NCF Nation: Clemson Tigers
We have heard one complaint about Dabo Swinney and the way religion is “entangled” with the football program.
One singular complaint. Not from a current player or a former player. Not from a current coach or a former coach.
Had any of these religious activities been mandatory, had any player lost his scholarship because he failed to attend them, then Swinney would be guilty of unconstitutional behavior at a public university -- where separation of church and state is guaranteed in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
But nobody -- not even the FFRF -- has claimed that Swinney penalized a player based on his religious beliefs. So what is Swinney guilty of, then? Being a little overzealous in bringing his religious beliefs into the program? Does it say anything about the situation that not one player has lodged a complaint?
According to public records, Swinney is the highest-paid employee at Clemson, a public institution. That means there is a finer line between being a man of faith and being a man who preaches his faith. Swinney cannot deny who he is, nor can he deny how he became who he is. He tells all prospective recruits exactly what they will get when they play for him.
There is a flip side to that. Swinney might not be actively proselyting, but when you take the lead in organizing bus trips to churches, or ask players to attend FCA breakfasts, there could very well be unintentional pressure to conform.
The FFRF has its concerns, accusing Swinney of alienating those players who do not believe as he does. But we have not heard any player complain he felt discriminated against or alienated while playing for Swinney. Aaron Kelly, a Jehovah’s Witness who played for Swinney from 2005 to 2008, came closest -- telling the Chronicle of Higher Education he felt “a little left out” as he watched teammates do their own religious activities.
But he also said he had no problem playing for Swinney despite their religious differences. Kelly left Clemson as the ACC’s all-time leading receiver. At the time, Swinney was his position coach and Tommy Bowden was the head coach, operating the program with a similar religious foundation.
“It was never forced on me or anything like that,” Kelly told Tigernet.com. “If I was uncomfortable with anything, I just explained myself and they were okay with it.”
In defending himself Wednesday, Swinney also used Kelly as an example.
“I’ve never had a problem ever in coaching him,” Swinney said. “He was never a guy who went to church with us, he didn’t pray with the team if the team ever prayed together. It was never a problem. The all-time leading receiver at Clemson and the ACC. ... It’s not about who the best Christian is, it’s about who the best player is. Always has been, always will be.”
Clemson is not the only school to have a highly devout Christian as its head coach. Georgia coach Mark Richt, for example, has been outspoken about his faith. Many teams across the country have team chaplains and player-organized FCA meetings. But there are lines that can be crossed at public schools, and Swinney should understand that.
Organizing bus trips to churches is not such a great idea. Baptisms on campus should be stopped. Swinney is adamant that he will not change how he runs the program, saying, “We do things the right way and always have. We’ll continue to run the program the way we always have.”
Until a player starts complaining, all we can do is take his word for it.
The Tigers have won 32 games over the last three seasons, winning an ACC championship and a BCS bowl game and recording a pair of top-10 finishes in the polls along the way.
Not since 1990 had Clemson won 10 games in a season, but the Tigers have reached that plateau each of the last three seasons, including 11 wins each of the last two. With nine wins in 2014, this senior class could become the winningest class in school history.
So when you start talking about some of the most resurgent programs in college football, make sure Clemson is near the top of that list.
Now, to suggest that Death Valley was ever truly dead would be a stretch. But what isn’t a stretch is that Swinney has pumped the kind of life and energy back into Clemson football that has the people in these parts dreaming big again.
“We have higher expectations every year,” said Clemson All-American defensive end Vic Beasley, who is part of what should be one of the deepest defensive lines in college football. “There’s still another step, and everybody knows what that step is -- winning a national championship.”
Of course, before the Tigers can think national championship, they need to figure out a way to win their state championship.
That’s really been the only rub under Swinney, who is entering his sixth full season as Clemson’s coach.
He has lost his last five games to South Carolina, Clemson’s longest losing streak in series history, and it hasn’t helped that the guy on the other end of those beatings, coach Steve Spurrier, has reveled in twisting the proverbial knife.
Anybody who really knows Spurrier knows it’s not personal. That’s just the way the Head Ball Coach rolls. Always has and always will.
Swinney, to his credit, doesn’t take it personally, but that hasn’t made these last five losses to the Gamecocks any less nauseating, especially when Clemson has pretty much owned every other SEC team it has faced.
“He is who he is. Coach Spurrier has been that way forever. It’s not like it’s just me he gets after, so at least he’s consistent,” said Swinney, whose six wins over SEC teams since becoming Clemson’s head coach in the middle of the 2008 season are the most in the nation among non-SEC coaches. “He’s been that way his entire career whether you like him or don’t like him. Sometimes you wish he’d just let the focus stay on the players and the game and maybe not keep it stirred up.
“But the best thing we can do is start beating them.”
Swinney’s lone win over South Carolina came after taking over for Tommy Bowden midway through the 2008 season, but nobody on the current Clemson roster has ever beaten the Gamecocks.
And not that anybody needs to be reminded, but there are clocks strategically placed in the Clemson football complex counting down the minutes to Nov. 29 when South Carolina pays a visit to Death Valley.
“It’s really frustrating for us, especially for me and a lot of the guys who were raised in South Carolina,” Clemson senior receiver Adam Humphries said. “We know what it means to our fans and what it means to our football team. If we want to get to that main goal of a national championship, we’ve got to win that game. It’s so vital to where we stand at the end of the season.
“You can’t get away from it in this state. Each year, we feel like we have the better team, but we just slip up with turnovers and a few plays here and there that cost you ballgames.”
A year ago, Clemson turned it over six times in a 31-17 loss to South Carolina yet still went into the fourth quarter with a chance to win.
“I go back and look at that game and examine how did we physically play, and to be honest with you, if you just graded it out, we won in every phase of the game,” Swinney said. “We lost on the scoreboard. We outrushed them, outpassed them, outdefended them. We did everything. But you can’t win when you have that many turnovers.”
It was a similar story against Florida State last season. The Tigers turned it over four times against the Seminoles and never had a chance in a 51-14 blowout loss at home.
In their two losses a year ago, the Tigers were on the wrong side of a 10-1 turnover margin.
Senior defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said it gets down to playing their best in their biggest games.
“We’re 22-0 against everybody else except Florida State and South Carolina the last two years,” Jarrett said. “For us to get where we want to be, we’ve got to beat Florida State and South Carolina. When you’re playing against top-five teams, you’ve got to play your best game. That’s what everybody walking on that field needs to understand, that it’s going to take our best game.”
Spurrier even told Swinney when they bumped into each other on the recruiting trail this offseason that the only thing the Gamecocks could muster against the Clemson front was Connor Shaw running the quarterback draw.
“I think you have to give them some dadgum credit,” Swinney said. “Everybody wants to just say that you’re losing to your rival all the time. But how about the fact that, ‘Yeah, we’ve been a top-10 team, but so have they.’ We finished seventh, and they finished fourth. They have been a great football team the last few years. Coach Spurrier and his staff have done an unbelievable job. I hate it, but I’ve got to look beyond the rivalry and evaluate everything.
“You’re not only talking about a rival game, but you’re trying to beat a top-five team in the country along the way. When you play top-five teams, those games are hard to win. But we feel like we are a top-10 team here at Clemson, and we’ve got to become that top-five team. That’s kind of the next step for us. So you evaluate everything you’re doing, what you’re doing and how you prepare, and you’ve got to give them credit. They had a quarterback down there [Shaw] who was special and was a great winner. A couple of years they were just better than us. There’s no question about that. But I don’t think they were better than us the last couple of years. They just won that day. They earned it and performed better on that day.”
The dynamic of the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry has also changed and raised the stakes.
“Used to be, outside of this state, nobody really paid much attention to Clemson-South Carolina because Clemson pretty much dominated,” Swinney said. “South Carolina was never really a factor from a national standpoint. Clemson was here and there and had some good runs, especially in the '80s when they won the championship. Now, this rivalry has become much more of a national game because it has national implications of BCS bowls, top-10 rankings, and that has never been the case in this rivalry.
“It’s just a different time, and it happens to be my time to be at Clemson. But it’s going to turn back, no question. We’ll get it turned back.”
So when his quarterbacks started begging him to go live this spring, his first reaction was, ‘No way!’ He was in protection mode, the way he was as a Steelers assistant. But veterans Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette persisted, and he slowly relented -- only a few times, and with clear instructions to the defense.
His is a dilemma that many coaches across the league have faced this spring. Do you allow your quarterbacks to get hit in practice to help simulate game situations and foster competition, knowing you have increased their injury risk? Or do you never even broach the subject because the priority should always be to protect the quarterback?
Four ACC teams allowed their quarterbacks to go live at some point during spring practice, more than any other power-five league. Clemson did it for the first time under offensive coordinator Chad Morris, believing he would see more out of the three quarterbacks vying for the starting job. Early enrollee freshman Deshaun Watson ended up getting hurt and missing the spring game.
Florida State allowed its younger quarterbacks to go live this spring. Coach Jimbo Fisher said he did the same last year, when Jameis Winston was a redshirt freshman competing to win the starting job.
“They’ve got to be able to feel things around them and react,” Fisher said. “They get in a false security blanket sometimes.”
Does that cause him extra worry?
“It’s no different than when we run the running backs, and I get nervous in the scrimmages when the backs are running and get tackled,” Fisher said. “Our guys know if they’ve got a kill shot, not to. There’s a certain limit of how we practice with each other. You know those shots that everyone wants to have? We won’t take those on each other even if we’re in a live scrimmage because it’s not productive to the organization. Tough to me is when you’re eyeball to eyeball, not when a guy’s exposed and you can do that.”
The coaches are not the only ones who wrestle with the idea. NC State quarterback Jacoby Brissett was not live this spring. But when he was competing for the starting job at Florida with Jeff Driskel back in 2012, both were allowed to go live early on in fall practice. The first day they were allowed to take hits, Driskel hurt his shoulder.
For a running quarterback such as Brissett, that helps. Same for the Duke quarterbacks. Georgia Tech has its quarterbacks live during practice for that reason.
Some coaches believe going live helps separate the competition. But Clemson was the only school with an open quarterback competition to allow its quarterbacks to go live during scrimmage situations. North Carolina, for example, has Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky battling to win the starting job, but offensive coordinator Seth Littrell does not believe it is necessary to allow quarterbacks to get hit. “I’ve never done it,” he said.
Virginia Tech also is in the middle of an intense competition, but quarterbacks have been off limits so far this spring. Veteran Mark Leal would have no problem if the coaches changed their minds.
“Honestly, I'd like to be live,” he said. “I think the rest of the quarterbacks would, too, because it gives more of a game feel. If you're not live, sometimes the whistle gets blown early when you don't think you should have been sacked or the play gets messed up because when there's a rush around you, the first thing the coaches want to do is blow the whistle, rather than you continue to play or go through your reads and progressions and finish the play.”
Depth concerns often dictate what coaches do. Pitt only had two scholarship quarterbacks this spring, so there was no way they were going live. Virginia Tech only has three quarterbacks on the roster this spring.
Still, all the protections most coaches take are not enough to keep their quarterbacks injury-free. Miami quarterbacks were off limits this spring, but Ryan Williams tore his ACL during a scrimmage.
It was a noncontact injury.
Sophomore Chad Kelly was dismissed from the team Monday for what coach Dabo Swinney called, “conduct detrimental to the program,” after a sideline altercation between Kelly and coaches proved the last straw for the hot-headed QB.
“He has had a pattern of behavior that is not consistent with the values of our program,” Swinney said.
The personality conflicts come as no surprise to Clemson coaches, who hoped Kelly would mature throughout the QB battle this offseason, but that didn’t happen -- at least not at a rate fast enough for Swinney.
But Kelly’s dismissal couldn’t have been an easy decision. While senior Cole Stoudt and early enrollee Deshaun Watson are both capable alternatives, Morris gave Kelly every chance to win the job this spring -- even making scrimmages live for QBs so Kelly could showcase his mobility -- because his skill set was a closer fit for what the Tigers want to do offensively.
Morris said prior to Clemson’s first scrimmage of the spring that: “We have to be able to adapt to the personnel we have. If it’s Cole, he’s not quite the runner that Chad and Deshaun are, and we have to adapt to him. … If it’s Chad or Deshaun, you might be more zone-read than you are anything.”
Under Morris, Clemson has used QB runs effectively, and Kelly offered the Tigers their best chance to continue to do that.
Last season, only Maryland and Wake Forest (two of the ACC’s worst rushing offenses) had a higher percentage of their rushing yards come from quarterbacks. Only Duke and Maryland had a higher percentage of rushing touchdowns come from their quarterbacks. Mobility was important for Clemson, and Stoudt -- the presumed starter now -- doesn’t have much of it.
So what does that mean for the Tigers’ offense going forward?
As Morris indicated, the personnel and the playbook will need to be tweaked some to fit Stoudt’s skill set, but that doesn’t necessarily mean massive overhaul. While Tajh Boyd was an effective runner, a closer look at Morris’ play-calling shows that, even with a mobile QB, Clemson’s reliance on Boyd’s legs wasn’t excessive.
In 2013, Clemson’s QBs accounted for just 30 percent of the team’s rush attempts (not counting sacks), good for seventh in the ACC and well within the median group. Overall, just 14.6 percent of the Tigers’ total plays last year were QB runs -- roughly the same rate as NC State, UNC, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Duke. And those zone-reads Morris figured could be a crucial part of the playbook with Kelly at QB? According to ESPN Stats & Info, it was hardly a factor with Boyd running the show a year ago.
Yes, Clemson would’ve loved to have a quarterback who could make plays with both his feet and his arm, and Kelly certainly fit the bill. But in the end, the potential didn’t outweigh his combustible personality. And there’s no reason to assume the Tigers can’t win with a less nimble runner. After all, the four ACC teams that ran their quarterbacks the least in 2013 all made bowl games, including national champion Florida State. And while Clemson’s stable of running backs was beleaguered by injuries a year ago, the depth chart at the position projects as a serious strength for the Tigers’ offense in 2014.
And Kelly’s departure also assures one other thing: Watson, the freshman early enrollee who missed the spring game with a minor injury, won’t be redshirted this year. While Morris has suggested Watson has an uphill battle to master the playbook in time to win the starting job, Kelly’s loss virtually guarantees Watson will get routine playing time, and he’s more than capable of being that same dual-threat weapon in Clemson’s backfield. And given Watson’s profile as a star of the future, getting him on the field in small doses behind Stoudt could prove a major bonus in the long run.
Clemson quarterback Chad Kelly introduced himself to fellow quarterback Cole Stoudt in unabashed fashion in January 2012, before he even put on a Tigers uniform:
"Your on the bench for a reason. And i come soon! Just letting you know," Kelly tweeted.
Kelly was kicked off the team on Monday “for conduct detrimental to the program.” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney referenced a “pattern of behavior that is not consistent with the values of our program.” In a twist of either irony or fate, Stoudt is now left as the undisputed front-runner to replace record-setting quarterback Tajh Boyd as Clemson’s new starting quarterback this fall. Kelly’s career ended before it ever really started -- more snippets and quotes than snaps -- and what was once an intriguing three-man race this spring has ended with one healthy quarterback and an early enrollee freshman who is out with a broken collarbone.
The news comes just two days after a disastrous spring game performance in which Kelly wasn’t just outplayed by Stoudt, he was also benched for the entire second half after he gave the coaches an earful about opting to punt on a fourth-and-short. Kelly completed 10 of 18 passes for 113 yards and two interceptions, but was judged as much for his sideline demeanor and frustrations as he was the throw into double coverage. It's unfortunate, really, because what happened on Saturday wasn't indicative of Kelly's entire spring, which was good enough to keep it an interesting competition heading into summer camp. Stoudt, meanwhile, went 15-for-23 for 158 yards with two touchdown passes in the spring game.
And we’ve barely heard a peep from him about it.
With Kelly’s departure and the injury to freshman Deshaun Watson, who is expected to be healthy in time for summer camp, Clemson’s quarterback competition has essentially solved itself. The luxury to redshirt Watson is gone, and while the position’s depth took an unquestioned hit, it was a coaching decision that could wind up to be addition by subtraction. Clemson was looking for a leader as much as it was a starting quarterback, and they've found it in Stoudt. The overconfident Kelly, who has his own rap song, “Chad Kelly,” tweeted as a recruit that he wasn’t coming to Clemson “just to sit on the bench” and yet that’s exactly where he found himself in the second half on Tuesday.
Following the spring game, Kelly wasn’t made available to speak to reporters.
Apparently, he has said enough.
When the Tigers hit the field for their first scrimmage of the spring Monday, it was live contact for everyone -- including the quarterbacks. That’s something Swinney hadn’t done before, but with senior Cole Stoudt and third-year sophomore Chad Kelly battling to a draw in non-contact jerseys, it was time to see what they’d do with the pressure on them.
“From an evaluation standpoint,” Swinney said, “we needed it.”
Kelly took both the first and the most reps with the first-team offense, and he said he felt good about his performance.
When the Tigers scrimmage again next week, offensive coordinator Chad Morris said it will be Stoudt handling the opening drive, and Morris offered praise for his senior, too.
Working with the second- and third-team offenses, even early enrollee Deshaun Watson managed to make enough plays to wow his coaches, making the race to replace Tajh Boyd all that much tougher to project.
“I was hoping someone would separate himself and make it clear cut that this was the guy,” Morris said. “I thought you’d see some quick separation [this spring]. But it hasn’t [happened], and that’s a good thing for us because they’re all three doing really well.”
Each quarterback brings something to the table.
Stoudt, who has three years of game experience as Boyd’s backup under his belt, has been the calm, cool and collected veteran. Kelly, whose mobility makes him a more versatile weapon, can ride an emotional roller coaster at times, but he’s also adept at firing up the offense with his theatrics. Then there’s Watson, the high school phenom widely projected as the quarterback of the future. He’s well behind the curve in terms of experience, and Morris said it’s unlikely he could win the job this spring, but the freshman is a unique talent.
“We’d love to redshirt him, but if he’s given the opportunity to play, he’s a guy that if the door opens for him, he may never look back,” Morris said. “He’s got that type of ability.”
“Clemson didn’t divulge stats from Monday’s scrimmage, but Swinney said each quarterback had some highlights, some mistakes, and led at least one scoring drive. Even with two offensive linemen out with injuries, each quarterback managed to elude the pressure and move the chains. It was a wake-up call for some of the defensive linemen, Swinney said, but it might have also been a big check mark for Stoudt, whose widely seen as the least mobile of the three QBs.
We do not have a quarterback problem. I know that's the million-dollar question everybody has their eyes on, but we're going to be just fine at quarterback. It is a very competitive situation. The good news is, we could win with any of those guys.” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.
“I’ve proven [Monday] and other games I can make plays with my feet, even if it’s not 40-yard runs,” Stoudt said. “I’m constantly working on that, and I know I’ve improved on that this spring a lot.”
Stoudt said he has an idea of where he stands on the depth chart at the moment, but he wasn’t interested in divulging that insight. Kelly, too, said he was pleased with what he has shown so far, suggesting the coaches’ public comments on the battle may not always reflect where things actually stand.
But if Monday’s scrimmage didn’t necessarily provide answers to the big-picture questions, it at least offered a fresh perspective on the proceedings, and Morris said he expects the quarterbacks to be live again in next week’s scrimmage.
Swinney isn’t sure he’ll be ready to name a starter any time soon. While Morris said there’s cause for anxiety about a two-man race heading into the summer -- “There are two quarterbacks battling for the job, and we’re going to have to make sure the team isn’t two groups,” he said. -- Swinney wouldn’t be opposed to letting the battle play out through fall camp.
It’s the hottest storyline of spring for Clemson, Swinney admits, but the truth is, he’s not concerned about how it all gets resolved.
“We do not have a quarterback problem,” Swinney said. “I know that’s the million-dollar question everybody has their eyes on, but we’re going to be just fine at quarterback. It is a very competitive situation. The good news is, we could win with any of those guys.”
Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage, meanwhile, lives in one of 24 states with right-to-work laws, which limits public employees from unionizing -- and would make it far more difficult for the football team to unionize, too.
On Wednesday, the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern football players qualify as employees of the university and can unionize. It’s a monumental decision that can change the face of college athletics, and one that opens a Pandora’s Box of questions, problems and possibilities. For now, the ruling is confined to private schools -- five of which reside in the ACC (Boston College, Duke, Miami, Syracuse and Wake Forest). While the immediate impact is of a narrow scope, the long-term effects of the ruling could give players the right to collectively bargain with schools in the same way professional athletes bargain for benefits.
Prior to Wednesday’s decision, ESPN.com interviewed every athletic director in the ACC about various national issues facing college athletics, including the possibility of player unionization and what it could mean not only to the sport of football, but to the entire structure of the NCAA. All but two of them spoke on the record about the topic of unionization.
All of them raised poignant questions that nobody seems to have an answer for right now -- including if schools would have to set salary guidelines that differ for a first-team quarterback and a third-team quarterback, and how Title IX factors into the decision. Many of them agreed that the student-athletes need more of a voice in college athletics, but this isn’t the way to go about getting it. None of them pretended to be experts on the topic, and like many observers throughout the country, are simply trying to grasp the breadth of the possible implications.
“This week’s decision, though, is likely to prompt an even closer look at the issue.
If you start to tinker with the student-university relationship and make [athletes] employees, it will have a huge impact across the entire university, not just the small percentage of those who participate in sports.” -- North Carolina AD Bubba Cunningham
North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham pointed out the effect it could have on the entire university -- not just athletic programs.
“It will change the face of the university,” Cunningham said. “Student-athletes aren’t the only ones who are receiving scholarships and performing work on the campus. You’ve got graduate assistants doing research; you have all kinds of student involvement in different capacities at the university. If you start to tinker with the student-university relationship and make those people employees, it will have a huge impact across the entire university, not just the small percentage of those who participate in sports.”
Georgia Tech athletic director Mike Bobinski called player unionization “an incredibly scary thing,” but added that he understands why it’s come to this.
“We kind of backed ourselves into this corner by wanting to control every waking moment and have our kids here year-round, and have access to them all the time,” he said. “That sounds great, and coaches love control and I get that. I know why they feel that way and I appreciate that, but the other side is now this feeling that we own these young people, and their every thought and decision is something that has to be run through us, and I don’t care for that. Some of the backlash we’re seeing now is a result of that frustration that’s built up over that sense of lack of control of your own destiny. It’s a pretty human reaction, so I don’t begrudge people, and all that’s going on right now, I get why it’s happening.”
Louisville AD Tom Jurich applauded the athletes for standing up for themselves, but questioned the logistics.
“It’s not just going to be football players,” he said. “I’m a firm believer: If you’re going to pay athletes, you’re going to pay all the athletes. If you’re going to unionize, you unionize all the athletes. To me, there’s no difference between field hockey and football. Until that’s answered, I don’t even pay attention to it.”
Florida State AD Stan Wilcox said student-athletes should be negotiating for educational benefits, like an undergraduate degree plus a graduate degree, or time to make up credit hours to receive a degree. He cautioned what becoming an employee of the university could entail.
“I don’t think student-athletes really want to go down that road,” he said. “You become an at-will employee that can be hired and fired at any time. Your argument is that it gets you benefits, but you kind of have that now. If you become an employee, every employee has to pay X amount of dollars into a health care program. I don’t know if they’ve thought the whole thing through, as to what it really means to be an employee of the university.”
After Wednesday’s decision, everyone involved in college athletics will be thinking it through now.
ACC reporters Andrea Adelson and David Hale contributed to this report.
Spring start: March 12
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Big shoes to fill: Steve Addazio helped BC make huge strides in 2013, but the task of keeping the momentum going gets much harder without star running back and Heisman finalist Andre Williams, who rushed for an NCAA-best 2,177 yards and 18 touchdowns. Tyler Rouse and Myles Willis will attempt to fill the vacancy this spring, and both have potential. Willis averaged nearly 6 yards per carry as Williams’ primary backup last year. The real intrigue might wait until fall, however, when four freshmen running backs arrive on campus.
- Murphy makes the move: It’s an open competition at quarterback after Chase Rettig’s departure, but there’s no question the most intriguing player in the race is Florida transfer Tyler Murphy. The fifth-year senior worked with Addazio at Florida, and he’ll open the spring competing with redshirt freshman James Walsh and early enrollee Darius Wade. That’s a deep enough bench that BC didn’t worry about moving Josh Bordner, last year’s backup, to tight end. With both of last year’s starting tackles gone, too, Murphy’s experience could be even more important in determining the outcome of the QB battle.
- Restocking the LBs: Even at its low points in recent years, Boston College managed to churn out plenty of talented linebackers, but the position gets a massive overhaul this year. First-team All-ACC star Kevin Pierre-Louis (108 tackles in 2013) is gone, as is Steele Divitto (112 tackles). That leaves junior Steven Daniels (88 tackles, 5 sacks) as the lone returning starter. Josh Keyes adds some experience, but it’ll be a group in transition this spring.
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Replacing Boyd: The talk of Clemson’s spring camp will no doubt surround the quarterbacks, as senior Cole Stoudt, sophomore Chad Kelly and early enrollee Deshaun Watson vie for the job. Stoudt’s experience makes him the early favorite, but it’s Watson, a dual-threat QB with immense talent, who could steal the show. Coach Dabo Swinney has already lauded Watson as perhaps the most talented quarterback Clemson has signed, so all eyes will be on the freshman to see if he can back up all that hype with a strong spring.
- Skill-position shuffling: If the QB battle is the headliner, there are plenty of significant sideshows on offense this spring. Clemson waved goodbye to receivers Sammy Watkins (1,464 yards, 12 TDs) and Martavis Bryant (828 yards, 7 TDs) and tailback Roderick McDowell (1,025 yards, 5 TDs). That means a massive overhaul on offense, where there’s no clear-cut bell cow at running back (Zac Brooks and D.J. Howard return as potential options) and the receiving corps will be looking for some new top targets.
- Dominance up front: On offense for Clemson, there’s plenty of concern for what the Tigers lost. On defense, however, the excitement is all about what they’re bringing back. Clemson’s defensive line, in particular, could be one of the nation’s best. When All-American Vic Beasley announced his return for his senior season, the Tigers knew they could have something special. Add sophomore lineman Shaq Lawson and senior Stephone Anthony at linebacker and Clemson has all the makings of a dominant pass rush.
Spring start: March 19
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- The running backs: After leading FSU in rushing three straight years, Devonta Freeman is gone. So, too, is James Wilder Jr. But the Seminoles enter spring with a quartet of intriguing options to replace their departed stars, led by Karlos Williams (730 yards, 11 TDs in 2013) and Dalvin Cook (No. 21 on the 2013 ESPN300). Mario Pender, who missed last year with academic issues, also figures to be in the mix.
- The defensive front: There are a wealth of question marks here, both in terms of personnel and scheme. With Timmy Jernigan, Telvin Smith and Christian Jones gone, there are plenty of jobs up for grabs. The development of Mario Edwards Jr., Eddie Goldman and Terrance Smith will be key, but with Charles Kelly taking over the defense, it’s also still a bit unclear how much the scheme will deviate from what Jeremy Pruitt ran with so much success in 2013.
- Jameis Winston’s swing: A year ago, the big question was who would win the QB battle. Now, Winston’s got a Heisman Trophy and will be a favorite to win it again in 2014. So the intrigue surrounding the FSU star QB is more on the baseball field, where once again, he’ll be splitting time this spring. Perhaps the bigger question is how the rest of the QB depth chart shakes out, with Sean Maguire the elder statesman and John Franklin III looking to make his move.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 11
What to watch:
- Bobby’s back: After a seven-year hiatus that included an abrupt departure from the Atlanta Falcons and a damaging scandal at Arkansas, Bobby Petrino is back in charge at Louisville insisting he’s a changed man. Fans will be watching closely to see if he has changed his stripes away from the field, but also whether he can rekindle the same offensive fireworks he delivered in his first stint with the Cardinals.
- Replacing Bridgewater: It’s an open QB battle, and for Petrino, it’s among the first chances he’ll have to see the players vying to replace departed star Teddy Bridgewater in action. Sophomore Will Gardner is perhaps the favorite, but he has just 12 career pass attempts. Redshirt freshman Kyle Bolin is close behind, while Reggie Bonnafon is set to arrive in the fall.
- New look on D: Louisville finished the 2013 season ranked second nationally in scoring defense, trailing only national champion Florida State. But this spring, things will look a bit different for the Cardinals, as Todd Grantham takes over as the new defensive coordinator after being lured from Georgia. Grantham figures to bring a 3-4 scheme to Louisville, which will certainly shake things up a bit. Defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin missing the spring with a shoulder injury only clouds the situation further.
Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Brissett takes the reins: The sting of last year’s winless ACC season was barely in the rearview mirror before coach Dave Doeren named Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett his new starting quarterback. Brissett spent last year on the sideline, but apparently Doeren saw enough during practice to comfortably wave goodbye to Pete Thomas, who announced his transfer. There will be ample spotlight on Brissett this spring as he tries to revive the underperforming NC State passing game.
- The new faces: If 2013 was about cleaning house, this spring begins the far more difficult project of rebuilding. For NC State, that means plenty of new faces, including a whopping seven early enrollees headlined by safety Germain Pratt. While there are ample holes for Doeren to fill in Year 2, these incoming freshmen could certainly push for starting jobs and bring an influx of depth that the Wolfpack sorely missed last year.
- Shoring up the lines: NC State’s 2014 signing class included 11 offensive and defensive linemen, and that’s just the start of the overhaul at the line of scrimmage. Last season, the Wolfpack allowed the second most sacks in the ACC (35) on offense while its defensive front recorded the fewest sacks in the conference (20). That’s a formula for disaster, and Doeren understands NC State must get much better in the trenches. Brissett’s arrival at QB could help, but the bottom line is NC State needs to see improvement on both sides of the line, and it needs to start this spring.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
- Hunt’s next step: 2013 was a roller coaster season for Terrel Hunt. He lost the QB battle in fall camp, stepped in as starter after two weeks and was dominant, struggled badly through the midsection of the season, then closed strong with back-to-back come-from-behind wins. Now that he has experience, it will be interesting this spring to see how much he’s progressed. The talent is there, and spring practice should give Hunt a chance to refine it a bit more.
- The defensive front: Syracuse finished its first ACC season ranked fourth in rushing defense and third in sacks despite myriad personnel issues entering the year, but more questions remain as the Orange look toward 2014. With star lineman Jay Bromley and veteran linebacker Marquis Spruill gone, the Orange are looking to fill sizable holes. Robert Welsh figures to be the anchor of the Syracuse pass rush, and the Orange could benefit from the return of Donnie Simmons, who missed 2013 with a knee injury.
- Secondary concerns: Syracuse got a chance to learn what life was like without top cover corner Keon Lyn after the senior fractured his kneecap late last year, but while Brandon Reddish did an admirable job as his replacement, a whole new set of questions crops up in the secondary this spring. Syracuse figures to have openings at both corner and safety, and while Julian Whigham, Darius Kelly and Ritchy Desir offer options, there’s a lot to be decided on the practice field this spring.
Spring start: March 25
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
- Clawson’s early impact: It’s been 14 years since Wake Forest opened a spring camp with someone other than Jim Grobe calling the shots, so there’s no question this will be an intriguing few weeks in Winston-Salem. Dave Clawson takes over after leading Bowling Green to a MAC championship, and he inherits a major rebuilding job. First up for the coach will likely be creating an offensive identity -- something Grobe couldn’t do in 2013.
- Identifying some offense: If 2013 was an offensive slog for Wake Forest, 2014 threatens to be much, much worse. As bad as things got at times last year, the Deacons at least had veterans to rely on. This season, Wake’s leading passer (Tanner Price), rusher (Josh Harris), receiver (Michael Campanaro) and top tight end (Spencer Bishop) are all gone. On the plus side, plenty of younger players saw action in 2013. The job this spring is to figure out who can take a big step forward entering the 2014 campaign.
- The defensive scheme: Wake appears to be moving away from the 3-4 that was a hallmark of recent seasons, as new coordinator Mike Elko tries to maximize the talent remaining on the roster. Without veteran lineman Nikita Whitlock, Wake’s defensive front will have a far different look in 2014, and this spring will largely be about Elko identifying playmakers and tweaking his system to fit their skill sets.
None of them has ever started a game.
“This is probably the most slim it’s been since I’ve been here,” said Leal, a fifth-year senior. “We’ve always had at least five or six guys, but right now it’s only three.”
As spring practices begin throughout the conference, the ACC kicks off its 2014 season with a complete overhaul at the quarterback position. It was only a year ago that Florida State’s Jameis Winston was an unproven rookie who had yet to start a game. Now, the 20-year-old reigning Heisman Trophy winner is the veteran of the league, as nine of the 14 schools will have a first-year starting quarterback, and the competition is open at 11 programs. Florida State, Duke and NC State are the only programs that have definitively named starters, and even NC State doesn’t know what to expect out of first-year starter and Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett.
Brissett, though, knows what’s expected.
“Go make sure it was earned,” he said, “not given.”
Count on that to be a trend in the conference this spring.
Clemson, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest are all starting from scratch, without any starting experience at the quarterback position. Some of the league’s most recognizable names have to be replaced, including Tajh Boyd, Logan Thomas and Teddy Bridgewater. Coaches at North Carolina, Syracuse and Virginia have deemed their competitions open, in spite of experienced starters returning.
“I looked at that and was kind of surprised,” said Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas, the frontrunner to take over the job after Vad Lee’s decision to transfer. “It should even the playing field out a little bit, but at the same time, we all have to go through our parts.”
Not to mention spring and summer auditions.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said it’s likely the competition between Chad Kelly, Cole Stoudt and Deshaun Watson will extend beyond this spring -- and possibly into the season.
“Going in, Cole starts out as No. 1 simply because of where we finished the season -- basically by default, if you will,” Swinney said. “He’s the senior. It’s basically his to lose going in, but it’s incredibly close. You’re talking about -- in my opinion -- three guys who are going to play in the NFL. I believe with all my heart that Cole Stoudt is going to play in the NFL. And the same thing with Chad Kelly, and the same thing with Deshaun Watson, if they stay healthy. So you’ve got three NFL players competing to be the guy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people say, well, if you don’t have one quarterback then you have none. But that’s not the case here.”
It could be the case elsewhere, though.
Virginia Tech (Michael Brewer), Boston College (Tyler Murphy), Miami (Ryan Williams) and NC State (Brissett) are all hoping that transfers can give the position an immediate boost, but former Texas Tech quarterback Brewer won’t join the Hokies until this summer. While none of them has started a game at their current schools, all but Brewer have started at least three games at their previous programs.
Williams started 10 games while he was at Memphis, and he’s the leading candidate to replace Stephen Morris, but “it is wide open,” according to offensive coordinator James Coley. And Williams knows it.
"You have to earn it, you have to earn everything,” Williams told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “I don't want anything given to me. If it's given to me, I didn't work hard enough.”
Brissett started three games at Florida, and Murphy started six games for the Gators after starter Jeff Driskel was lost for the season. Murphy went 2-4 with 1,216 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions before missing the final three games of the season with a shoulder injury.
Nothing is guaranteed in Chestnut Hill this spring, either, as the Eagles also have Darius Wade, a true freshman who enrolled early, and James Walsh, who will be a redshirt freshman.
All eyes will be on Louisville’s quarterback competition, as the Cardinals enter their first season in the ACC without Bridgewater, who left early to enter the NFL draft. Will Gardner and Kyle Bolin will be the top two candidates this spring, and they’ll be joined by incoming freshman Reggie Bonnafon this summer.
“It’s wide open,” first-year coach Bobby Petrino said. “We’ll go through spring and see who comes out 1-2-3 and then obviously we’ll give Reggie an opportunity in the fall to compete with those guys.”
With the addition of Louisville, the ACC enters this season perceived by many to be the strongest it has ever been.
Now it just needs to find a few quarterbacks to help prove it.
2. In a discussion on the ESPNU Football Podcast on Wednesday, my colleague Matt Fortuna made an interesting point in favor of the idea that Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has established himself as a success in South Bend despite having had only one BCS-bowl season. Three of Kelly’s coordinators have been hired as head coaches: Charley Molnar (UMass), Chuck Martin (Miami of Ohio) and Bob Diaco (UConn). Here’s another point in Kelly’s favor: he is in year five in South Bend without questions surrounding his job security. Since Dan Devine retired in 1980, only Lou Holtz has passed the five-year threshold.
3. Has it occurred to anyone else that this is the golden age of college football in the state of South Carolina? The Gamecocks have finished 11-2 and in the top 10 in the last three seasons; Clemson has done both in the last two seasons. This from the flagship programs of a state best known in recent years for exporting its talent to national powers such as Florida State and Penn State. What Steve Spurrier and Dabo Swinney have achieved gets lost because they have one conference title between them in their present jobs. But the state of South Carolina stands behind only Alabama in recent success.
Collectively, the Tigers are actually more experienced.
With 19 scholarship seniors on the roster, this is the most veteran team Swinney has had to work with in the past five seasons in Death Valley. In 2012, Clemson only had 11 scholarship seniors, and just 10 last season.
That is important, considering several of them will be given opportunities to play immediately.
At the receiver position, where Clemson has to replace Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, Clemson has three early enrollees who will participate this spring: Demarre Kitt, Kyrin Priester and Artavis Scott. True freshman receiver Trevion Thompson will join the team this summer. True freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson also enrolled early, and he will be competing this spring with quarterbacks Chad Kelly and Cole Stoudt. At running back, Swinney said he is particularly excited about Wayne Gallman, a redshirt freshman who came “so close to playing last year.” Overall, Swinney said he thinks the running back position will be the deepest it’s been in years.
In fact, Swinney’s biggest concerns are the ones nobody is talking about: replacing Chandler Catanzaro at kicker and finding some answers at offensive tackle.
“We’ve certainly got questions, just like any team out there has questions, but that’s why people buy tickets,” Swinney said. “I think our defense has a chance to be outstanding -- the best we’ve been in a while. I’m really proud of the improvement we made defensively this year, but I think we can take that thing to a much higher level with our personnel, with our depth, with our experience next year defensively. Offensively, I expect us to be really good. I mean really good. I don’t see any reason why not. Yeah, we’ve got to figure things out and get them all in the right spot, but I don’t have any doubt we’re going to be explosive and fun to watch.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is not one of them.
Considering the backlash against the proposed rule, ACC coordinator of officials Doug Rhoads said it will get “extra scrutiny” from the rules committee. Rhoads has spoken with every coach in the conference about it, and while he wouldn’t give an exact breakdown of where the coaches stand on it -- other to say some were in favor, some weren’t -- Rhoads did say “the majority” of ACC coaches don’t think there’s sufficient research to validate the change.
The ACC reflects the national sentiment.
“Not speaking for the rules committee, but speaking from an officiating perspective, I think there’s concern amongst a number of coaches that there wasn’t sufficient data gathered to support whether this was or wasn’t needed,” Rhoads said. “That’s where we are now in the comment period, coaches saying where is the data that this is a player safety issue? There’s not a compelling argument that’s the case here, so I think it’s going to get extra scrutiny over this comment period before it ever becomes final.”
If passed, the proposal would prohibit teams from snapping the ball until at least 10 seconds run off the 40-second play clock, which would allow defenses time to substitute. The exceptions would be in the final two minutes of each half or if the play clock began at 25 seconds.
“Oh, so now all of a sudden we don’t care about them in two minutes?” Swinney deadpanned.
Under offensive coordinator Chad Morris, Clemson typically snaps the ball somewhere between the 23 and 30-second mark, but the Tigers often snap it within 30 seconds. Swinney said they change their tempo a lot, and if their offensive linemen can handle it, why can’t the defense?
“And how about the offensive guys?” he said. “Most of the time, when you look at defenses, they rotate their defensive line the whole game. We do it, most teams do it. Those offensive linemen play just about every snap. So we’re going to sit here and cry for guys who are playing 30 snaps when you’ve got guys on the other side playing 70? Give me a break. It’s an agenda, that’s what it is. If we’re going to talk about player safety, then when they’re going to blitz seven and we’ve only got six, is that extra guy going to hold his hand up before he comes so we know where he’s coming from and that kind of stuff? The whole thing is ridiculous.”
Rhoads pointed out that there’s already an “absolute mandate” for officials to stop the game and send a player out if he thinks the player is injured or fatigued. At the FBS level, Rhoads said teams are averaging close to 180 plays per game, the highest it’s ever been. A few years ago, he said teams were averaging 130-140 plays.
“There’s no way you see a fatigued guy, a guy down on one knee,” Rhoads said. “Whether he asks for that injury timeout or not, that’s part of our management of the game -- detect anything to do with player safety, stop the game, let the trainers look at him.”
The NCAA's 11-member playing rules oversight panel will vote on the proposal on March 6. No coaches are on the panel, but by now, the committee should know where the majority of coaches stand on it.
You can check out all the final results here. Rather than fill a post with endless numbers and 40-yard dash times, we thought it would be fun to give you a glimpse of the combine experience through the players' eyes. Here is a look at selected tweets from ACC players during their time in Indianapolis.
Enjoyed my time in Indy felt a lot of things went well and got some great feedback, gotta keep on climbing and improving thanks for the love— Tajh Boyd (@TajhB10) February 24, 2014
I can't even explain this feeling right now. My feet hurt but I'm glowing right now. So proud of the RB's man. God is good all the time— Andre Williams (@drewill44) February 24, 2014
Blessed with the opportunity to be here http://t.co/xOi87VLoAr— IG:Heartbreak_uno4 (@Heartbreak_mea) February 22, 2014
I would say that was a good day. 4.42 40 yard dash, 38 inch vertical jump and 9 feet 11 inches broad jump ;)— Terrence Brooks (@_Showtime31) February 25, 2014
“November will be a different month for me,” Radakovich said. “I’m really beginning to make some plans here as to how we’re going to make that happen, because we’ll meet Monday afternoons and Tuesday afternoons, so Monday will be a washout of a day and Tuesday for the most part, too, due to travel. My staff, occasionally, we might have to meet on a Saturday before a game just to get some business done.
“I’ve been blessed here with a really good staff of people, and that was one of the reasons why I was happy to take on the responsibility, because there’s a good group here that has done it for a long time. We have some new eyes to help make us better, but the organization is good, so that allows me to move forward with this challenge.”
The entire committee still has plenty of challenges to tackle before the season begins. At a meeting last month in Dallas, the group had preliminary discussions about a recusal policy, but there was no resolution. The committee has also discussed the possibility of having some sort of a practice session before the members have to choose the top four teams of the 2014 season. The next selection committee meeting is scheduled for April, and it will meet again in August before the season begins.
“I’m sure that somewhere down the road there will be some exercises that will include pulling together a real bracket,” Radakovich said. “It’s been really good to watch the group together, to be a part of the group, because it is truly 13 people looking for the same answer, and that is pulling the best four teams together for the semifinals and placing some really great matchups in the other games to keep college football at the forefront of people’s minds at that time of the year and create some great games and good memories for the coaching staffs and student-athletes.”
Here’s a completely unscientific ranking of the five best student sections in the ACC, based on a combination of attendance, fun and good old-fashioned decibel level:
2. Virginia Tech: From the pregame “Enter Sandman” entrance to the end of the fourth quarter, the students stay loyal all the way. They’re the ones who have made Thursday nights in Blacksburg special. They’re the loudest for the “Let’s go! Hokies!” cheer, and one of the biggest reasons Virginia Tech has had such an overwhelming home-field advantage.
3. Florida State: From Tallahassee to Pasadena, these guys know how to represent. Love it or hate it, the “war chant” is one of the most recognizable college football traditions, and nobody can belt it out better than the FSU students. Their tomahawk chop is unmistakable, along with their pride and passion in FSU football.
4. Georgia Tech: They’re at their best on a Thursday night, and they’re no doubt the heart and soul of Bobby Dodd Stadium. They’re always there for the entrance of the Ramblin’ Wreck, and decked out in their white and gold. Oh, and they’re pretty smart, too, those engineers. They’ve got a catchy fight song, and they’re always ready to answer, “What’s the good word?”
5. NC State: Carter-Finley can surprise you with its energy if you’ve never been there before, and the “sign of the wolf” is a must-learn if you’re going to sit with the students. (Even President Barack Obama learned how to do this while on campus in 2008.) NC State students have a lot of Pack pride, and they show it on Saturdays.