CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney moved up and down the rows of Tigers players, patting their shoulder pads and helmets as the national champions got ready for practice.
“We’re back,” Swinney said. “Good to be back.”
Less than two months after winning its second national title in three years, Clemson began its journey to what it hopes is another chance to finish on top.
“We were the last time to walk off in college football” last season, Swinney said Wednesday. “And we’re the first or one of the first to get back on it.”
Clemson finished modern major college football’s first 15-0 season with a dominant 44-16 victory over Alabama in Santa Clara, California, on Jan. 7. The Tigers will have work ahead of them with seven defensive starters from that game either done with their eligibility like tackle Christian Wilkins and end Austin Bryant or, in the case of defensive linemen Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell, linebacker Tre Lamar and cornerback Trayvon Mullen, surrendering their remaining time in college to enter the NFL draft.
On offense, though, the Tigers should be loaded, led by Trevor Lawrence, who went 11-0 as a freshman starter and is considered a strong Heisman Trophy contender this fall.
Also returning to the attack are receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, a pair of underclassmen who accounted for nine catches, 234 yards and two touchdowns in the Alabama rout.
Tailback Travis Etienne, who set a Clemson record with 24 touchdowns last year, is back, too, making the Tigers one of college football’s most potent forces.
That means little to Swinney, who says even his stellar starting quarterback has to earn his way back into the lineup next season.
“Nobody’s got a job,” the coach said. “You’ve got a starting point, but you have to come out and prove every day that you still deserve to be the guy. It’s just the way it is. It doesn’t matter who you are.”
It’s a philosophy that’s worked well for Swinney, who’s led the Tigers to four straight College Football Playoff berths and a pair of titles since 2015.
Clemson guard John Simpson said players were still celebrating the Alabama win when Swinney told them to be ready to get to work on next season.
“It’s a brand new season. That’s how I’m going to look at it,” Simpson said. “And that’s how I’m going to encourage guys to look at it.”
Lawrence, the 6-foot-6 freshman who supplanted starting senior Kelly Bryant five games into the seasons, figures to be a big part of how far the Tigers go this season. His hair just as long as it was in title game, Lawrence steadily moved through drills along with backups Chase Brice, Ben Batson and four-star freshman passer Taisun Phommachanh from Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Lawrence shuffled through padded barriers, ball at shoulder level with arm cocked again and again.
“Slide, slide, slide,” quarterback coach Brandon Streeter said overseeing the drill. “Nice, nice.”
Lawrence completed 65 percent of his throws for 3,280 yards, 30 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Following his title game performance (347 yards, three touchdowns), some national pundits counseled Lawrence to end his football career and train for the NFL the next two years until he was eligible for the draft.
Lawrence heard the talk and chuckled at it all, Swinney said. “He’s handled things the right way,” the coach said.
Swinney was bemused in the weeks after Clemson’s perfect season that many people saw the result and wondered, “What’s wrong with Alabama?”
“Everyone wants to explain what happened to Alabama,” Swinney said. “How about Clemson just had the better team?”
He’ll make no such proclamations this early. Neither will his players.
Simpson was asked if he felt like the Tigers were the favorites to win another title next January. “I don’t know,” he said. “We’ve got hard work to do to prove that we can win again.”
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