Clemson ready to embrace expectations with return to playoff

Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant (2) sets up to pass against Miami Hurricanes in the ACC Championship Game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on December 2, 2017. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS)

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Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant (2) sets up to pass against Miami Hurricanes in the ACC Championship Game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on December 2, 2017. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS)

Nearly two months removed from being rudely dispatched from the semifinals of the College Football Playoffs, Clemson has turned the page on last season.

The 2017 Tigers were a team of overachievers; picked to finish second in the ACC Coastal by the media in the preseason, thanks to a roster which sorely lacked experience with just six scholarship seniors from a squad that was coming off the program’s first national championship in more than three decades.

A challenge Dabo Swinney recognized right from the start.

“I remember my first team meeting walking in there and going, ‘OK, deep breath, we got a lot of work to do,’ ” said Swinney, who was in Orlando, Fla., for a coaches clinic. “It’s the reality of it. It’s exciting, it’s fun, and it’s a different challenge.”

It easy to see just what a daunting task it could become, unlike the previous season.

“You’re walking in there, you’re looking at Deshaun [Watson] and you go, ‘Woo, let’s go. Can we play next week?’ Swinney said with a laugh. “Whereas last year, I’m like ‘Thank god we don’t play in September, we got a lot of work to do.’ ”

Despite those reservations, Clemson would go on to win 12 games including critical victories against ranked opponents like Auburn, Virginia Tech, NC State, and Miami.

“It was a fun year, we overachieved compared to all the expectations, if you will, especially from where we started but this team is more like that team before and just have so much experience and we got so many seniors. And so they … our starting points differ,” he adds.

True to his word when Clemson kicked off spring practice Wednesday, the Tigers did so with one of the more experienced rosters in college football. While players like Ray-Ray McCloud and Deon Cain chose to leave early for the NFL, others like All-American defensive ends Christian Wilkins, Clelin Farrell and Austin Bryant surprised many by deciding to return to school instead.

“There is a lot of hunger to this group, you have a lot of guys that came back, and they didn’t come back to be nonchalant and tiptoe through the deal, these guys got 10 months left in their careers and they’re like, ‘We came back, number one to get better, number two, to go have a great year,’ ” Swinney explains.

One of the most-talked-about positions this spring will be at quarterback where senior Kelly Bryant looks to build off an impressive first season as the Tigers starter. While Bryant put up some impressive numbers last season, there’s plenty of room for growth especially coming off a disappointing performance in the loss to Alabama on New Year’s Day in the Sugar Bowl.

“You don’t have a lot of room for error against those guys and when you get opportunities to make some of those plays, you gotta make them and we just didn’t do it,” Swinney said.

There won’t be much room for error for Bryant, not with players like redshirt freshman Hunter Johnson and Trevor Lawrence, the top prospect in this year’s recruiting class, also vying for the job.

“Hunter Johnson is a great young talent; he got much better as the season went. He had a lot learn mentally, he had to kinda catch up, but he’s in a good spot now and Chase Brice is I think a great young prospect and he’s eager to get out there and get in the mix,” Swinney said. “Trevor just got here; obviously he’s a highly touted and talented young player.

“At the end of the day, you practice for a reason and you evaluate everything from practice, we don’t go on potential. Potential gets you beat, performance is what wins.”

One position that won’t feature a lot of uncertainty is the defensive line, where Clemson returns every starter from last season. However, that wasn’t always the case with the possibility of players like Watkins and Bryant choosing to leave school early. Luckily for the Tigers and Swinney, that never materialized.

“It’ll be fun. It’s gonna be a tough spring going against them guys every single day. They’re relentless and everybody wants to play and we function. We just have so many guys that can play,” Swinney added.

With so much talent and experience returning this season, it’s easy to see why Clemson could be the favorites to win the ACC.

“There have been years we been picked to win the league and didn’t do it. There have been years where we haven’t been picked to win it, and we win it,” Swinney said of the possible honor.

“You gotta prove it on the field but on paper, there is no question we got a team that knows what it takes, has the right leadership, now can we put the tight chemistry that we need together, can we develop the proper depth that we need, because all of those things are factors and then create the momentum early.”

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