CLEMSON – The best will play – regardless of age – for the Tigers, Dabo Swinney says, and his track record backs that up.
Scrimmaging Saturday – two weeks to gameday – that will be on the mind of 22 true freshmen on campus now, who get one of their last shots to impress before redshirt decisions are made as early as this Sunday.
As the talent has picked up, Swinney and co. have gone less and less down the redshirt route.
In his first two years, the Tigers waited a season on 86 percent of the incoming freshmen who finished or are scheduled to finish their careers in Clemson.
The last two? Only just under half (48.6) have received the redshirt – and the incoming class is about as talented as they’ve brought in.
The critical balance is between getting the top talents on the field and not spoiling a year of development.
“Preference is to play your best players no matter who it is regardless,” Swinney said. “If a guy is ready to play, play him. I don’t like to waste guys’ years. I’ve just seen too many guys (that have done that).”
This year’s team has examples on both sides.
“Tajh Boyd is a perfect example,” said Swinney. “I had to sit down and counsel him and how he wasn’t going to play as a (true) freshman. He’s glad he didn’t play as a freshman now. That’s a part of the process.
“A lot of time you have guys not ready to play (that you have to). Isaiah Battle wasn’t ready to play last year, but we didn’t have a choice. We had to just bring him along as quick as we could. Zac Brooks was another.”
Defense is both the area of need and not coincidentally the spot to watch for first-year playing decisions.
Out of the 22 enrolled, 10 are considered four-star prospects and seven of them are on Brent Venables’ side of the ball.
Anthony showing out, player-driven leadership
Mackensie Alexander (Immokalee, Fla.) has been hampered with a lingering injury (groin) from summer skills and drills, but is expected to be on the right side of the ledger for early playing time.
Fellow top-100 recruit and defensive back Jayron Kearse will likely join him, working at safety currently in addition to nickel.
“(Kearse) probably avoids a redshirt. It’s out of necessity right now,” Clemson defensive coordinator Venables said Friday, who ideally would redshirt half of the eight-man DB class. “We just have no depth. When you’re going in, those guys are going to have to play.
“Ready or not here we come.”
Another name in the secondary to watch is a little more under the radar, Korrin Wiggins (Durham, N.C.), who came to Clemson as a safety but is getting more of a look at nickel now.
“Korrin Wiggins, he’s a guy that jumps out at you. He has a chance to really help our football team,” Swinney said. “Some of them have hit the wall a little bit and we have to pull them through. We’re probably through the toughest part of camp and we’ll start to pull back a little bit.”
In the linebacker corps, T.L. Hanna’s own Ben Boulware will be hard to keep off the field.
“He’s been a great player this camp,” senior linebacker Spencer Shuey said, “and definitely tried to prove to the coaches that he can play this year and he’s ready. I’m definitely proud of him.”
And Daniel defensive end product Shaq Lawson also figures to get in on the action from the get-go, as he’s currently listed behind co-starters Corey Crawford and Tavaris Barnes.
Talent isn’t always the determining factor here. Depth at the position can push players back a season – the offensive side of the ball is a mixed bag on that account.
Jenkins progressing, RB battle
Navarre (Fla.) tight end Jordan Leggett will play whenever he returns in the next couple weeks from a minor knee injury.
Both o-line signees, Maverick Morris and Tyrone Crowder, will sit the bench with an experienced two-deep ahead of them.
Relatively thin at receiver, both 6-5 talent Mike Williams and 6-2 athlete T.J. Green have a good shot at playing early. More so now that signee Kyrin Priester is headed to Fork Union (Va.) to get some grades right to enroll in January.
Running back, however, is the spot the watch with Peach State products Tyshon Dye (Elbert) and Wayne Gallman (Grayson) trying to breakthrough where three scholarship backs are already competing. The Tigers’ head coach said Friday just one will play “unless something changes," but “they are going to be two great backs” for Clemson at some point.
“We might have some guys that are ready to play, but because of the depth we hold them,” Swinney said. “There’s just a lot of scenarios that go into making these decisions.”
Sophomore safety Travis Blanks, who saw 563 snaps as a freshman after enrolling early last year, says the first season on campus is critical one way or the other for the group.
“Whatever it may be, take advantage of it,” said Blanks. “If you get redshirted, don't waste a year. Take advantage of it and get stronger and get faster. Study the game. Because a redshirt year is huge. You see it in Johnny Manziel. He came back from a redshirt and won the Heisman.”