Tigers ‘way ahead of where we were’

Mark Crammer/AP Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd hands off to running back Roderick McDowell during the first day of spring football practice Wednesday in Clemson.

Prior to Clemson’s first spring practice Wednesday, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was in excellent spirits. He high-fived players during stretching and laughed and chatted with visitors, which included New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, whose son, Seth, is a hopeful walk-on player at Clemson.

Swinney has reason to be enthusiastic as Clemson begins preparation for the 2013 season. For the first time in two years, Clemson is not introducing a new coordinator or scheme on either side of the ball. Clemson is not breaking in green linemen, nor do the Tigers have a quarterback controversy. Clemson is expected to be a preseason top 10 team because of the continuity it will enjoy coming off an 11-win season.

“We are way ahead of where we were last (spring),” Swinney said. “Last year we were replacing both lines and we worried about winning six games. … (Defensive coordinator) Brent (Venables) didn’t know anybody, we were trying to get the chemistry right. We are going to be pretty good on defense — I’ll be very disappointed if we’re not. We have some guys who played through a whole season as freshmen and sophomores and gained a lot of experience.

“We are in the third year of our system, offensively, we have our starting quarterback back, and we got a lot of guys back up front who have got experience.”

Star receiver Sammy Watkins is back, entering his junior season more fit than he was a year ago. He moved around well Wednesday.

His spring status appeared to be in doubt Dec. 31 when he left the Chick-fil-A Bowl with what appeared to be a serious lower leg injury. It was just a scare.

Watkins dedicated his offseason to improved diet and is in better shape physically this spring at 208 pounds.

“I think last year what I did was I was so weak, I had aches and bruises, because I wasn’t eating right,” Watkins said. “Same thing what DeAndre (Hopkins) did, he got healthy and big his junior year and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Clemson starting corners Darius Robinson (leg) and Bashaud Breeland (groin) and nickel corner Martin Jenkins (sports hernia) all participated in practice and appeared to be near full health after missing time last season.

Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris worked with the quarterbacks Wednesday, a group that included Heisman hopeful Tajh Boyd. This offseason it was unclear if either Morris or Boyd would be back for 2013.

Morris interviewed for several head coaching positions, and after the bowl win Boyd was leaning toward turning pro.

Of course, Swinney notes every college team has some questions to answer.

Clemson has to replace a record-setting receiver in Hopkins and a 1,000-yard running back in Andre Ellington. Still, Swinney is confident the Tigers have the playmakers to remain a productive offense.

“(Charone Peake) is ready for more,” Swinney said. “He’s going to get more. (Adam Humphries) is a guy we feel good about. I’m hoping Martavis (Bryant) stays on track. We have a lot of good candidates at receiver. We’ll be fine.

“I think that anyone who watched us play last season saw that (running back) Roderick McDowell has a lot of promise.”

Also in the new $9 million indoor practice facility Wednesday was redshirt freshman quarterback Chad Kelly, who could be the future of the program at quarterback but is behind Cole Stoudt in the race to be the team’s No. 2 quarterback this spring. That a backup quarterback competition is one of the most interesting storylines this spring says much about where Clemson is in 2013: it’s entering March at its strongest point in any of the five springs under Swinney.

“We have a lot of work to do before (Georgia on Aug. 31),” Swinney said. “It’s a new journey.”