CLEMSON—The 2018 Clemson Tigers may be the best team that head coach Dabo Swinney has ever had in his 10 years as the Tigers’ head coach, or maybe the most talent that the Clemson program has had in their 117 seasons of football, at least according to Swinney.
However, that talent will be useless for the Tigers if it is not used correctly, which is the purpose of spring practice.
"I hope, that is one of our goals, that we've got a lot of talent,” Swinney said. “But I hope that we come out of the spring knowing that it is functional talent, and that we've got guys that can go play. We've got a chance to put it together that way.”
With the Tigers returning 62 lettermen off the 2017 team-- including 28 on offense, 29 on defense, five on special teams and 15 starters—this season just feels different for Swinney. In part due to the leadership on the team, with 29 seniors on the team.
“We've had years where we were one side of the ball was very veteran led, and the other side--man, we've got to bring these guys along,” Swinney said. “This is one of those years, where I feel like we've got the type of leadership at every position and experience at each position, on both sides and in the kicking game. So, that's a good place to start."
And that starting place for the Tigers this season is drastically different than it has been for the Tigers in previous seasons.
With the leadership that the Tigers have returning—40 seniors and juniors, and 17 sophomores—it allows the coaching staff to coach the team harder, faster than normal.
"I think you can coach them hard right out of the gate, because they know,” Swinney said. “They know what it takes, they know what to expect. So, I think you can really, as a coach that's fun. Your starting point with a lot of these guys is in a different spot, but at the same time you've got other guys where you have to go right where they are and bring them along.”
While the coaches are the ones that are paid to bring the players along there will be some additional 40-plus coaches on the field. Those 40 extra coaches being the senior and junior players, who will help to bring along some of the very talented, but also young, freshmen.
“One of the best things that's woven into the culture of our program, and one of the reasons that we've been so consistent, is the pride that our veterans take in nurturing the young guys and teaching them,” Swinney said. “This is how we practice, teaching the position, teaching the concept, but also the core values of who we are. 'Nah, that ain't how we do things here.' So, that's a great position to be in as a coach too. It's like you've got a lot of guys helping to get that message the way it needs to be.
“Again, because you have to start over each year, to me anyway; and really reinstall who, what, where, when, why. And for a lot of these guys, these veteran guys, they know what to do. They know how to do it, but I think you take another step forward as a player when you really know why.”
Whether or not the 2018 team lives up to their billing as the “way-too-early” preseason No. 1 team in the nation will be decided beginning in six months--when the Tigers open their season. But at least for now, Swinney likes where his team stands as spring practice heads into the second week.
“It's a good mix,” Swinney said. “I definitely think it's as deep of a team as we've had at the starting point. Hopefully, we'll have the depth when it's all said and done."