SENECA — To Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, 2011 was the year of the freshman at Clemson.
The campaign featured the rise to stardom of rookie receiver Sammy Watkins. The season produced a program record 26 freshman who lettered. And while he wasn’t a freshman, Tajh Boyd was a first-year starting quarterback.
At his media golf outing Tuesday, Swinney proclaimed 2012 to be the year of the sophomore at Clemson. If the Tigers are to replicate last fall’s success, Swinney thinks it will be because the sophomore class matures to duplicate or surpass the departed production from upperclassmen like Dwayne Allen, Andre Branch and Brandon Thompson.
“The sophomores, and maybe some redshirt freshmen, are going to have to play big roles for us,” Swinney said. “Like at defensive tackle, like at defensive end. Is Corey Crawford going to step up and meet the challenge as far as being a key contributor (at defensive end)? (Linebacker) Stephone Anthony, where is he as a sophomore? That to me is the big story.
“I’m very confident in our veteran guys. We have 11 seniors and 13 juniors. The fun thing is seeing that competition, seeing that development (with the sophomores).”
Twenty-four scholarship players at Clemson will be sophomores in 2012.
While Watkins is a proven commodity after registering 82 catches and 1,219 yards, Swinney is counting on sophomore talents like Anthony, Crawford, Tavaris Barnes, Bashaud Breeland, Martavis Bryant and Charone Peake to begin tapping into their considerable upsides.
Swinney said Tony Steward, thought by some to be the nation’s top linebacker in the 2012 class, will be 100 percent to start August camp after missing most of last season with a torn ACL. Swinney thinks he can quickly be an impact player in 2012.
“He’s ready,” Swinney said. “He’s been cleared since May. No braces on either knee. … This is a great, great player.”
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables thinks he could have two impact linebackers in Steward and Anthony. Venables has tabbed Anthony as his middle linebacker and believes Anthony wants to be great.
“He’s hungry,” Venables said.
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris thinks he might have another star sophomore receiver in addition to Watkins in the lithe, 6-4 Bryant, who can stretch the field with his 4.4 speed and out-leap defenders.
“Martavis Bryant might be as talented as any player on our football team,” Morris said. “It’s his mindset. We are going to push him out of his comfort zone. If he’s mentally mature enough, you’re going to see him have a great year.”
The staff is also counting on sophomores along the suspect offensive and defensive line. The staff thinks Barnes can be an impact player at defensive tackle or end, and the 6-5, 280-pound Crawford has the physical size and maturity of an older player.
Offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell said he is excited about what he has seen from 6-6, 315-pound tackle Gifford Timothy, who is slated to replace Landon Walker at right tackle.
And while quarterback Tajh Boyd is a junior, 2012 marks his second year as a starter, which Swinney hopes means fewer turnovers and more decisiveness in running the ball. Swinney also said Boyd is in better shape, trimming down from 232 to 222 pounds.
“We have a lot of unknowns,” Swinney said, “a lot of young talent that is going to have to step up and play critical roles.”