Clemson’s football program had a team last year that it will probably never have again.
It was a group that was as close to each other and the program as any Dabo Swinney has had in his 10-plus seasons at Clemson.
“That was a unique team. It was not only unique, but they loved that aspect of where they were in their journey. I mean, they loved it,” Swinney said.
And their love for each other and the program showed on the field. Clemson dominated its opposition last year on the way to becoming the first 15-0 team in the history of major college football. The Tigers even dominated the big bully on the block, beating Alabama in the national championship game as soundly as anyone ever has in the Nick Saban era.
They beat the Crimson Tide by 28 points, and it was not even that close. They won 13 of their 15 games by at least 20 points, including each of their last 10. They were one of the most dominant national champions in the history of college football.
“They loved saying, ‘Coach, I got this.’ They knew what was coming and they say, ‘Hey Coach, we got it.’ And then they would go handle it. That was pretty cool,” Swinney said. “When you have been around a group and they are so bought into what you do and believing in what you do, they want to enforce it, so you don’t have to. That’s pretty cool.”
Swinney admits they will not have that this year. Veteran players like Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, Mitch Hyatt, Justin Falcinelli, Kendall Joseph and Hunter Renfrow are gone and its not easy trying to replace that kind of experienced leadership.
“We don’t have as much of that, but we have some really, really strong committed program guys that I am super proud of,” Swinney said.
Who are those guys?
Clemson’s head coach identified safety K’Von Wallace, linebacker James Skalski, safety Tanner Muse, safety Nolan Turner, safety Denzel Johnson and cornerback A.J. Terrell on defense.
“Those guys have done a phenomenal job of leading and they’re well respected on both sides of the ball,” Swinney said.
On the offensive side, Swinney mentioned his four seniors up front in John Simpson, Sean Pollard, Gage Cervenka and Tremayne Anchrum.
“I mean, these are grown men,” he said. “They are not as flashy as Cle, Christian and that crowd, but they are highly respected, and they believe in what we do and how we do it. They have had a lot of success.”
Swinney also mentioned how running back Travis Etienne is doing his best to be a leader in his room. Though he is a junior, he is the most experienced and oldest player in the room now that Tavien Feaster has left the program.
“He carries himself differently than he ever has,” Swinney said. “As y’all know, he does not say a whole lot. The change in him is because of his awareness when looking around the room … ‘Man, I’m going to have to lead this group. They don’t know anything.’ I think his self-awareness of that and not just doing what he has to do, but providing it, that has been fun to watch.”
It’s the same dynamic for Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers at wide receiver and then there is quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Though he is just a sophomore, he has already taken over as a leader on the 2019 team.
“Trevor, he is in a completely different place right now than he was this time last year,” Swinney said. “It is good. You do not have to be a senior to be a leader or to be a guy that pulls people along the way and believes and buys into what you are doing from a program standpoint.
“So, I think we are a little different (than last year), but when it is all said and done, we will be a close team. We still have to develop that chemistry.”