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Random Spring Thoughts: Clemson

Using a combination of various computer programs and the Internet — a task nearly beyond my limited computing skills — I selected 25 F.B.S. teams at random. Teams lucky enough to have been randomly selected will be reviewed with several random thoughts as we enter the heart of spring practice. Up next: Clemson, which is not alone in its secondary violation fun.

You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. For Clemson, hitting the recruiting trail hard involves a misstep every so often, as evidenced by the nine secondary recruiting violations the program incurred from Aug. 31, 2010, through Jan. 31, 2011. What kind of mistakes are we talking about? Displaying jersey with a prospect’s name embroidered on the back; having a recruit eat with a student-athlete not designated as his host; impermissibly paying for a bowling outing; wearing impermissible team gear on the sidelines; and so on, and so on. It’s not much, but people notice, just as they do with Alabama, Ohio State, U.S.C. or your local F.B.S powerhouse.

Of course, it’s not like Clemson was the only B.C.S. conference program to admit to secondary violations over the most recent recruiting cycle. The Crimson Tide had a few, as did Georgia; Tennessee had one or two, as did Texas Tech, and even schools like Ohio State – those that went far, far outside the lines – had a secondary violation or two to confess. Anyone hear the one about Clemson having some skeletons of its own in the closet? If you have, take note: you don’t give credence to a rumor merely by mentioning it; you give credence to a rumor by mentioning it without the caveat that it’s just that – a rumor. And I’ve confused myself as well, so you’re not the only one. More random Clemson thoughts come below:

Please, give us some offense. We beg you. You know what was a great move by Clemson and Dabo Swinney? You know what was an absolute coup for Clemson and Swinney? Stealing Chad Morris away from a handful of other B.C.S. conference programs who would have made inquiries had the Tigers not come in and swept him out of Tulsa in early January. Now, it’s important to note that while Clemson made a great long-term move, the learning curve in place when making such a change offensively might lead to some growing pains in 2011. The addition itself remains an inspired one.

From top to bottom, this is a pretty good staff. There are significant questions about Swinney’s ability to lead Clemson to the top of the A.C.C., even if he had the Tigers within striking distance of a conference title in 2009. One way Swinney can help his cause is by surrounding himself with a talented staff; this year’s group, more so than any staff since he took over in 2008, will give Swinney the type of support staff he needs to help further his development as a head coach.

In Morris and Kevin Steele, the latter entering his third season as defensive coordinator, Clemson has one of the A.C.C.’s best coordinator pairings – if not the best. In hiring Robbie Caldwell, Swinney adds a talented offensive line coach, one who could have gone to any of several power programs this past winter, as well as an assistant with head coaching experience, thanks to his season in charge at Vanderbilt. This is what Swinney needs: talented assistants whom he can use as a sounding board when needed.

Changes across the defensive board. It’s not just the loss of Da’Quan Bowers, even if he’s the most notable departure off last season’s defense. Not to undervalue his lost production, if that were possible: Bowers was a star of mammoth stature, a force so disruptive that he was able to overcome his team’s own struggles to gain national recognition. There’s also losses at linebacker to worry about, and the Tigers must replace veteran starters in the secondary like Marcus Gilchrist, DeAndre McDaniel and Byron Maxwell. So the question, one that will be addressed in the spring: Clemson has talent returning, but can it continue to rank among the A.C.C.’s best defensively with new faces at each level of the defense?

The freshman class. I’m not the only one looking forward to seeing true freshmen like Mike Bellamy, Sammy Watkins, Stephone Anthony, Eric MacClain and others suit up for Clemson in 2011. Clemson fans are excited; Swinney and his staff must be excited, thinking about the impact some of these youngsters can have on a team looking for a sizable improvement in the win column. It’s important, however, to temper expectations: rare is the true freshman who makes a substantial difference; rarer still is a recruiting class with several true freshmen who make an impact.

It’s time for Tajh Boyd. Morris’s offensive philosophy should fit Boyd well, as it will resemble in theory the offense he ran in high school. He’ll still need to learn on the fly, though Boyd did play in eight games last fall as Kyle Parker’s reserve, attempting 63 passes and throwing for a handful of scores. Now that Parker has left the fold, Boyd can rest easy with the knowledge that he has a firm hold on the starting job. That will relieve him of some pressure, knowing he has a long leash. Still, Boyd needs to realize – as I’m sure he does – that he must deliver. He’ll have help from the coaching staff and his teammates to do just that.

The bad news is that Boyd’s play in limited action last fall doesn’t leave anyone fully confident in his ability to take the next step forward in 2011. Nor has his play thus far in the spring done much to further the idea that Boyd will be a significant upgrade over his predecessor, even if Parker was a sizable disappointment a year ago. For now, I place some trust in Boyd’s potential, far more trust in Morris’s ability to lead an offense, and hope that somehow, someway, Clemson can get improved play under center.

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