CLEMSON — The explosive plays are aesthetically pleasing — they sell tickets and impress recruits — but traditionally championships are claimed with the dirty work.
Three seasons ago, with burly quarterback Tajh Boyd and powerful tailback Andre Ellington bowling over defenders, Clemson rolled to the No. 1 red-zone offense in Division I football, scoring points on nearly 95 percent of its trips inside the 20-yard-line.
In 2013, with Roderick McDowell the new lead back, that clip dropped to 85 percent, 51st in the country. And last year, with Boyd, Ellington and McDowell gone, the Tigers were ranked a paltry 113th, scoring just 73.1 percent of the time — meaning they were totally blanked more than a quarter of their red-zone opportunities.
As Clemson sets out to craft another roster with the first of 15 spring practices approaching Monday afternoon, head coach Dabo Swinney lamented the red-zone issues plaguing the Tigers’ offense and promised a quick fix.
“It only takes about four or five of those things and you’re right there toward the top of the country,” Swinney said Friday. “A healthy Deshaun Watson is going to be a big factor in that. I think improvement on the offensive line and a little experience at receiver, there’s a lot of pieces to the puzzle that are here. We’ve just got to put it all together.”
During the dead period following National Signing Day, while the players engage in mat drills with the strength and conditioning staff, coaches go back to the classroom, tirelessly viewing game tape and evaluating everything from individual player traits to wholesale team trends.
“You miss a couple of kicks, you have a couple of turnovers, and that gets skewed quickly,” Swinney said. “We had a couple of bad snaps. Those are things that just can’t happen. A couple times where we got whipped, their guy was better was our guy. A couple situations where we made a bad call. It’s all collectively trying to minimize that.”
Swinney said a week ago he was chatting with Stanford coach David Shaw, whose team faces a similar plight. The Cardinal, known for their power running attack, were tops in the country in 2011 as far as red-zone scoring (and 11th in 2013) but plummeted to 112th last year, one spot ahead of Clemson.
“They’ve been a great red-zone team a long time, and they were terrible this year,” Swinney said. “They’ve studied it as well, and he was so frustrated.”
When Watson returns to the field following his ACL rehab, Swinney will not hesitate to use him the way Clemson’s sophomore quarterback was meant to be used, despite Watson suffering three serious injuries between April and November.
“We run the zone read. That’s what we do. That’s why he came here, is to impact the game with his feet and his arm,” Swinney said. “You don’t play the game in fear. We’re going to get the ball to him. Hopefully we have a complete surrounding cast around him, which makes everything better.”
Swinney said tight end Jay Jay McCullough remains under athletic suspension entering spring ball. He missed the last four games of 2014 due to a still-unspecified violation of team rules.
“He’s doing everything we’re asking him to do,” Swinney said, “and he’ll have an opportunity to join us hopefully sooner than later.”
Junior Jordan Leggett, senior Stanton Seckinger and redshirt freshmen Milan Richard and Cannon Smith will initially compete for the starting job.
Linebacker Kellen Jones, who transferred from Oklahoma to Clemson at the same time defensive coordinator Brent Venables made the same move, is hanging up the cleats. Jones is planning to graduate and attend graduate school.
Jones made 29 tackles last year.
Also, offensive lineman Jay Guillermo is indefinitely out with what Swinney terms a personal medical issue. Guillermo has played 16 games with one start, and figures to be in the mix to start at center or guard upon his pending return.