CLEMSON, S.C. - The smile comes easy now, the laughter more prevalent.
Football is all Tommy West has to worry about right now. The off-field distractions of last year are in the past, nothing but distant memories for the Clemson coach.
"It's just totally different now," West said after the Tigers' first practice with the varsity on Tuesday morning. "Last year we spent all our time in the summer and fall talking about all the off-the-field stuff that was going on. That took its toll on us.
"This year is different," he added. "All we've been here talking about football. It's made such a big difference."
With arrests, suspensions and other disciplinary actions dominating preseason practice last summer, it's easy to see why life is smooth for West right now. No football player has ran afoul of the law since last year, when a rash of poor decisions by players left West with a depleted squad.
That help contribute to a 2-3 start, including losses humiliating losses to North Carolina and Missouri. The Tigers recovered to finish 7-5, including a Peach Bowl loss to LSU.
"The confidence level is just so much higher out here now," quarterback Nealon Greene said. "This group of seniors we have now is so experienced. We've seen so much, nothing really phases us now. We've got the talent to do a lot of things. I don't see things starting as badly as they did last year. That won't happen again."
By this time last year, West and the Tigers had already faced a myriad of problems:
"When we came in last year, we were just pushed to the limit," said Priester, who rushed for 1,345 yards in '96 and holds the school's single game, year and career rushing records. "We had so much adversity to deal with, so much to overcome. We're going to be so much better now that we don't have to worry about any of that stuff."
It also helps that Clemson opens the season at home with Division I-AA Appalachian State, not on the road against North Carolina, which rode that 45-0 victory to a 10-2 record. Additionally, the Tigers head into the season ranked 20th in The Associated Press Preseason Top 25.
"We know this is a different team," All-ACC offensive tackle Jim Bundren said. "We don't have to worry about anything else than practicing football and winning games. We've got the talent to get the job done. We've just got to go out there and make the plays."
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