CLEMSON — One of the younger, more exuberant head coaches in college football, Dabo Swinney is still reminded Clemson players are still half his age.
With a mischievous look in his eye, Swinney took a question about his holder and flipped it into bringing up Clemson’s long snapper, who shares a little something in common with an eight-time NFL rushing champion.
“I’ve been waiting all year to mention this: I’m naming Jim Brown as the captain for the Syracuse game,” Swinney said, before assembled reporters and fans attending Swinney’s Tuesday press conference busted out in laughter.
Without missing a beat, Swinney continued: “See, now, I appreciate that. That’s the way the response is supposed to be. We’ve got some wise, mature people in this room.”
Jim Brown, the Clemson version, has been the long snapper on punts and kicks this season, a senior originally from Walterboro (Brown was a former walk-on put on scholarship in August, and served as a game captain in the opener vs. Wofford.)
Jim Brown, the Syracuse version? Well, he was named the fourth-greatest athlete of the 1900s by ESPN’s SportsCentury, trailing only Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali. Known best for his nine-year career with the Cleveland Browns, Brown was a first-team All-American for Syracuse in 1956. His number, 44, was retired by Syracuse before it was unretired earlier this year (Ernie Davis and Floyd Little also wore No. 44 for Syracuse.)
Yet according to Swinney, the more famous Brown’s significance is lost on the current Tigers.
“I’m like, man, I’ve been waiting all year, we’re going to Syracuse, and Jim Brown’s going to be the captain. When I said that to the team yesterday, they’re just looking at me, (with blank stares.) I got nothing. Crickets,” Swinney said. “He’s going to lead the Tigers into Syracuse. We’ve got our own Jim Brown. And they’re all (looking with blank stares.) I mean, is that not sad? They don’t even know who he is. The only Jim Brown they know is the snapper at Clemson. That’s unbelievable to me.”
For the record, Clemson’s leading rusher rebuked the notion he was unaware.
“Jim Brown? Yeah, of course,” said sophomore Wayne Gallman, who has lived in Georgia and Florida. “Yeah. I know Jim Brown. I know exactly who he is.”
Also within the realm of strange-but-true occurrences linking Clemson to football teams in upstate New York.
Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan walked into his weekly press conference Tuesday wearing a Clemson helmet. Ryan’s son, Seth Ryan, is the Tigers’ starting holder.
“He’s been a holder his whole life. He grew up in training camps holding,” Swinney said. “He’s done a great job for us. We’ve had a couple of high balls, we’ve had a lot of wet balls and rain. He’s been a big part of the success we’ve had.”
Brown was a former walk-on, while Ryan still is one. Clemson’s starting kicker (Greg Huegel) is still a walk-on, while its starting punter (Andy Teasdall) and now its primary punt returner (Hunter Renfrow) were put on scholarship in August.
So it goes for Clemson’s special teams.
“We feel fortunate. Most people aren’t that lucky,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “It’s great for them to change their lives and help us along the way. It’s quite a feat to have this kind of success after walking on.”
Said Renfrow, who’s also a starting wide receiver: “Honestly, it’s a good time to come in as a walk-on to Clemson.”
Huegel, a redshirt freshman walk-on, is 13-for-13 on his field-goal attempts in ACC play. He took over placekicking duties from previously suspended Ammon Lakip, a scholarship senior who now handles kickoffs.
“I believed that I could do it, so I knew I had to put in the work and it happened to work out,” Huegel said. “It’s still kind of surreal to me.”
“Replacing our entire battery was a concern coming into the season,” Swinney said. “New snapper, new holder, new everything. It’s nice to have a guy that we know we’re going to have around here for a few years.”
Renfrow has taken most the punt returns the past three games while Artavis Scott lightens his workload. Teasdall ranks last in the ACC in punt average (39.3 net yards), but Clemson’s opposing punt returns have averaged 4.31 yards, which is the 24th-lowest clip in the nation.