Clemson returned to work this week, eager to finish on a lot more upbeat note than it did last year.
The Tigers won the Atlantic Coast Conference title, rose to No. 1 in the country in starting 14-0. But they fell to national champion Alabama 45-40 in the title game, leaving a sour aftertaste to one of the program’s best seasons.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said that has fueled his team ever since it returned to campus as Arizona runner-ups last January.
“They’ve had a sense of urgency from day one that has not changed,” Swinney said. “It has not changed from anything we’ve done. I’ve never had to say, ‘Hey, let’s go.’ When I walk into meetings, they’re ready.”
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The Tigers start with an experienced offense filled with playmakers, beginning with quarterback Deshaun Watson, who became the first Football Bowl Subdivision player to throw for more than 4,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 yards.
The 6-foot-2, 216-pound junior was third in last year’s Heisman Trophy race, but is already a favorite to capture this year’s award.
Watson has said as long as he graduates – on track to do that in December – and helps Clemson achieve its goals, he will likely fulfill his life-long dream and jump to the NFL.
All that, Watson said, is for later. Now, he’s fully focused on leading the Tigers on another successful college football run.
“I’m very excited with the skill guys and the all the weapons we have on this team,” Watson said.
The Tigers look like an offensive juggernaut rarely seen in the college game. Besides Watson, Clemson returns tailback Wayne Gallman and tight end Jordan Leggett – both who took good looks at the NFL before choosing to come back.
Gallman set Clemson’s single-season rushing mark with 1,527 yards. Leggett had a career-best 40 catches for 525 yards and eight touchdowns.
Also back is junior receiver Mike Williams, a 1,000-yard pass catcher who missed all but 15 minutes of the season when he injured his neck while crashing into a goalpost stanchion making a touchdown catch in Clemson’s opening game.
Williams said watching last year from the sidelines was difficult. But he used the time to better learn defensive schemes and work on the little things that can make a difference on the field.
“I’m real hungry right now,” Williams said.
Watson and Williams showed what might be this season, the quarterback lofting a pitch-perfect pass into Williams arms for a touchdown during the session.
For all the offensive optimism, Clemson has plenty of defensive questions. The Tigers lost eight starters, six who left early for the NFL draft including standouts in defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd and cornerback Mackensie Alexander.
Sophomore defensive lineman Albert Huggins said the Tigers have brought in top-level talent on defense the last several years and gave young guys enough opportunities for them to be ready when called to play.
Look at linemen Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant, two sophomore who played key roles in last year’s run to the College Football Playoffs. Bryant filled in for an injured Lawson early on in the CFP semifinals win over Oklahoma and held tough throughout.
“We have to replace those key guys and starters, but we have competitive depth,” Wilkins said. “It’s next man up.”
And next season up for the Tigers.
If there was any lingering hangovers, positive or negative, after last season, Clemson addressed that on the scoreboard at the indoor practice facility as practice began. A video recounted the season, including the loss to Alabama and closed with the words, “Finish With No Regrets.”