch up days where he can come watch film and catch up on things he misses, go over scripts, stay in tuned with the installation. I've not made him be at the meetings. He's kind of done things. He's been all baseball. Maybe only 10 practices…even when he comes to practice, it's not going to be the same type of environment that he was in last year. I believe that's one of the things that's helped him get off to a great start, baseball-wise. He's in a different place right now and having fun. I think that's what we'll see in football in the fall from him, as he enters into camp. Again, there was a lot of pressure on him. We're on a whole other level right now. It's exciting for us and it's good for baseball and for us. We get to take some time and put into to Tajh too, and really develop a special player and get him ready to play next year. Obviously, we want to be able to get him, whether he's the starter or not, he' got to be ready to go in there. He's s a rolled ankle away from playing in the game. We want to get him ready to play where he can go have a great start to his career.

What do you think your first team defensive back group looks like?
Swinney: It's one of those things I've talked to the coaches about. It's competition, but we've got to start somewhere. It's a dynamic process, things change all the time. Obviously, I think we'll go in there with Maxwell and Marcus Gilchrist at corner, as far as starting out this spring. Who knows? A guy like Brewer, or Coty may emerge. We'll say we need one of these guys on the field. Depending on who you play, a lot of times you've got five DB's and six DB's on the field--identifying who those guys are. Who's your nickel? Who's your dime? We'll go in there with Rashard and DeAndre, and Marcus and Maxwell. That's a pretty good group right there that's played a lot of football.

In terms of body-type at linebacker, you've only got one. You've got guys that play, play hard and with a lot of passion. In terms of plugging gaps, stopping the run, you've really got to develop some people.
Swinney: We've got guys here. We've got a great one coming in. Scotty Cooper, we've got to be smart with what we ask him to do. He can really help us. Hopefully, he can stay healthy. Brandon Maye is a big ol' joker. Hopefully, he'll have his best year this year. Hopefully, he'll take what he's learned the past two years and really, really perform at a high level. He's capable of doing that. He's a smart player, and he's come a long way. He's got some areas he's got to improve in. Tig Willard is just going to be a sophomore. He's like 220. Leroy Hill played here, he's like 210. The body-type is important. Tig has the body and he's developing…I think he's going to continue to grow. Same thing with Quandon Christian, who was like 190 when he got here. He's tall, rangy, physical, very physical player. Now, he's probably 215, 214, something like that. He hasn't played a snap. He redshirted. We'll find out a lot about him this spring. I believe he's the rangy kind of guy that will help us in our linebacker core. Spencer Shuey is the Chad Diehl of our defense. I'm excited about seeing him this spring. He's a downhill guy. Talk about stepping up and taking on a filling a hole, taking on a guard—Spencer Shuey has got what you're looking for. He's a 240-pound guy, a big ol' kid. Corico Hawkins. Maybe he doesn't have the measurable as far as height, but he's thick, instinctive, very smart player. He played outstanding in our bowl game. He just played lights out in his first start ever. Corico is just going to get better. He's a football player. He's going to find his way on the field somehow, I really believe that. Daniel Andrews is a guy who we have a lot of confidence in. He's proven to be a nice, niche player for us. We've got to ask him to do the things that he's good at. You'll see us continue to develop those young guys. When we get Justin in here, and another class, that's when we'll really have a core from top to bottom, the way we want it to be.

Where's the leadership come from this year?
Swinney: One of the things that helped us last year a bunch is really showing your players you care about them. One of the ways I think we did that was developing the support staff, the structure around these guys. Whether it be a Jeff Davis or a Wood McCorvey. Jeff meets with these by class. We've kind of created a road map for a freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. Jeff meets with them by class, periodically. The Swinney huddle, which coach McCorvey runs. That group elects the council, which is 11 players, a cross-section of our team. You give them a voice. You listen to them. I meet with our seniors twice a week during the season. There's a lot of ways to develop that leadership in giving them some responsibility, some authority, just by engaging with them, just by communicating with them, talking with them. Our seniors, I think we've got an excellent group of seniors that will be leaders for us. That's what we've got to find out this spring. I saw it emerge. I've started to see it, just like I did last year. This team hasn't come together yet. We've got to get on the field. We've got to let a little water get under the bridge before I can answer that question whole-heartedly on who they are. I've got a pretty good idea of who they are.

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