SENECA — A year ago, Dabo Swinney said the story of Clemson’s season was told by its freshmen.
Wide receiver Sammy Watkins had one of the best debuts ever by a wideout, winning national freshman of the year honors and becoming just the third true freshman to become an AP first-team All-American.
This year? Same story – with a twist. Those freshmen are now sophomores, and they’ll be relied upon heavily.
“Last year was more the story of freshmen, this year it’s going to be more sophomores and redshirt freshmen who are going to have to play big roles for us,” Swinney said before kicking off his annual media golf outing at Cross Creek Plantation.
“I’m very confident about our veteran guys – 11 seniors, 13 juniors. We’re going to need to see a lot more guys step up and play big. That’s going to be the fun thing as we go throughout the season. Seeing that confidence, development and the challenge to get ready.”
Many of those redshirt freshmen and sophomores will need to contribute on the offensive and defensive lines. Offensive guard Kalon Davis, right tackle Gifford Timothy, defensive end Corey Crawford, defensive tackle DeShawn Williams, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and defensive tackle Josh Watson are all sophomores and all potential starters.
Clemson has only two junior offensive linemen and no junior defensive linemen.
“We’ve got a lot of sophomores backing up guys who got good experience last year,” Swinney said. “Last year (the question was) Tajh Boyd, how’s he going to play, how is he going to perform. We’ve got the same kind of questions, only at critical positions like defensive tackle and defensive end.
“Corey Crawford is going to have to step up and play and meet the challenge that’s before him as a critical part of this team. Vic Beasley. (Linebacker) Stephone Anthony. Here is he as a sophomore.”
Without naming names, Swinney said “ we haven’t had that dominant guy everyone in stands leaves the park talking about, but we’ve got guys that have the ability to do just that.”
“Some young receivers played last year as freshmen, were typical freshmen, now are they going to step up and secure critical roles on the team,” Swinney said. “That to me is the story.”
Similar growth will be expected from Boyd. The first-team All-ACC selection threw for 33 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2011, but just nine touchdowns and nine picks over Clemson’s final six games.
“This time last year he hadn’t done a whole lot,” Swinney said. “Now he’s thrown for a bunch of yards, lot of TDs. He’s made a lot of mistakes. And he’s got film from himself to grow from. There’s no greater teacher than experience in anything you do.
“You can prepare, prepare, prepare, but once you’ve been through some battles, it’s much more meaningful when you have that real hands-on experience. No different for him at the quarterback position. No-brainer. He’ll be more comfortable going into camp. Much more confident in the system. He knows mistakes he made last year, things he’s got to do better this year.”
He’ll have six very talented receivers to throw to. Besides Watkins and All-ACC candidate DeAndre Hopkins, as well as steady senior Jaron Brown, Swinney expects sophomores Adam Humphries, Martavis Bryant and Charone Peake to “emerge.”
Depth has been hurt by the dismissal of Joe Craig and Bryce McNeal’s transfer to UConn, but Swinney says those six “can play anywhere in the country.”
Tweaks learned in spring trips to Nevada and Oklahoma State, studying the Pistol and Air Raid offenses, respectively, could also help.
“Some of the things (OSU) did with (NFL first-round pick Justin) Blackmon, I don’t know if you can do much more than we did with Sammy Watkins,” Swinney said. “We put him all over the place last year. I think that just some things that can help us system-wise are the biggest things Some of the things we studied in the running game, protection-type stuff, some route packages, some of those things are big… guys will benefit from that. Hopefully Andre (Ellington) has the kind of year he’s capable of having. Some of the things we’re going to do up front on the offensive line are going to help us in the running game. Tying the play-actions, the protections together.”