CLEMSON — Clemson’s recipe for success this season has been unique.
Take a huge group of freshmen – both true and redshirt – a decent-sized group of seniors, and fill in the gaps between with juniors and sophomores.
It is a dynamic worth examining. With Saturday’s 12 p.m. game against Wake Forest serving as the home finale and senior day, Clemson is thriving. The Tigers are ranked No.9 nationally, 8-1 overall and 5-1 in ACC play; they can clinch the Atlantic Division title and a trip to the ACC title game with a win over the Demon Deacons.
How has this mix worked? With a willingness to learn – and a little help from all classes, not just the 19 seniors who’ll play their final game in Memorial Stadium Saturday.
“Our youth on this team is very mature,” said Clemson junior center Dalton Freeman, a three-year starter and team leader. “That’s something we’ve been blessed with. Sometimes you have freshmen who are head cases and you have to teach them how to handle certain situations. They’ve done a great job – before they got here they must have had good raising. For us it’s trying to lead.”
Clemson’s youth movement, led by 42 true and redshirt freshman scholarship players, is staggering in its pure numbers. 29 of those have played in games, and this season is certain to set a record for most freshman lettermen in the modern era.
Since 1972, when freshman regained eligibility, the most freshman lettermen in a season are 23, in 1985. Freshmen Desmond Brown and Demont Buice have left the team and intend to transfer, but Clemson should have at least 27 lettermen this fall.
By comparison, of the 19 seniors, only 16 are on scholarship and nine are starters.
Senior right tackle Landon Walker says the freshmen have listened well to their elders.
“It’s a lot different because of the young guys,” he said. “To have such a young team, all those guys have bought into what we’re doing. It just makes it easy to lead, when you’re winning, and you’ve got guys bought into the leadership.”
A pair of leadership groups help guide the team’s dynamic.
The Swinney Council is a smaller group, made up of 1-2 leaders from each position group, voted in by their position coach.
In addition, the seniors have a leadership group of their own, which meets with Dabo Swinney weekly. They also voted and allowed select underclassmen to sit in; they include, but are not limited to, junior tight end Dwayne Allen, sophomore quarterback Tajh Boyd, junior safety Rashard Hall and junior linebacker Corico Hawkins.
According to Allen, the seniors discuss decisions that affect day-to-day life of the team, like practice tempo, game day uniform choices and even which movie the team should watch on Friday nights before games.
Swinney also gives the players his thoughts about the week past and the week ahead, and what he feels needs to happen in practice. Freeman says he keeps players “grounded, hungry, humble and focused on the task at hand.”
In the Swinney Council, Allen said, team matters are also dealt with.
“If anything comes up, it’s how do we handle it,” he said. “How do we get rid of it so it’s not a distraction.”
Walker, one of the team’s more outspoken players, says he enjoys serving on both groups.
“When you’ve been here as long as I have, you’ve seen a lot of things, dealt with a lot of things, seen a lot of guys lead,” he said. “You know how to do it. It’s huge for me to be in the position I am and lead this team, and I think the best thing about being a leader… you put guys before you and you see guys grow up. To me that’s being a leader. I’ve learned through being here five years that you put the team before yourself.”
Swinney appreciates the fact that the leadership is spread throughout the roster, beyond the senior class. It even filters onto the sidelines, where those who don’t necessarily see the spotlight on game day make an impact.
Senior receiver Marquan Jones has been pushed down the depth chart by the arrival of more talented freshmen like Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant and Charone Peake.
After making 21 receptions for 184 yards as a junior and taking 340 offensive snaps, he has just one catch for six yards this season, with 77 snaps in nine games.
But Swinney said Jones has been “an incredible leader,” and a mentor for younger players.
“He’s in a tough situation, but I tell you what, that guy is special,” Swinney said. “He’s been teaching, helping, doing everything he can on special teams. He practices as hard as anyone every day. That’s what team is all about.”
That type of leadership example, Swinney said, makes a difference.
“We’ve gotten it from all kinds of areas,” he said. “When you’re talented, to have leadership, you have to have that. It’s gotten us on a pace to get guys where we want to take them.”