Clemson’s young stars don’t flinch when chips are down

Clemson’s Deon Cain pulls in a 55-yard pass for a touchdown while defended by South Carolina’s Al Harris Jr. during Saturday’s game at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columia. AP Photo/Richard Shiro

Eric Mac Lain is lost for words about as often as it snows in Miami, and yet the young players for whom he blocks have the ability to twist the tongue of an elder statesman and Clemson’s senior offensive lineman.

“It doesn’t make sense. It’s crazy,” Mac Lain said, searching for words to describe his teammates. “The amount of maturity they exemplify every game.”

Last year there was no pressure as a bunch of whippersnappers — quarterback Deshaun Watson, tailback Wayne Gallman and receiver Artavis Scott — ran wild on South Carolina to end a five-game losing streak to the Gamecocks.

But Saturday carried much greater stakes and obstacles. It was a road game against an opponent with no tomorrow. And the No. 1 ranking was on the line.

Watson has had much written about his ability to stay cool under pressure, but it’s the other youngsters around him who calmly make plays themselves.

There’s C.J. Fuller, inserted in the game when Gallman was cramping, and a true freshman scoring his first career touchdown in the third quarter. There’s Trevion Thompson, a redshirt freshman whose year has not gone as his superb fall camp would have suggested, making maybe the most clutch catch of the year on third-and-six and Williams-Brice Stadium rocking with Clemson’s lead suddenly shaved to three points. There’s first-year freshman Deon Cain, fending off veteran cornerback Al Harris Jr. on a 55-yard bomb from Watson and securing his fifth straight game with a touchdown, one better than Sammy Watkins’ streak as a freshman.

“We want to be special, our young players coming in and making a big (contribution) to this team,” Cain said. “Me being a freshman going into this offense, especially an up-tempo offense where a lot of people get the ball, I have to have a mindset where I’ve got to make plays every time the ball comes my way.”

After Clemson’s 37-32 victory Saturday, head coach Dabo Swinney rattled off the issues his team had to address coming off last year’s 10-win squad — the entirely new offensive line, the 11 defenders lost to the NFL or injury, the turnover at all key special teams positions.

“But these guys have never made any excuses,” Swinney said. “I don’t think many people out there gave us a chance to be 12-0 coming into this season. Take your hat off to those guys, because they got it done.

“We’ve been fortunate. We’ve been able to stay relatively healthy. That’s part of it. But with the consistency we’ve had several years in a row, if you can be that type of program, then you’re going to have some really special years along the way, and that’s what we’re having this year.”

As it has been said over and over in 2015, Watson’s naturally precocious demeanor rubs off on teammates.

“When I watch him, he’s very poised, his mind’s clear, and you can just tell he’s always ready to engage,” Cain said. “He encourages us every play to keep it up, so we feed off his energy and go with the flow.”

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