CLEMSON — Dabo Swinney gathered his players for a long huddle after the Tigers’ first spring football practice Wednesday to prepare them for unprecedented Clemson build-up coming between now and the season opener against Georgia Tech.
“You don’t get to stay at the top of the mountain,” the two-time national championship-winning head coach told the players. “You have to go down to the bottom.”
The message got across, or maybe didn’t need a lot of emphasis.
“Even though we’ve got a lot of guys returning, it just feels like a young, eager, hungry group,” offensive co-coordinator Jeff Scott said after Friday’s second spring practice. “And as a coach, that’s exactly what you’re looking for. It’s exactly what you want. It’s a great start, and that’s all it is, a start.”
This team, as Swinney said, is “different” than the one that beat Alabama 44-16 in the College Football Playoff national championship game in January.
But still elite — mostly because of a star-studded offense including quarterback Trevor Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne and wide receivers Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers.
Barring a key injury or two, the Tigers almost certainly will be in the No. 1 spot when the Associated Press preseason poll is revealed this summer.
Cherished or eschewed by Swinney and his staff, this is a new royalty status. Clemson has been the AP preseason No. 2 pick twice, in 2016 and 2018. The Tigers were No. 4 in the summers of 1984 and 1988, and No. 5 coming off a national championship in 2017.
Never No. 1.
Clemson is the overwhelming choice for the dreaded, coveted, mocked and meaningless top 1 slot. ESPN agrees, as does its Football Power Index forecast for 2019. CBS Sports is on board.
The Sports Illustrated spin on Clemson’s 15-0 season goes like this: “Clemson Announces Its Arrival as the Program of College Football’s Present and Future.”
Saying all the right things in March is a good way to prepare for the fall.
“We don’t really look at it like that,” Higgins, a rising junior, said of the No. 1 hype. “We just come in and we play Clemson. As long as we play Clemson, we’ll be all right.”
So far, so good for highly-regarded wide receiver signee Frank Ladson, a 6-3 freshman from Miami. Scott likes the fact Ladson has already gained 15 pounds (to 197) as an early enrollee, and that’s not all.
“He’s special,” said Scott, who also coaches Clemson receivers. “His speed and quickness remind me of another No. 2 we had from Florida.”
Yes, Ladson wears jersey No. 2, same as former Clemson star Sammy Watkins, now with the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs.
Back at it
Clemson’s Saturday practice will be the first in full pads. The players have Sunday off.
The annual spring game is April 6.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.