CLEMSON — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris have repeatedly said that the 16th-ranked Tigers’ attack would not slow down even with new faces in control. The first chance to prove that comes Saturday at No. 12 Georgia.
Morris has spent a lot time since finishing a second straight 11-2 season pounding his new guys about how few believe they can achieve without record-setting quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins. Cole Stoudt, Boyd’s backup the past three years, has taken it all in and taken it to heart.
Stoudt and his offensive teammates are ready to show they can play a little football, too.
“They came into fall camp with different edge because nobody was talking about the guys that are here,” he said.
Stoudt said he’s not cocky, just calm and confident for his first-ever start. The son of former NFL passer Cliff Stoudt, the senior has prepared for this moment since he first came to campus and began his three seasons on the bench behind Boyd.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney wouldn’t mind some evidence of nerves in his new quarterback instead of the steady demeanor he’s carried in all situations. Stoudt showed that with the Tigers his freshman season in 2011 after Boyd got hit hard against Boston College and had to come out in the third quarter with the game still in doubt.
“We’re in a tough ballgame here. We’ve got a ways to go,” Swinney recalled this week. “He just said all right, let’s go. But that’s Cole. That’s just his demeanor.”
Stoudt didn’t have much more significant playing time after that because of the durable Boyd. And when Boyd chose to return for his senior season last fall instead of leaving early for the NFL, Stoudt just buckled up his chin strap and worked hard on perfecting the offense.
In fact, Swinney said the Tigers are in better shape with this transition than before 2011 when an untested Boyd took over under center for Colorado Rockies prospect Kyle Parker.
“It’s different in that Cole is very talented but he’s got more experience to draw upon than what people give him credit for,” the coach said.
That’s not necessarily the case with everyone on offense, where the Tigers will start just three players who saw action in their last game. Included in that list with Stoudt are tailback D.J. Howard, tight end Jordan Leggett and receivers Charone Peake, Adam Humphries and Mike Williams.
While Morris has confidence in all of them, he acknowledges the questions that come along with change.
“The hardest part of a first game is there (are) so many unknowns,” Morris said this week. “So many unknowns on their part, so many unknowns on our part,”
More certain for Clemson is its defense, which returns six players from a year ago including All-American defensive end Vic Beasley who led the team with 13 sacks. That number would’ve been higher if not for the one-game suspension of senior defensive end Corey Crawford, disciplined in March by Swinney for violating rules.
“Going in, we’re the more experience part of the team,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said, “and we’re going to have to act like it. We’ll be ready.”
Clemson is opening the season with Georgia in a big early test for the second consecutive year. Led by Boyd’s five TDs (three passing, two rushing), the Tigers earned a 38-35 victory that kept a focus of college football until a mid-season beat down at home by defending national champion Florida State.
The Bulldogs don’t want to start in a hole once again. “After losing last year’s game, this is huge for us,” Georgia defensive end Sterling Bailey said. “But we’re not going to let all of that hype get to us. We still have to go into the game focused on getting the job done.”
Stoudt is calling on that approach, too, as he hopes to make a big impact in his final season at Clemson.
“There’s not really much stress,” he said. “It’s just going out there and having some fun.”