Swinney: Watson won't be content as backup, defense must respond to success

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney checks out his team on the first day of NCAA college football practice on Friday, Aug. 3, 2012 in Clemson, S.C. The defending ACC Champions open their 2012 season on Sept. 1 against Auburn in Atlanta, Ga.

GREENVILLE - When workouts began Wednesday during the first of two summer class sessions, new starting quarterback Cole Stoudt became the sheriff of Clemson football.

Stoudt has Dabo Swinney's trust that he'll be an effective leader when coaches aren't allowed to conduct on-field practices.

"He's a leader. The guys have rallied around him," Swinney said Wednesday before a Prowl and Growl social appearance at Fluor Field. "I think we have good direction going into the summer. I'm excited to see Cole lead the Tigers.

"He's performed well as the backup; now he's got to play to the high standard as the starter."

Stoudt knew what he was getting into; almost as soon as he was anointed Tajh Boyd's successor, the Deshaun Watson topic arose in terms of how quickly the freshman takes the reins from Stoudt.

If Stoudt, Swinney and win-now fans have their way, that won't be until 2015. However, Watson won't easily cede the position to his elder.

"You know you've got a guy like (Watson) to build your program around the next few years; but you also have a healthy competition going on," Swinney said. "Because it's not like Deshaun's just going to show up in July and say, 'OK, I'm the backup.' This kid came in January well-prepared. That's what you need in order to get the best out of all your players."

Even though Clemson's defense figures to drive the team's success in 2014 - especially early on in tough tests at Georgia and Florida State while the young offense grows up - it's still a tad overlooked in the big picture.

That's what happens when observers are more curious about how Chad Morris will install his high-octane offense in life after Boyd and Sammy Watkins than they are about how many sacks Vic Beasley and company can rack up.

"I think that's going to change," Swinney said. "I saw a lot of change in that as we went through the season last year, especially toward the end. Our defense started getting a lot more of those headlines, deservedly so."

The theme through spring ball, especially with defensive coordinator Brent Venables, was whether proven players like Beasley, Corey Crawford, Shaq Lawson, Grady Jarrett and Stephone Anthony will keep their edge.

"What's going to be interesting to see is how they respond to that, because they've kind of had that chip on their shoulder the last couple of years because nobody knew their name," Swinney said. "Now, coming into this season, everybody knows who Corey, Vic, Shaq, Grady, Stephone and all those guys are. Will they still play with that same sense of urgency? If they do, I think we've got a chance to be outstanding on that side."

New faces like Stoudt or Lawson or receiver Mike Williams or cornerback Mackensie Alexander won't be able to prove their worth for more than another 100 days - yes, it's that long a wait before Clemson visits Georgia Aug. 30.

So, we're left to talk about what might be.

"That's what makes college football so much fun. It's exciting to see these guys grow and mature," Swinney said. "You kind of have new energy, if you will, because there's some unknowns and there's a lot of questions. There weren't a lot of questions coming in to last year. Now it's like, who's going to win the starting jobs at certain positions? I like the guys, but who's going to separate and emerge as we get ready to go into game week against the Dawgs?"

The Tigers have regularly been pegged to open 2014 in the high teens or low 20s as far as national rankings, due to who they lost to graduation and the draft.

Florida State was ranked No. 11 in the 2013 preseason Associated Press poll, and Auburn was unranked. Those teams capped the year in the BCS National Championship, another example of how anything can happen - to which Swinney alluded Wednesday.

"They lose E.J. Manuel, a first-round draft pick, they've got a quarterback battle going on in the spring, a freshman wins the job and they go win the national championship," Swinney said. "That's what college is all about. Guys have to move on, so new guys emerge every single year."