The last time Clemson won an ACC title, in 1991 was the last season Clemson had a non-kicker walk-on who earned first-team all-conference honors.
The last time Clemson played in the Orange Bowl, Clemson had a pair of walk-on cornerbacks starting on Jan. 1, 1982, when Clemson defeated Nebraska.
Not only has Clemson ended a conference title drought this season, but Clemson has also enjoyed some of its best player development success stories in recent memory.
Left tackle Phillip Price and cornerback Coty Sensabaugh have risen from the fringe of the roster to occupy critical positions in the starting lineup.
Price, a former walk-on tight end from a tiny Dillon Christian School, converted to tackle in 2009. This season the senior became the program's first walk-on to earn first-team All-ACC honors in 20 years.
Sensabaugh nearly had to walk-on as one of the last players Clemson signed in its 2007 class, a two-star prospect out of Kingsport, Tenn. Sensabaugh has developed into the team's top cover corner this season.
"The only reason I was a two-star was because I committed to Clemson," Sensabaugh said. "Before that, I wasn't a single star."
With scholarship limits cut from their levels in the 1980s, with not all four- and five-star recruits reaching their potential, offensive coordinator Chad Morris said it is critical to develop players like Price to fill in the voids.
"He's meant so much because of where he came from and having to walk-on to earn everything he got," Morris said. "When no one gave him a chance, he's battled through that. That showed so much about him and his drive and his character. ... That's what you want in an offensive lineman, you want guys that are mean and rugged and just don't care."
Coach Dabo Swinney recruited Price and said the senior's tough, workmanlike personality has changed little since his high school days, when no other major program recruited Price.
"I called him every week like he was five-star recruit," Swinney said. "The conversation was the same very week: (Said Swinney) 'Hey man, how are you doing?' (Said Price): 'I'm good.' (Said Swinney): 'All right, I just wanted to call and say hello to you. How did you do you last week? (Said Price): 'I did good.'
"I just saw a big athlete that could do something that everyone was overlooking . ... It was one of things where you put him on the shelf for a couple years and if he'll work and pay the price, then let's see what we got. He wanted to play and I think he eventually realized he wasn't going to be a great tight end. He bought on and realized, 'Hey, I can go eat.' "
As a sophomore, Price gave up on the idea of playing tight end and moved to tackle, where he bulked up his then 6-5, 265-pound frame. Price has added 50 pounds, now playing at 315.
As a senior, he earned the starting left tackle assignment and played 777 snaps. Clemson was 0-2 this season when Price was limited or didn't play in games.
What Price has been to the offense, Sensabaugh has been to the defense, blanketing Virginia Tech receivers in the ACC title game and limiting South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery -- a projected first-round pick -- to two catches and 29 yards.
"Just hard work and persistence," Sensabaugh said of his rise.
After losing two cornerbacks from last season to the NFL draft, what appeared to be a sizeable void to fill, Tigers defensive coordinator Kevin Steele believes the program has produced another NFL prospect in Sensabaugh, who runs a legit 4.4 second 40-yard dash.
"It's got to the point now where you don't even notice he's out there because they don't even attack the side of the field he's on," Steele said. "When they stop throwing in your direction, that is a pretty good thing for a corner."
Swinney said quality walk-ons and near walk-ons like Sensabaugh are a must in today's college football, with fewer scholarships.
"You have to have guys that buy into your program; you have to have great walk-ons, not just guys that develop and help you on the game field but help you on this practice field," Swinney said. "From time to time, you get guys that are talented enough to really make a contribution. It's a hard thing to do."
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