CLEMSON — Dabo Swinney was thinking out loud as he took inventory of his defensive personnel earlier this month. He was rattling off his thoughts, position by position.
Clemson recently won its second national championship in three years, and there are many people in this small, quaint college town still on a high from what Trevor Lawrence and his supporting cast did to Alabama in the title game.
But Swinney is thinking about the future. The wheels are already turning toward what's next with the start of spring practice just weeks away.
"I think our linebackers ... it's going to be exciting to get some guys their opportunities. I can't wait to see Shaq Smith run out there this spring with that first group. Let's just see what him and old (James) Skalski and Isaiah Simmons can do," Swinney began.
"Our secondary's going to be really good. Really good ... those two young corners (Mario Goodrich and Kyler McMichael) who got some experience last year, (we're) kind of growing them up a little bit more.
"I think our (defensive) ends are going to be a lot of fun. A lot of hunger, a lot of talent. We've got some decent experience there."
Then the Clemson head coach paused and grinned.
"And then you have D-tackle," he said. "Where we literally have zilcho.
"Todd Bates — he's got some work to do."
Indeed he does.
Bates, the Tigers' defensive tackles coach, is tasked with replacing Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Albert Huggins. And that job got even more difficult with the news that Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams, both expected to start next season, will miss spring practice because of injuries.
"God never says 'Oops' and the glass is always half full," Swinney said.
Pinckney had a pectoral injury and decided he wanted to have surgery in an effort to heal it sooner rather than later. Williams injured his leg playing intramural basketball and also needs surgery.
When the Tigers open spring practice, Xavier Kelly will certainly get plenty of snaps at tackle. He played in 10 games last season, recording nine tackles, one tackle for loss and one sack. Darnell Jefferies is another option, though he redshirted in 2018 and played in just one game.
The Tigers also have newcomer Tyler Davis, a top 60 recruit who enrolled early.
"It's going to be a baptism out there this spring," Swinney said of his young defensive line going against a veteran offensive line. "That offensive line has never been so happy in their life."