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April 5, 2013
CLEMSON -- All spring Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney has been pleased with the progress of a defense that's been trying to turn the corner after back-to-back sub-par seasons. Friday night was no exception.
Asked if it no longer really matters who's starting up front defensively, given the level of competition and lack of daylight between returning lettermen, Swinney answered, "I don't ever look to be honest with you. Those guys up front, I used to notice. I don't even know who's in there now."
Swinney said the defense was again outstanding in short yardage Friday. The coach has said he believes his front seven has the potential to be much improved this fall. The Tigers lost just two significant contributors over the winter - strongside end Malliciah Goodman and weakside linebacker Tig Willard.
Coaches have been trying to find a starting rotation at end, but it's been a tight race between Tavaris Barnes, Corey Crawford and Vic Beasley, who led the Tigers in sacks in 2012.
It's the same song, different verse inside where Josh Watson, Grady Jarrett and DeShawn Williams are again carrying a lot of first and second-team reps, while rising sophomores D.J. Reader and Carlos Watkins have begun to come on after avoiding red-shirts last season.
"Carlos Watkins is so much improved. Oh my goodness. Dan (Brooks) has done a good job with him," said Swinney. "He improved throughout the season, throughout bowl practice and throughout the spring. He looks like the player we know he can be."
Watkins pulled just over 100 snaps in 2012. Fellow North Carolina native D.J. Reader logged over 230 plays last season and has been splitting time between the football field and the diamond this spring. Swinney says Reader is "really special."
"He's been awesome. He looks great. His weight is way down and he's in that 320-pound range."
Swinney calls his defensive front a "very unselfish group" that has continued to compete hard this offseason.
The coach said he'd like to see a bit more of such a competitive spirit from the man who's been working to protect Tajh Boyd's blindside - Isaiah Battle, a 6-foot-7, 277-pound sophomore coaches are hoping will come on and nail down a starting job at left tackle.
"He's got to have more of a sense of urgency to him. He's got all the talent, but I'm not over-the-top pleased with his performance this spring. He's just been inconsistent. It's about having the focus and drive to be the best everyday. Until he commits to that, he's not ever going to be what he's capable of."
Swinney added: "He's still a young player. And we've got high expectations for him. He is going to be a good player. There's no doubt about that. He's just got a ways to go. Some of these ultra-talented kids, we have them in a wheelchair, then we put a couple of crutches on them, but ultimately they have to stand on their own two feet. He's out of the wheelchair now, but he's still got a couple of crutches under his arms."
Swinney reiterated to reporters that coaches are looking for players who are going to be "accountable, dependable and responsible."
"Those things really matter," he said. "If it were all about who could run the fastest or jump the highest, I wouldn't have ever played.
"I've been around guys before who had all the talent and ability in the world but you couldn't win with them because they weren't accountable and dependable."
Battle is one of just a few question marks on an offensive line that is expected to be better, having lost just one starter over the winter. The former Fork Union Military Academy star has worked exclusively at left tackle, while 2012 left tackle starter Brandon Thomas has taken left and right tackle snaps and according to Swinney on Friday, reps at guard as well.
Swinney calls the offensive line a "work-in-progress" situation that is not yet championship caliber, but admitted it's been hard to quantify how much progress has been made at times because it's a unit that's facing a much improved defensive front.
"We're also doing a lot of mixing and matching, just trying to see different combinations," he said. "We've got good competition, though. We're just not there yet."
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