CLEMSON – At 8:52 p.m. last Saturday night, Dabo Swinney’s phone buzzed. He read the text every college football coach dreads and despairs.
Something happened to one of his players.
“Doesn’t matter if it’s during the season or summer; you get a late call, it’s not usually something good,” Swinney said. “This is our family here, really. You get close to these guys and care about them. You don’t want anything to happen to any of them, and when something does, you hurt like a parent hurts.”
In the long-term, the car accident didn’t futilely impact Clemson football specifically, relatively speaking. Carlos Watkins survived, walked away with barely more than a scratch, and he was not driving the Dodge Durango which hydroplaned on slippery roads in western North Carolina; police ruled out drugs, alcohol and speeding as factors.
“Really, really bad wreck that Carlos was involved in, and he is incredibly fortunate,” Swinney said. “The Good Lord kept him here, wasn’t ready for him for whatever reason, but his cousin didn’t make it.”
The wreck did take the life of 21-year-old Dache Gossett, a cousin of Watkins and true freshman defensive end Dane Rogers, who are both from the area where the fatal accident occurred. They were given time off like the rest of the Tigers following Thursday’s 26-14 win at North Carolina State.
It was a prudent reminder of how quickly life can change, and Swinney took the opportunity to educate his players in a 6:30 a.m. team meeting Monday.
“Whether our guys have some free time here or off campus, just make good decisions. Be vigilant. Be careful who you hang around with, and stay away from those things that create problems,” Swinney said his message was. “But that was wasn’t anything negligent, just an unfortunate accident that could happen to anybody, anywhere, anytime.”
A junior defensive tackle who’s made 11 tackles and started the opener vs. Georgia, Watkins remains in North Carolina, where he will attend Gossett’s funeral Saturday.
“Young people sometimes have a sense of invincibility, so to speak, and then all of a sudden you realize very quickly how fragile life is and how lucky you are,” Swinney said. “We’re going to do everything we can to help him get through this valley that he’s in. It’s just a miracle that he doesn’t have any broken bones or anything like that.”
It’s been a rough month for college football and car accidents. UCLA walk-on Nick Pasquale, 20, was struck and killed by a vehicle while walking home, and Cincinnati lineman Ben Flick, 19, died in a one-vehicle accident after the Bearcats’ game Saturday.
“Guys can get hurt here. That’s anywhere,” Swinney said. “Heck, they’re at home, sitting at the house, going to go watch their cousin play football. Just a bad storm; rain happens everywhere.
“We haven’t had many issues like that,” Swinney said, “but we’ve just been lucky.”
Swinney said after Wednesday’s practice there are two new starters likely to play offensive line to open the third-ranked Tigers’ (3-0, 1-0 ACC) Homecoming Game against Wake Forest Saturday.
Right tackle Gifford Timothy (concussion) and left guard David Beasley (ankle) are trying to recover from injuries suffered Thursday at N.C. State, so sophomore Shaq Anthony and junior Kalon Davis are likely to take their place against the Demon Deacons (2-2, 0-1.)
Anthony played 43 snaps each against N.C. State and South Carolina State.
“He’s definitely stepped up a lot, and you could tell that during camp too; he’s been more focused,” right guard Tyler Shatley said. “I could definitely feel him more on the run block now than last year.”
While Clemson continues preparation for Wake Forest, its first opponent in October is already readying for the Tigers.
Syracuse has a bye week, and head coach Scott Shafer acknowledged on Wednesday’s ACC teleconference the Orange (2-2) will need all the team it can get for its first-ever ACC test against the third-ranked team in the country and its quarterback, Tajh Boyd.
“You could argue he’s the best quarterback in the country,” Shafer said. “He’s played a lot of football, obviously, and he’s a legitimate Heisman Trophy type of guy. You’ve got a seasoned veteran that’s played very good football for them and understands the offense inside and out.”