In 2018, Chef Dabo Swinney didn't have to wait long for the cake to bake.
He had a veteran Clemson team led by a dynamic group at defensive line. The Tigers went on to win the national title behind quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
The following spring, Swinney talked about that cake needing more time to bake, It wasn't done by early April and needed a summer and fall to come together. That young squad made it to the national title game but came up short against LSU.
This time last year, the Tigers needed a ton of seasoning. They were loaded with one of the best backfields in the nation but new faces up front on both sides of the ball left Clemson a bit behind. That team went on to get blown out by Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.
Following Saturday's Orange and White Spring Game, Swinney knows exactly where the 2021 team is in the cooking process.
"This team is definitely further along than last year's group," Swinney said. "There's no doubt about that. The '18 team, you know those guys were with such a veteran group. This will be the most veteran team we've had since that '18, you know, from a leadership standpoint. So I'm excited about that. Definitely ahead of where last year.
"It's not even close because, again, just so young in the offensive line, and we're still young, but we got more guys functionally, mentally ready to go compete and can play winning football for us. The same thing on defense. We're more mature up front, more guys that have been through the battles and got a few scars on them."
The spring game itself had an uneven mix at times with the defenses being ahead of the offenses, but that's typical of spring games when you split teams up and sit key veterans.
Saturday simply wasn't close enough to an accurate gauge of what the 2021 squad will look like. Listening to the coaches all spring, the trajectory is pointing up on this team. Clemson didn't have tons of familiar faces like James Skalski, Nolan Turner, Frank Ladson Jr., K.J. Henry, Malcolm Green, Mario Goodrich and more. Once this team is back together on the field in August, it'll be loaded with veteran leadership.
"I'm excited about what we have a chance to put together especially when we get everybody back," Swinney said.
D.J Uiagalelei is the perfect replacement for Lawrence. There will be so many pass-rushing bodies that it's hard to find reps for all of them. The linebacking corps will be loaded and defensive fundamentals already look like they've improved.
Clemson shows signs that another run to the College Football Playoff can happen. Once fully funded, this will be as talented a group as any that won two national titles since 2016 and made the CFP every year since 2015.
There are areas that still need to come together. The offensive line is the key to the season. Swinney wants more functional depth there but feels like Clemson is well on its way to building that.
Clemson now enters the "transformation" phase of the season. Chemistry and personal improvement begin, and while there are always questions to answer, it feels like a successful last few months for the Tigers.
"A lot of good things this spring," Swinney said. "Now they've got four months to transform. Sept. 4, the lights come on. We've got a lot of work to do to be ready."
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