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After ending the 2021 football season with three regular-season losses for the first time since 2014 and its lowest final ranking in a decade, the prevailing sentiment in the court of public opinion appeared to be that Clemson’s program may be on the decline.
Don’t believe the naysayers, Coach Dabo Swinney says.
So what’s the state of the program, Dabo?
“As good as it’s ever been,” Swinney said.
Swinney may have a point.
Even with the lure of pro careers resulting in the departures of wide receiver Justyn Ross and cornerbacks Andrew Booth and Mario Goodrich and eligibility expiring for linebackers James Skalski and Baylon Spector and safety Nolan Turner, the Tigers will enter spring practice next month far from bereft of talent.
“We’ve got a great young nucleus of players,” Swinney said. “We’ve got just about everybody back.”
Swinney stressed that he has plenty of reasons for optimism for 2022:
Dabo Swinney’s offensive starters from Cheez-It Bowl all return
Every offensive starter in Clemson’s Cheez-It Bowl victory against Iowa State – which secured the program’s 11th consecutive season with 10 or more wins – will be back this fall.
“There’s not a single lineman that’s not back,” Swinney said. “All the running backs are back. Eventually we’ll get all these receivers back. We’ve got an unbelievable tight end room.
“We’ve got a great young quarterback that’s gotten better and better through the year.”
From the portal: Ex-Clemson QB Hunter Johnson returns
As D.J. Uiagalelei seeks to rebound from a less-than-stellar season as the Tigers’ starting quarterback, two others have been added to the mix in highly touted recruit Cade Klubnik and transfer Hunter Johnson, who rejoins the fold after logging two seasons at Clemson before transferring to Northwestern.
And running back Will Shipley, who led the team with 738 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns, is eagerly anticipating his sophomore season.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to reach more (goals) next year,” Shipley said. “There’s just so much ahead and so much I want to learn. I want to get so much better.
“I’m so happy with this team offensively. How D.J. has grown, our young receivers – Beaux and Dacari Collins. Our offensive line – everyone’s coming back. We’ve really got a bright future.”
Swinney will welcome back majority of defense as well
Clemson will return seven of 11 defensive starters from the bowl game, including the entire defensive front as well as their backups.
“We’ve got a pretty good defensive line. Every one of them could be back,” Swinney said.
He's right. The final holdout – defensive tackle Tyler Davis – announced his decision to return for a final season earlier this week.
Davis, who was hampered by injury for a good portion of last season, is an All-Atlantic Coast Conference if not an All-America candidate. The defense also will return budding stars Andrew Mukuba and Trenton Simpson.
“We’ll lose a couple of linebackers, but we’ve got all these great young guys that have gotten a lot of experience,” Swinney said. “We’ve got our kicker back, and he’s pretty good. We’ve got a couple of good young snappers that nobody knows about who can zip that sucker back there. And we’ve got another Swinney (Drew) to hold the ball.”
Swinney proud of what 2021 team was able to accomplish
After a 2-2 start, the Tigers capped the season by winning eight of nine, including each of their last six.
“We lost to a good Georgia team on a pick six – they’re pretty good,” Swinney said of the eventual national champion. “We lost to a really good N.C. State team in September at their place in double overtime. We lost to the ACC champion Pitt that just made a couple more plays than we did. Our team competed every snap, all year, and never made any excuses.”
Swinney also said he’s encouraged by new coordinators Brandon Streeter, Wesley Goodwin and Mickey Conn as they step into new roles beginning this spring. Nick Eason returns to Clemson as well as the team’s new defensive tackles coach.
Swinney also will welcome another talented recruiting class, including nine players who are already enrolled in school and will participate in spring camp.
“We’ve got a great coaching staff,” Swinney said. “And we’re still in Clemson, South Carolina. We’ve got the best gameday experience and environment in the country. I don’t know what else I can say.
“If you can’t get excited about that, I don’t know what else there is to be excited about. We’ve got a great group of people. We're in a lot better shape today than we were 10 years ago, I can tell you that.”
This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney bullish on state of his program