By PETE IACOBELLI
CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has the same worries about the Tigers secondary as almost anyone who watched them surrender too many big plays last season.
More than two weeks into fall football camp, Swinney has seen progress but not nearly enough to ease his concerns heading into the opener when the eighth-ranked Tigers take on No. 5 Georgia on August 29.
“Everybody knows that’s the area of our team that’s got to improve the most,” Swinney said. “We’ve made improvement, but nowhere what we need to be the type of caliber team we want to have.”
And that’s a lot, based on last year.
The Tigers were 71st nationally and sixth in the ACC with 240 passing yards allowed. Only Duke (29) and Maryland (24) gave up more passing touchdowns in the league last year than Clemson’s 23.
When an opponent got to the secondary on the way to the end zone, it was a good bet they wouldn’t get caught from behind either: 16 of 39 opponent touchdowns went for 20 yards or more.
Injuries took a toll on the secondary in 2012.
Expected cornerback starter Martin Jenkins was lost before the season began with a hernia. Darius Robinson, another cornerback, started six games last fall until fracturing his ankle in mid-October and missing the final six games. Starting cornerback Bashaud Breeland missed the last two games after getting hurt.
Also gone is safety Rashard Hall, who led the team with four interceptions and was perhaps the secondary’s best at game-changing plays.
The group has a new leader, too, in defensive backs coach Mike Reed, who was hired from North Carolina State to replace Charlie Harbison. Harbison left after the season to become co-defensive coordinator at Auburn.
This fall, the injured players are healthy and Clemson has brought in a slew of young talent to address the shortfall in the secondary.
“We’ve got to make sure this year the secondary isn’t the problem,” said Breeland, a junior who’s started 12 of 24 games he’s played at Clemson.
Swinney and his staff did their part in recruiting, signing eight defensive backs in last February’s class including highly regarded Mackensie Alexander, a 5-foot-11, 185 pound player from Immokalee, Fla., who was ranked the fourth-best overall prospect by ESPN.com.
Swinney wanted young players who’d push the older guys into stepping up their game. That’s what has happened so far in camp, said defensive tackle Carlos Watkins.
“Actually, those young guys are looking pretty good,” Watkins said. “Nobody’s perfect and, of course, everybody’s going to make mistakes. But just watching them play, the plays they’re making against our great receivers, it’s really great to see that.”
Sammy Watkins, Clemson’s All-American receiver, says he’s been pushed hard by all the defensive backs, no matter their experience.
“We’re seeing them get better,” he said.
Jenkins, Breeland, Robinson and Garry Peters, who started five of Clemson’s final eight games last year, have the leg up on the cornerback spots. Travis Blanks, a freshman standout at linebacker in 2012, has moved to his more natural spot at safety. Junior Robert Smith looks to have locked down the other safety spot over freshman Jadar Johnson.
Korrin Wiggins, another true freshman, could get the first call when the Tigers go to their five defensive back sets.
Not everything has gone smoothly this fall. Alexander has been hampered by a groin injury that kept him out of practice until last week, while safety Jayron Kearse (nephew of ex-NFL All-Pro Jevon “The Freak” Kearse) injured his shoulder at Clemson’s scrimmage last Saturday.
Both were counted on to play this fall, but Swinney says he’ll have to see how their recoveries progress before deciding if they can go this season or will be redshirted.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables says the lack of depth in the position means the Tigers must count on inexperienced players this fall.
“We knew going in that those guys would have to play,” he said. “Ready or not, here we come.”