CLEMSON -- Bowl practice, which begins today for Clemson, is not only about preparing for South Florida. The 15 December practices are also important for developing younger players.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney refers to the bowl practice sessions as another spring practice period. While the focus of development figures to be on Clemson's heir at quarterback, Tajh Boyd, the Tigers are losing several other key starters other than Kyle Parker.
The Clemson defense will be especially hit hard next season with five expected starters departing. The Meineke Car Care Bowl will be the last college game for senior defensive starters DeAndre McDaniel (safety), cornerbacks Marcus Gilchrist and Byron Maxwell, and defensive tackle Jarvis Jenkins. Nagurski Award winner Da'Quan Bowers, a junior, will also likely depart thanks to his first-round draft projection. On offense, the Tigers will lose Parker to pro baseball and left tackle Chris Hairston.
To jumpstart the development of their replacements, Swinney says Clemson will have a "really good mix" of game preparation and development.
"When the practices are over, the varsity goes to condition and we'll have our JV practice," Swinney said. "We'll have four or five more periods to do extensive work with our young players and redshirts. We treat it like spring practice: fundamentals, technique, alignments and assignments. Our redshirts have had an excellent fall. They're eager to get out there."
Swinney believes he must balance winning the bowl game versus other interests and not overly commit to development.
Not only does Swinney want to be fair to his seniors, he also wants positive momentum going into the offseason by giving Clemson an 11th consecutive winning season.
When asked why Parker will remain the starting quarterback rather than start Boyd to begin building for 2011 in the bowl game, Swinney said by the same logic he should start Jonathan Meeks at safety over McDaniel and Brandon Thomas at left tackle over Hairston.
"We'll get a lot of people involved," Swinney said of bowl practice, "more than we would in a typical game week. We'll have a lot of good on good -- offensive (starters) versus defensive (starters)."
With the proliferation of multiple receiver sets, developing defensive backfield depth is crucial.
Meeks, a sophomore, broke into the defensive backfield rotation against North Carolina and played at least 19 snaps in each of the last seven games. He earned a start against Georgia Tech over Rashard Hall. At times, Meeks looked like McDaniel, making athletic plays on the ball and delivering big hits. But at other times, Meeks was lost in coverage and gave up long gains in the passing game. He figures to be in line for a starting safety spot next fall.
The development of young cornerbacks like Darius Robinson is also a key. In the last two years, Clemson has lost four starting cornerbacks.
On the offensive end, Thomas will be a sophomore next season and has to replace a solid three-year starter in Hairston. Can he protect Boyd's blind side as ably as Hairston done has for three seasons?
Clemson will learn more this month.
Check out the Clemson blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/tiger_tracks and follow Travis Sawchik on Twitter (@travis_sawchik).
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