BRISTOL, Conn. – As Clemson prepares to make another national championship run, coach Dabo Swinney listed all the reasons his offense is in a much better spot headed into this season.
Rewind to a year ago, when uncertainty hung over the Tigers. Would Deshaun Watson stay healthy? How would new co-coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott handle the offense? How would a revamped offensive line perform? Who would step up at running back?
Clemson emphatically answered all those questions. And headed into 2016, Watson returns healthy as a Heisman favorite – having played in a school record 1,121 snaps a year ago. Top rusher Wayne Gallman returns, as do Artavis Scott, last year's top receiver, and Mike Williams, healthy after missing 2015 with a neck injury.
Meanwhile, Swinney says the offensive line is “the best group we’ve ever had easily, and with depth, versatility and flexibility as far as what we can do with guys.”
“Offensively, there’s no question we are way ahead of this time last year,” Swinney said during a visit to ESPN. “Now all those questions, I don’t get those anymore. We’re in a much better spot offensively.”
For the second year in a row, Clemson must completely overhaul its defense, and that is where there are a few more questions – particularly at defensive end. Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd are gone, leaving sophomores Austin Bryant (219 snaps) and Richard Yeargin (147 snaps) as the most experienced players returning.
“We don’t have the veteran experience at end, that’s the only position,” Swinney said. “I think we’ve got competition, we’ve got talent, we’ve got good people, good leaders but that’s the one area we’re going to have to coach them up, grow them up in a hurry.”
One way to potential help is to have defensive tackle Christian Wilkins play end, something the Tigers experimented with in the spring. Swinney said Wilkins dropped 15 pounds to 310, but what happens at end really depends on Yeargin, Bryant, Chris Register, true freshman Xavier Kelly and redshirt freshman Clelin Ferrell.
“We know we can pop Wilkins out there, but at the end of the day we want the four best guys,” Swinney said. “If that means moving him to end because [Scott] Pagano or Dexter Lawrence or whomever it is needs to be in that front four, then we have that versatility. I think we’ll be OK, but he can play it. He’s more of a natural inside guy, but you don’t lose much with him out there.”