What: No. 9 Clemson (7-1, 5-1 ACC) at Virginia (2-6, 0-4)
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
Where: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, Va.
CLEMSON — Stanton Seckinger leads all Clemson tight ends with 156 receiving yards, which doesn’t even place the sophomore close to the top 50 nationally at that position.
“We have to have that tight end element in our system. We haven’t had that dominant guy this year,” head coach Dabo Swinney said at his Tuesday press conference. “We’re kind of a committee there, but it is what it is. But I love our guys, and they’re going to get there.”
Between Seckinger, sophomore Sam Cooper, and freshmen Jordan Leggett and Jay Jay McCullough, the Tigers’ tight ends have given Clemson far from stirring statistics: 26 catches, 270 yards and five touchdowns through eight games.
Swinney had a proclamation Tuesday.
“We’ve got some of the best tight ends in the country, and I believe that. We’re just young. We’ve got to grow them up, and we will,” he said. “Y’all just write that down: as long as those boys don’t get hurt, y’all are going to look up here in a couple years, going, man, we got the best tight ends in the country. Because that’s what I think about those guys.”
Particularly for Seckinger, who caught the winning touchdown pass to beat Georgia but lost a fumble on the opening play in the Florida State loss, Swinney has persistently defended the Porter-Gaud product.
“I know everybody’s down on Seckinger, but let me just tell everybody in this room right now: that guy is a great football player. He’s not yet, but he’s gonna be,” Swinney said. “He’s lost his confidence, we gotta get his confidence, he’ll respond. But don’t throw that cat away. He’s gonna win a bunch of games for us. Seckinger’s going to grow up and be a heck of a player here.”
If Clemson fans are turned off by the critical remarks provided by color commentator Ed Cunningham, they’re not alone
Each Sunday night around 10 p.m., Swinney will pop in the game tape from the previous day. While reviewing Clemson’s slow-starting 40-27 victory at Maryland, Swinney paused due to the broadcasters’ discussions.
“It was just real negative,” Swinney said. “So I just turned it down.”
He added he attempts not to get too rattled from hearing about Clemson’s shortcomings rather than its successes.
“One of the things I tell my players all the time,” Swinney said, “one of my favorite quotes ever, is ‘Don’t let anybody walk through your mind with their dirty feet.’ And I try to live by that.”
He’ll have to test that patience again this weekend. Cunningham is joined by play-by-play partner Mike Patrick and sideline reporter Jeannine Edwards for the second straight week at Virginia.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd also gets perturbed by the putdowns.
“To be honest, kind of, yeah. Because we’ve done some great things here,” Boyd said. “We lose a game, people act like it’s the end of the world, and we’re a top 10 team, we’re 7-1. But that’s just the nature of it.”
Joining the elite ranks
Listing off the accomplishments Clemson has reached over the past few years, Swinney arrived at one of his favorite stated goals of staying in the top 10.
“Hey, we started in the top 10. Can we finish in the top 10?” Swinney said. “How many teams do that? It’s very, very hard to do.”
Well, a look at archives shows it’s a coin flip proposition. In each of the past 10 seasons, either four, five or six preseason top 10 squads as determined by Associated Press poll voters have finished the year still in the top 10.
As of this week, five started there and remain there: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oregon, No. 4 Ohio State, No. 6 Stanford and No. 9 Clemson. Georgia, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Louisville and Florida have each dropped down.
The next level
Junior wide receiver Sammy Watkins is expected to leave Clemson following this season to enter the NFL Draft, and defensive end Vic Beasley said two weeks ago he’s leaning in that direction as well.
Swinney understands the landscape of underclassmen moving to the next level if they’re ready, but hasn’t given any thought to who might test the waters.
“I don’t even worry two seconds about that stuff,” Swinney said. “I hope that they have that option. I hope they play so great that the Dallas Cowboys are lined up to take them in the top 10. That’d be just great, because it means they’re playing really good football.
“Sammy Watkins to me is a top 10 pick, so I’d be surprised if he came back, but who knows? I didn’t think (CJ) Spiller was coming back (in 2009.)”
For his part, Watkins is flattered by his coach’s perspective, but said he’s remained focused on the rest of this season.
“As a coach and as a player, we don’t know where I would go in the draft. It’s kind of a tricky system,” Watkins said. “All I can do is keep playing hard and give the scouts what they’re looking for, and everything will work out in the end.”