CLEMSON, S.C. – By most standards, 2013 was a successful season for Clemson football.
The Tigers finished 11-2, winning 11 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in program history and marking their third consecutive 10-win season.
They won the program’s first Bowl Championship Series game, a 40-35 Orange Bowl shootout over Ohio State, and finished No. 8 nationally in the Associated Press Top 25 and No. 7 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll.
But it wasn’t perfect. A 51-14 loss to eventual BCS national champion Florida State and a 31-17 loss to No. 4 South Carolina (the Tigers’ fifth consecutive defeat at their hated rivals’ hands) left a bitter taste in some fans’ mouths.
While Clemson has established itself as a national contender, head coach Dabo Swinney knows steps remain to turn the Tigers into a team worthy of bringing home the program’s first national championship since 1981.
As Swinney’s staff wraps up the 2014 recruiting class and turns its attention toward spring practice, here are several areas where Clemson must improve or shore up to take the next step toward national prominence.
Run the ball
Clemson graduated a 1,000-yard rusher in Rod McDowell, but the Tigers still ranked only 56th nationally in rushing, averaging 174.6 rushing yards per game. Chad Morris’ offense is predicated on a powerful running attack, and that will only be more important with the graduation of record-setting quarterback Tajh Boyd.
Rising junior Zac Brooks is the top returning rusher, with 251 yards and two touchdowns on 48 carries last fall. Rising senior D.J. Howard had 213 yards on 57 carries. Neither has shown the propensity to be an every-down back.
Redshirted freshmen Tyshon Dye (who is recovering from back surgery and questionable for spring) and Wayne Gallman will join the mix, as will expected signees Adam Choice and Jae’lon Oglesby.
|Clemson's returning tailbacks for 2014|
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|Clemson sports information|
The backfield situation appears quite open, and Swinney wants to feature whoever earns his trust.
“I want to see us really run the football,” he said. “We ran the ball well against Ohio State, who is top-10 in the nation defensively against the run. We ran the ball well against South Carolina. We were creative in how we did some things. We have a chance to be pretty special in our back field. It will be a little bit of a shift in that direction, if you will, but we will see. We are what we are. We do what we do.”
Quarterback running will remain a crucial part of Clemson’s offense: Boyd carried 154 times for a net of 400 yards (he had 654 before sack yardage was subtracted) last fall, scoring 10 touchdowns.
Of those vying to replace him, rising sophomore Chad Kelly and incoming freshman Deshaun Watson are talented runners, while rising senior Cole Stoudt is more of a passing threat.
“I think you will continue to see the quarterback be a big factor for us,” Swinney said. “I just believe that when your quarterback isn’t a threat to run the ball, then we are really playing 11 on 10. The quarterback is a great equalizer and really stresses on the defense. It puts a lot of pressure on the defense. That element has got to improve from where we’ve been and I think it will.”
Clemson committed 24 turnovers in 13 games. Of those, 10 came in the losses to Florida State and South Carolina. Florida State turned Stanton Seckinger’s fumble on the game’s first play into a score and returned a Boyd fumble for a touchdown in racing to a 17-0 lead it never looked back from.
The Tigers committed six turnovers against South Carolina, with Boyd losing a key fumble inside the Gamecocks’ 40 trailing 24-17 and punt returner Adam Humphries losing a pair of fumbles.
“If we’re going to get better, we’ve got to cut the turnovers down,” Swinney said. "Honestly, that is what kept us from getting to Pasadena. In our two loses, we had 10 turnovers—against the No. 1 team and the No. 4 team and you don’t even have a chance to win those games when you’re not taking care of the ball. We’ve got to really take another step there. There are a lot of things that go into that and that’s why we practice.”
Improve tight end production
With NFL player Michael Palmer, John Mackey Award winner Dwayne Allen and Brandon Ford, Clemson has developed a nice tight end legacy.
That took a step back in 2013. Morris likes to feature the tight end in his offense, but no one truly emerged as a standout. Seckinger had 21 receptions for 244 yards and four scores, while freshman Jordan Leggett battled inconsistency to catch 12 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns. Sam Cooper returned from a torn ACL to catch six passes for 50 yards and a score, while Jay Jay McCullough showed promise as a jumbo H-back/end, catching four passes for 17 yards and rushing six times for 43 yards.
“Those guys have got to get better,” Swinney said. “Leggett’s got to become a more physical player. McCullough is the guy who should be able to run the football, do all the things a true fullback would do, but from our 3-man position. Seckinger, I think did a lot of good things this year. Those guys right there continue to improve physically.”
Clemson will add signee Milan Richard (the nephew of Herschel Walker) and preferred walk-on Kurt Fleming, who spent the last four years as a center fielder in the Atlanta Braves organization.
Find a quarterback
Clemson’s next starting quarterback has huge shoes to fill. Boyd graduates with 58 Clemson and ACC records and is the ACC’s all-time passing touchdowns leader and No. 2 in passing yards behind former N.C. State star Philip Rivers.
Stoudt, Kelly and Watson will compete in spring practice to replace him. Swinney lauded Stoudt and Kelly’s work ethic, noting he’d seen both working out on their own. And he called Watson “as talented a quarterback as we’ve signed here.”
He said he’d consider using two quarterbacks but wants to have “one that’s clear-cut and obvious.”
“We’ve got a great situation here,” he said. “Somebody asked if I’d consider playing two. Well, sure, but there’s the old adage that if you don’t have one, you have none.
“That may be very true, but the situation here is that we have some really good players and some great talent at that position, but there’s always competition. We can let them go compete. Everything counts. When you have a situation like this, it’s your academics, it’s your leadership, how you respond to coaching. It’s performance, it’s practice. Everything counts when you have to make a tough decision.”
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
*Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace