The Clemson Tigers enter 2009 with new head coach Dabo Swinney at the helm. Swinney took over for the departed Tommy Bowden mid-season a year ago and did enough to earn the full-time job. After a pre-season of high expectations a year ago, Clemson comes in under the radar this year hoping to sneak up on the ACC. I talked with Jeff Fann at All About Sports, a blog with a Clemson Tiger focus, about his thoughts on the upcoming season.
How is Dabo Swinney different from Tommy Bowden? Methods? Schemes?
JF:The word around Clemson is the Tigers are going to be tougher and more physical under Swinney. Expect to see the "Power I" under Swinney, as this was evident during the Spring game. The will allow the Tigers to use the fullback more than they have in past years. Early in his tenure, Swinney had his offensive lineman incorporate the three point stance. This puts the offensive lineman in a better run blocking position. Bowden utilized the two-point stance.
Who has the lead in the QB battle between Willy Korn and Kyle Parker?
JF:Swinney’s been very tight lipped about this one. Through the first week of practice he has given no indication of who’s in the lead. Actually. the biggest QB news out of the first week of practice is how well highly regarded freshman QB Tajh Boyd was performing.
My personal take on this is that while Korn’s been in the program longer, I thought Parker played better in the spring game and has a higher ceiling. Parker, in fact, gave up summer baseball to concentrate on football. It’s too close to call right now.
Will that guy hold the starting position all year?
JF:I’d be very surprised if Swinney stuck with the same guy all year. He showed last year, before the Georgia Tech game, when he benched senior Cullen Harper in favor of Willy Korn, that’s he not afraid to make a switch.
In addition, both Korn and Parker are capable of leading the team and it wouldn’t shock me if one is having a poor half you’ll see the other play. I don’t think Swinney has Steve Spurrier’s lightning quick trigger and will pull one after the first interception though.
Aaron Kelly, the ACC's all time leader in receptions, is gone. Who is going to step up in his place as a target for the QBs?
JF:It looks like track star Jacoby Ford would be the most likely player to fill Kelly’s shoes. He is coming off a 55 catch, 710 yard 2008 season. One thing to keep an eye on is Ford did tweak a hamstring during the first week of practice. We’ll see how that progresses.
Another receiver to look out for is tight end Michael Palmer. During the spring game he displayed the best hands of any of the receivers I saw. The tight end position will play a bigger role in Clemson’s passing offense than in year’s past.
Is this finally the year the Tigers have a solid offensive line?
JF:I wouldn’t call it a solid offensive line, but it should be much better than last year. The recent departure of back up Barry Humphries hurts the Tiger’s depth. As long as offensive lineman Thomas Austin stays healthy, the Tigers will be OK. He’s the anchor of the line and likely a future NFLer.
The line is also potentially starting three sophomores: C Mason Cloy, RG Antoine McClain, and RT Landon Walker.
Tiger coaches are real high on McClain. He’s a future star. Freshman C Dalton Freeman had a solid spring and summer, and could push Cloy for playing time. Freeman does give the Tigers quality depth at the position.
The RT position position is still up for grabs between sophomore Landon Walker and senior Cory Lambert; LT Chris Hairston is also solid.
How much will Clemson's defensive line improve this year, as they had a BCS low of 14 sacks last year?
JF:I think the defensive line will be much improved and one of the better units in the ACC. In part, the low sack total can be attributed to the Tiger’s athletic ends over-running the plays. That allowed opposing QB’s to step up in the pocket and escape. I expect much better fundamentals this year, specifically for athletic and talented DE Da’Quan Bowers. He was all over the field in the spring game making plays. From my vantage point, he was the dominant player on the defensive side of the ball.
Reports from the fall practice are positive for Ricky Sapp. Coming off an ACL injury, Sapp and Bowers will form the most athletic pair of ends in the ACC. DE Kevin Alexander provides solid depth. The return of DT Jamie Cumbie off a broken wrist gives Clemson even more experienced depth. DT Jarvis Jenkins looks to build on strong sophomore season and gives the Tigers a solid run stopper.
Can new DC Kevin Steele work around having to replace two NFL draft picks in the secondary?
JF:One of things Steele was saying during the first week of practice is he’s going to move players around. Look for Ricky Sapp to play some weak side linebacker as well as DE. DE Kevin Alexander will some play some linebacker as well and backup CB Marcus Gilcrist to see some time at safety.
You’ll see some players spending time at different positions in an effort to give offenses different looks. The other move Steele is making is to move DeAndre McDaniel from linebacker to safety. At 6’1" 200 pounds, McDaniel is a bit undersized for the LB position, but still played well last season. He’s much more suited to play in the secondary. Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler are solid corners.
We know Clemson usually recruits pretty well. Who are some redshirt and true freshman who could make a big impact this year?
JF:The Tigers are loaded at running back with C.J. Spiller and Jamie Harper, but redshirt freshman Andre Ellington could see some significant playing time as well. At 5-10 180 lbs, and really quick, the coaches liken him to a young Spiller.
Jaron Brown is redshirt freshman at WR that could have an impact on in the passing game. He played well on the scout teams last year, and has looked good in fall practices. I don’t how much freshman QB Tajh Boyd will play, but he would certainly give defensive coordinators another dimension of the offense to think about as is off to a strong start in the early practices.
The Tigers have two early ACC games that could knock them out of the race early or put them right at the top. How do you see them fairing at Georgia Tech and vs Boston College?
JF:The major weakness for the Jackets will be their inexperienced defensive line, at least early in the season, but I don’t think the Tigers are good enough on the O-Line to take full advantage. Whoever is playing QB won’t have a lot of big game experience either.
Early season Thursday night game in Atlanta doesn’t bode well for the Tigers. I think an upset is possible due to the close nature of the series, but it would be a little bit of a surprise.
I like the Tigers with nine days rest to get ready for a BC team that struggled with off-season injuries and transfers. In the past the physicality of Boston College has given the Tigers trouble, but the Tigers did beat the Eagles last year. And playing in the season’s first big home game in Death Valley should be enough to get the Tigers the victory.
Will Clemson defend ACC pride and beat South Carolina for the 11th time in the past 13 meetings?
JF:The Gamecocks get two weeks to prepare for the Tigers coming off three straight difficult games, at Tennessee and at Arkansas, then home with Florida. I think Clemson always has an advantage in this game, because by the end of the season South Carolina just seems spent by the SEC grind. I don’t see any reason at this point, why Clemson won’t continue their dominance over the Gamecocks.
What is your prediction for Clemson this season? Do they finally make the ACC Championship Game?
JF:Actually, I think the TCU game is critical. If the Tigers win, they are probably 3-1 with winnable games at Maryland and home against Wake Forest. Early prediction if the Tigers beat TCU, they will start the season 5-1. Get to 5-1 and it’s wide open.
I don’t think the Tigers will make the Championship, though, but they’ll be in mix. They haven’t yet proven they can make it through a full season without losing a game they should probably win. For all their talent, Korn and Parker are still inexperienced quarterbacks too. They have to replace Mark Bucholz at kicker and that’s always a question mark in close games.
Tommy Bowden recruited well, so there’s talent. Dabo Swinney has shown me enough that I don’t expect any great drop off, if any at all. I expect a nice upset, somewhere maybe at Georgia Tech or TCU at home or Florida State at home. I’m thinking TCU here, then a weird loss at Maryland, maybe Wake Forest at home. Finally, I see a seven or eight win regular season, and an east coast bowl. With a bowl win a 9-4 or 10-3 season is not out of the question.
My thoughts on Clemson:
I think the switch to Swinney will be good for Clemson to bring in a new attitude around the program that had gotten stale under Bowden. The Tigers have talent, especially at the running back position, but they need their o-line to perform better than they have recently. The news about Willy Korn possibly losing the QB battle is interesting consider how highly rated he was out of high school.
Clemson's defensive line has great speed especially on the edges. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele is a big hire for the Tigers and will pay dividends immediately. The Tigers tilt with FSU could have the Atlantic Division on the line in early November. But even with a win there, I see the Tigers getting tripped up a couple of other places that will knock them out of the Championship Game.
8-4, 5-3, Bowl Game
BCS Championship 50/1
ACC Championship 4/1 (tied 2nd)
Win Total - 8
Thanks again to Jeff. Check out his site here.
What do you think of Clemson? Is this finally the year they break through and get to the ACC Championship Game?