Facing 'Clemson North'
CLEMSON -- Middle Tennessee, the artist formerly known as Middle Tennessee State, was hit with another name change Tuesday via Dabo Swinney: Clemson North.
With nine members of the Blue Raiders staff having coached or played at Clemson, Swinney has dubbed Saturday's season opener as a "civil war."
"You can't minimize that," Swinney said. "They really understand Death Valley and playing here."
Blue Raiders head coach Rick Stockstill was the receivers coach at Clemson from 1995 to 2002 before departing for East Carolina. To fill the position, Tommy Bowden called Swinney, a former walk-on receiver of his at Alabama, who at the time was a commercial real estate agent.
After playing quarterback at Clemson and The Citadel, Middle Tennessee running backs coach Willie Simmons lived in Swinney's basement for six months as graduate assistant at Clemson.
And the connections don't end with the staff; the father of Blue Raiders strength coach Robbie Stewart, an Easley native, is Swinney's accountant.
Between his usual colorful anecdotes Tuesday, Swinney seemed anxious to get the season under way -- eager to see where his Tigers are and what they have accomplished this offseason.
What Swinney is sure of is Clemson won't overlook Middle Tennessee on Saturday with its ties to the program and its unconventional offense.
"I'm not sleeping," Swinney said. "I'm just ready to go -- enough is enough."
Swinney said it would be foolish to minimize the Blue Raiders' talent base, returning 41 lettermen from a team that beat Maryland last season and held its own against three BCS conference opponents in recent seasons. The Blue Raiders lost to Louisville, Virginia and Kentucky by a combined 24 points since 2007.
Perhaps the greatest concern among the Middle Tennessee staff is a coach who has no direct ties to Clemson -- offensive coordinator Tony Franklin.
Franklin was an offensive assistant coach at Kentucky from 1997 to 2000, during the heyday of quarterback Tim Couch in the Wildcats' pass-heavy, spread-attack.
In his first season as the offensive coordinator at Troy in 2006, the Trojans had the second-ranked offense in the Sun Belt. He left to take the offensive coordinator at Auburn on Dec. 12 in 2007, having less than two weeks to install his spread offense for the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Clemson, which Auburn won, 23-20. Swinney recalled Tuesday that Auburn really hurt Clemson in the game on the ground with the draw.
Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said he has pored over tape from Franklin's work at Troy, Kentucky and Auburn. Steele said it's difficult to pressure a quarterback in Franklin's offense.
Out of the shotgun, the quarterback receives the snap six or seven yard deep and drops to 10 or 11 yards. Middle Tennessee was sacked only 15 times last year. So while Steele says the Tigers must find a way to bother quarterback Dwight Dasher, Saturday might not be a day the Tigers began working toward topping last season's paltry sack total.
The Tigers' defenders must also be disciplined, as Dasher is a dual-threat quarterback and Franklin has added more quarterback zone-reads to his offense. Steele noted open-field tackling will also be at a premium as the Blue Raiders line up four and five receivers and tackles will often have to be made in space.
Without a preseason game to prepare, Swinney is also concerned how the offensive line deals with the various defensive fronts and schemes the Blue Raiders will present.
"The offensive line has to have the ability to recognize and adjust," Swinney said. "We have to prepare for a lot."
Swinney and offensive coordinator Billy Napier expect the Blue Raiders to stuff the front with extra defenders in an attempt to take away C.J. Spiller and force freshman QB Kyle Parker to make plays.
Swinney didn't seem concerned with the likely scenario Tuesday, as Spiller is atypical in his versatility, not a north-south back, smashing straight ahead into eight-man fronts. Spiller said Tuesday he is still not sure how the workload will be divided between himself, Jamie Harper and Charleston area-native Andre Ellington.
Jackson gets nod
Swinney confirmed kicker Richard Jackson will handle field goal and extra point duties Saturday. He said Jackson has taken advantage of the muscle pull sidelining Spencer Benton for the better part of a week.
Swinney had Jackson call his own shot in practice Monday, a game-winner from the right hash, 53 yards out. The kick was true. Jackson has become more and more consistent through camp.