Alas for Clemson, a player’s servitude does come with an end date. College football, like the tide (beach, not Crimson), is all about comings and goings. And about building a program that can celebrate, then move on from the comet trails of its young cast.
Here this week on the doorstep to his first season as a defending champion, Swinney was making all the right noises of a coach who has done the hard work of program building. One who believes Clemson is now among the elite in the game who can count on the renewable energy of its recruiting.
Even if one of the losses is of the magnitude of Gainesville’s Watson, a Heisman runner-up, the fellow who put it so perfectly in the huddle for the championship-winning drive against Alabama six months ago when shouting, “Let’s be legendary!” Those kind of poetic players just don’t fall to earth each fall like acorns.
And, oh, how they are lining up to test Clemson’s resiliency. Last year’s title came with a list of games that tipped ever so slightly its way (and one, against Pitt, that didn’t). Five of its wins were by a touchdown or less. That makes for a multitude of revenge scenarios.
The Heisman Trophy winner, for one, awaits. Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, whose Cardinals have dropped three consecutive close ones to Clemson, including finishing three mere yards from a winning touchdown in 2016, says he is, “very excited” about an early-season meeting at his place.
“We played (at Clemson) and it was very loud. Fans were all into the game. It’s our turn now. We got to transition into this year and turn (the loss) into motivation,” Jackson said.
Swinney’s answer to the multitude of challenges aren’t all purely talent based.
There is, for example, the “excitement and a sense of urgency that I really, really like.”
An attitude such as that spelled out by his defensive tackle Christian Wilkins. As a prelude to the 2016 season, it was Boulware who showed up at the ACC Kickoff — in capri pants — agonizing over a championship game loss to Alabama and the motivation that disappointment provided.
Now it is Wilkins, in good, solid ankle-length slacks, talking about the great drive he derives from the polar opposite experience of winning something very big against the Crimson Tide.
“That drives me even more after winning one because the biggest thing I’ve experienced is winning a national championship,” he said.
“I want to win it again. Why be satisfied with just one? Never get complacent. You’ll never be great at what you want to do if you get complacent.”
In this case, greed is good.
And were we ever to ask about those still on campus, Swinney would rise to their defense. The Tigers do intend to field something above an intramural squad this season.
“There is more there than people know. We’ve got the ingredients, we just got to put it all together. I don’t think we’re missing any ingredients,” he said.
The Clemson defense, which has been so helpful in stocking the Falcons’ front, is again stout along the line with Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence. The offensive line, anchored by Suwanee’s Mitch Hyatt, is a strength. “We going to be a very salty bunch in the trenches,” Swinney said.
There is a clutch of running backs who has earned the coach’s affection. Swinney, again: “I think we have the ability to have a very dynamic group there.”
But do the Tigers have a quarterback, someone who can prove that there is life after Watson?
“That’s the first thing people ask when they meet me,” guard Tyrone Crowder said. “I really don’t know.”
At the moment, Kelly Bryant, the junior in waiting, is No. 1 on Swinney’s list. Behind him is freshman Hunter Johnson, the No. 2 quarterback on the Rivals’ Class of 2017. Redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper would like to join the discussion.
“We got to have a consistent performer at that position. I’d rather have a guy who’s a very consistent performer than a guy who maybe has a little more talent but is hot and cold. You can’t win with those guys,” Swinney said.
Clemson has won its championship after a lengthy dry spell. It has met another president since its last get-together with Ronald Reagan. Swinney, his voice wrecked from the championship game the night before, picked up his crystal football at a Grand Ole Opry gala. All the road signs leading into South Carolina have been adorned with reminders of Clemson’s magical season, just in case any traveler slept through January. It has all been so dizzying.
The coach assures us that all cleats are firmly planted back in the grass now. Success will not alter the DNA of his program, he vows. Dabo will not change his name to Trevor. They will not start peeling the grapes or cutting the crust off the bread for the players at the training table. No one is suggesting that Clemson is on cruise control.
“When we go out for mat drills at 5:30 in the morning, there’s nobody there patting us on the back, saying, ‘oh, good job you won the national championship.’ It’s just competing and getting after it,” Swinney said.
“We’ll have our big coaches’ meeting starting here (this) week, go through the program as if nobody knows anything about it, like we fell out of the sky to get here. To make sure we all understand who we are and what it takes,” he added.
We’ll keep reminding Swinney what he lost. He’ll keep responding with the faith in what he has built in this humble little corner of South Carolina over the past nine years, since he got his battlefield promotion in the middle of the 2008 season.
And take with him to September a simple understanding, the only upon which any coach can rely: “When it comes time to play we’ll be ready.”