CLEMSON – "Last year is over."
Deshaun Watson isn't walking through the door. Neither is Ben Boulware, Mike Williams and Wayne Gallman.
Key pieces from a team that won the national championship in 2016 can do nothing to help Clemson in 2017, and that's why Tiger head coach Dabo Swinney was wiping the slate clean and eyeing a fresh start Wednesday, when his team opened spring practice.
“We’re not defending a national championship,” Swinney said. “We don’t talk about that. We’re chasing another one.”
Repeat is not something he’s heard among his players. Every team is different. The challenges of each season constantly change.
That’s why the goal for 2017 is to be the “best version” this Clemson team can be.
“There’s a really good amount of pressure you put on yourselves, even as coaches,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “We want to continue this thing. We don’t want there to be a drop-off.
“We’re trying to charge up the mountain to go be the best that we can be.”
This isn’t like last spring, when the Tigers were coming off a loss to Alabama in the national championship. That group had tasted what it was like to nearly reach the top, but it fell just short. That was a driving force that helped them return to the final game and slay the Crimson Tide to win the program’s first national title since 1981.
This year, Swinney insists he's seen no hangover following Clemson’s annual winter mat drills. Defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said there was no sense of complacency when the Tigers returned from some down time and the celebratory mood had worn off.
“Obviously it’s on our mind. Yeah, it’s a great accomplishment, but we didn’t spend too much time thinking about that,” Wilkins said. “We got back to work.”
That’s one of the challenges this spring: Not letting last year affect this season.
This is an experienced group. A small senior class departed. There are only seven scholarship seniors for 2017. It’s primarily a team dominated by rising juniors and sophomores who will all own rings.
“We just start over," Swinney said. "Last year the question was, ‘Are you expecting a hangover from such a painful loss, such a painful defeat?’ Whether you win or lose, it’s always about what’s next. That’s just what we’ve instilled.”
Swinney has relied on his detailed planning to keep the Tigers focused. The staff finished its quality control Monday. Every aspect of the program was evaluated. Areas of improvement or change were identified.
As for the players, Swinney begins installing the “core values” of the program just like he’s done with every team he’s had since 2009.
Wednesday, he named several of the team's spring goals. Swinney has a quarterback battle on his hands, but he’s also replacing Jay Guillermo at center.
Defensively, he’s pleased with how the Tigers cut back on big plays allowed, but he still sees room for improvement.
On special teams, Clemson needs a new punter, and Swinney wants to “shore up” the return game. He’s hoping punt returner Ray-Ray McCloud learned from his “successes and failures” in 2016 to help the Tigers get better in that area.
Swinney wouldn't have it any other way.
“We’ve got a lot of things to work through this spring,” Swinney said. “For me, I’m just excited to get back out on the field. Let’s get back to football, and let’s start this new journey that we have in 2017.”
Brad Senkiw, Anderson Independent-Mail