CLEMSON — Spencer Shuey struggles to grasp that this didn’t happen yesterday, but it was four long years ago.
Clemson’s fifth-year leaders, with games played and starts
QB Boyd 34-27
K Catanzaro 40-39
LB Christian 40-21
LS Fajgenbaum 32-0 (walk-on)
RB McDowell 33-0
OG Shatley 39-15
LB Shuey 36-7
FB Smith 37-1
LT Thomas 36-23
The incoming freshmen of Clemson’s signing class of 2009 sat in the nosebleed section of a team meeting. From the front row, leading the room as they did the team, the Tigers’ seniors emphasized time-honored cliches to the newcomers — “this’ll be over before you know it” — but in that moment, it didn’t quite resonate, at least with Shuey.
It does now, as Shuey, returning ACC player of the year quarterback Tajh Boyd and seven other Tigers faced the dawn of their fifth and final college football season Friday night with the opening of fall camp.
“Incredibly hard to believe,” Shuey said. “Here we are now with six months left, and we’ll be done. Definitely trying to cherish every moment.”
More than 100 players were in jerseys, athletic shorts and helmets for Clemson’s first practice — 104, in fact, which is everybody on the roster except for offensive lineman Spencer Region, who continues to recover from summer hip surgery.
Among the masses, however, was a small group of leaders with a common bond that goes back to those days referred to by the linebacker Shuey.
There were 25 players signed during the spring of 2008. In the 2010 class, 23. But that 2009 group sandwiched in the middle had just 12 commits.
“We came in together — the dirty dozen,” all-ACC left tackle Brandon Thomas said. “I think we’re all connected in some way to lead the team.”
Three of those players finished their eligibility in 2012 — Malliciah Goodman, Jonathan Meeks and Corico Wright. Seven of them redshirted in 2009, and are now fifth-year seniors: Boyd, Shuey, Thomas, tailback Roderick McDowell, linebacker Quandon Christian, offensive guard Tyler Shatley and fullback Darrell Smith.
Throw in original walk-on kicker Chandler Catanzaro and long snapper Phillip Fajgenbaum — Catanzaro has been put on scholarship, and Fajgenbaum is under consideration to follow suit if one’s available — and Swinney can’t conceal his appreciation for this intimate group who joins him in his fifth training camp as well.
“It’s my first complete senior class. It’s a special group,” Swinney said, before proceeding to name each of the nine veterans without much hesitance.
“They’re the cornerstone of our program. Because they’re the first group — there wasn’t many of them — but they bought in. They’ve stuck with it, and all developed into really good players for us and good leaders.”
Good players who have combined for 327 games played (no fewer than 32 for each), including 133 starts. All nine redshirted in 2009, and all nine have earned three letters in the three seasons since, with a 27-13 record with that group on the field.
That’s 6-7 their freshman season, and 21-6 since.
Guys like Boyd, Shuey and Catanzaro are secure in their positions. Others like McDowell, a backup his previous three years behind highly successful backs, yearn to prove themselves.
“Hey, this is it for me. My last go-around. I gotta have fun with it,” McDowell said.
“I’ve got to go out there and compete 24/7. My mindset is I’m not the starter. I’m just a player hungry to compete.”
The Tigers have all of August to address concerns in the backfield and the secondary, among other areas to touch up. But no questions remain of who controls the locker room.
“Good group of guys that care about each other. I love the leadership that we have,” Swinney said. “Listen, we may be a better team and not win as many games as we won last year. There’s a lot of things that go into wins and losses.
“But we’ve got excellent leadership on this team. That’s one thing I don’t have any worries about.”