Clemson, Swinney hoping to build off 5-game winning streak to finish 2023


CLEMSON - Clemson coach Dabo Swinney challenged his team to finish a spiraling season strong and the Tigers complied, ending with five straight victories.

Swinney now wants his players to keep pushing forward as Clemson opened spring workouts Wednesday.

"I think that's created a lot of confidence with this group," Swinney said. "They see what they're capable of."

Clemson was expected to show that right from the jump in 2023, predicted to win the Atlantic Coast Conference title in the preseason. Instead, the Tigers stumbled early in a mistake-filled loss at Duke, lost in overtime at home to Florida State three weeks later and, after consecutive losses to Miami and North Carolina State, were left for dead at 4-4.

That's when Swinney demanded and end to the miscues from his players and coaches, ramping up workouts and meetings to end the frustrating problems of too many giveaways that led to way-too-easy scores by opponents.

Things clicked in a 31-23 victory over then-12th-ranked Notre Dame and continued to roll with impressive wins over Georgia Tech, then-No. 20 North Carolina and rival South Carolina.

In a wild Gator Bowl, Phil Mafah ran for four touchdowns including a 3-yard score with 17 seconds left for a 38-35 victory that capped Clemson's finishing flourish.

The late surge gave Clemson's returners more pep in their step this winter, something Swinney saw throughout individual workouts and weight sessions.

"It was certainly some wind in their sails," he said. "And an opportunity to build on it. And I think they've used it that way."

Clemson kicked off workouts, as they generally do, with Thin Lizzy's Southern Rock anthem, "The Boys Are Back In Town," blaring through warmups.

Swinney walked the rows, smiling and shaking hands with players before they broke out into position groups for the first of 15 sessions that will end with the annual Orange-and-White game on April 6.

R.J. Mickens, a fifth-year senior, said the players pulled themselves out of their slump late and don't want to let those good, winning feelings disappear. He believes they can contend for an ACC crown and a spot in the expanded 12-team College Football Playoff field.

"I've seen the commitment from these guys every day," he said. "We're all hungry and want to get back there."

The winning finish did not wipe out the problems, particularly on offense and special teams, that saw the Tigers lose their most games in a season since going 10-4 in 2011.

Swinney said he and his staff did a deep dive into the issues that included 13 lost fumbles, 127th out of 130 programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Clemson offense also stalled inside the 20-yard line, the red zone, ranking 118th nationally with scores on 73.3% of their trips there last season.

Field-goal kicking was also dicey with Clemson having to lure a former player Jonathan Weitz with eligibility left back to campus to take over a month into the season. Weitz missed four of his first 10 kicks before rallying for eight of 10 makes over the final five victories.

"We did a lot of good things last year," Swinney said. "And we did a lot of things that frustrated us and limited our opportunities."

Junior quarterback Cade Klubnik was a source of some of the most glaring mistakes before he, like the team, picked things up near the end. Klubnik lost four fumbles including critical bobbles in losses to Duke and ACC champion Florida State.

Swinney said the 6-foot-2, 205 pound junior needs to get stronger this offseason and have more pocket presence and awareness to avoid some of the hits that let to turnovers.

But Swinney said Klubnik's character and ability shown through during the final stretch. "He never wilted," the coach said.