CLEMSON - In his own Dabo-patented style of humor, Clemson's head football coach pranked on the reporter who started off the Jan. 11 press conference asking about his quarterbacks of the future.
BY THE NUMBERS
40.2 - Clemson points per game in 2013 508 - Clemson yards per game in 2013
5 - Schools who have averaged 40 points and 500 yards each of the past two seasons
36.5 - Percent of Clemson's 2,270 rushing yards returning next year
42.2 - Percent of Clemson's 4,330 receiving yards returning next year
Dabo Swinney playfully acted in shock and awe how quickly the subject arose. Of course, it was all in good fun. Because surely Swinney and everybody else not living on Mars knows that's the burning question trailing the Tigers leading up to the 2014 season opener Aug. 30 at Georgia.
Tajh Boyd, leader no longer. Who fills Boyd's proverbial size 18 shoes? Is it senior Cole Stoudt, sophomore Chad Kelly or freshman Deshaun Watson?
"Everything counts when you have to make a tough decision," Swinney said. "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.
"I'm really looking forward to it because I think we have great candidates."
The numbers have been and will be oft-rehashed. Stoudt's claim to fame is a 19-for-20 performance against South Carolina State on Sept. 7, the highest completion percentage in Clemson single-game history. He was solid in mop-up duty, accounting for seven touchdowns and no turnovers on 73 touches this fall.
Kelly's known for his Ironman-like recovery from an ACL tear in the spring game April 13, returning to play less than five months later in that same S.C. State game. Kelly only passed 17 times his freshman year, but gobbled up 117 yards on 16 carries for a team-high 7.3 average on the ground.
Figure this one out: Clemson had 14 rushes of 20 yards or more, and while starting tailback Roderick McDowell had seven, Kelly had three, the only other Tiger with multiple such gains.
Then there's Watson, the top quarterback on several recruiting boards. He's already on campus taking classes, giving offensive coordinator Chad Kelly three options in spring ball.
Swinney was asked if he'd even consider a two-QB system, something Clemson hasn't concocted in decades.
"Ideally, you'd like to have one guy that's clear-cut and it's obvious," Swinney said. "But who knows at the end of the day if you've got a couple of guys that can go win for you, I don't have any problem with that."
What won't be the hot topic around water coolers in the offseason, but perhaps should be, is the running game taking over Morris' playbook. McDowell lugged the load for Clemson's tailbacks last season, capitalizing with a 1,025-yard season.
The Tigers' leading returning carrier is senior D.J. Howard, who had 57 totes for 213 yards last year. Zac Brooks had 246 yards in a season plagued by shoulder troubles, while rookies Wayne Gallman and Tyshon Dye were redshirted (Dye had back and ankle surgeries.)
"I want to see us really run the football," Swinney said. "We're going to have a chance to be pretty special in our backfield. I can see a little bit of a shift in that direction, if you will, but we'll see once we get going. We are who we are. We do what we do."
As both Swinney and Morris have stressed before, they prefer a mobile passer to a statue in the pocket.
"I just believe that when your quarterback's not a threat to run the ball, then we're really playing 11 on 10," Swinney said. "The quarterback is a great equalizer and it really puts pressure on the defense."
All-American wide receiver Sammy Watkins and running mate Martavis Bryant continue the offensive exodus, leaving room for Mike Williams, Germone Hopper and T.J. Green to join Adam Humphries (41 catches, 483 yards) as favorite targets for whoever wins the QB job. Three others - Kyrin Priester, Artavis Scott and Demarre Kitt - will have their say in spring drills after signing financial aid agreements.
"All highly touted, very talented. It's going to be a lot of fun this spring," Swinney said. "Competition is wide open, outside of a couple guys we feel like we can pencil in, (but) it's going to be very, very competitive, just like the quarterback position."
Dye and Charone Peake, who tore his ACL last September, are expected to participate in spring practices, limited to non-contact drills.
All four young tight ends return to the roster in starter Stanton Seckinger (four touchdowns), Sam Cooper, Jordan Leggett and Jay Jay McCullough, though McCullough might be switching to running back.
Seniors Brandon Thomas and Tyler Shatley leave the line, but center Ryan Norton headlines a healthy list of offensive blockers who have starting experience throughout the past year.
"The fact that (Isaiah) Battle was able to emerge this year, Shaq Anthony's starting to come on, we've got a couple of guys like (Eric) Mac Lain and Joe Gore, this is a huge year for them," Swinney said. "I feel good about (Jay) Guillermo, I feel good about a young (Tyrone) Crowder, I feel good about Norton, Kalon (Davis) and (David) Beasley. We've got a lot of good pieces, but sorting all of that out is what we have to do."