Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney peered through the wall of cameras fixed on him Tuesday afternoon and perked up. A familiar face was approaching.
"Is that Albert Huggins?" Swinney said. "What's up, Huggy?"
It was, in fact, Albert Huggins, the former Tigers defensive end who signed with the Houston Texans after not getting selected in the 2019 NFL Draft. Huggins, wearing a red long-sleeve shirt with an NFL logo on the right arm, raised his hand. The assembled reporters looked up from their notepads and cell phones, grinning. Huggins had a question:
"Last year, your line was so deep, man. How much are you going to miss those guys? Even though I know you got more guys coming in that could take their place. How much are you going to miss those guys?"
Swinney flashed the smile the football world has come to associate with Clemson's program. "That's a great question, Huggy," he said.
Indeed, the theme of retooling was a topic of conversation Tuesday, when Swinney and his assistants addressed the media for the first time ahead of fall camp. Clemson's 120-man roster includes just 48 letter winners from last season, and 80 of the players are underclassmen.
Perhaps nowhere is change more evident than on the Tigers' defensive line, which sent five players to the NFL. Swinney is confident this year's group can reach great heights, though it might take a different approach from the coaching staff.
"You have to train a little bit different in the summer, because there's a lot to teach," he said. "It's our job to meet them where they are in their developmental process, as a person, as a player, strength and conditioning, whatever it may be. When you have a team like this, it needs to be more coach led."
To be clear, all college football programs deal with roster turnover. But Clemson is not an average program. As Swinney, who signed a record 10-year, $93 million contract in the offseason, spoke Tuesday, a reminder of the team's expectations manifested in the form a sign hanging to Swinney's left on a wall in the team's practice facility: BEST IS THE STANDARD.
Clemson has won two of the last three College Football Playoff titles, defeating Alabama both times. Swinney declared last season's Tigers the best team in the sport's history, and the fan base is hungry for more success this season. The ACC has taken notice of the team's celebrity: The Tigers' season opener Aug. 29 against Georgia Tech will be the first game broadcast on the ACC Network, which launches Aug. 22.
The Tigers certainly have the offensive weapons to make another run. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne are early Heisman Trophy contenders, and wide receivers Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins are among the most feared pass-catchers in the nation.
Things are less clear on defense, particularly on the line. Some considered last year's unit among Clemson's best ever. Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and defensive ends Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell were taken in the first round of this past season's NFL draft; defensive end Austin Bryant went in the fourth round and Huggins, who didn't start all season but shone in the College Football Playoff in the wake of Lawrence's suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drug ostarine, signed with Houston.
Defensive line coach Todd Bates said he's employed a more "hands on approach" with the less experienced group.
"I've had to come out of my comfort zone a little bit, knowing I had those guys last year I could lean on," he said. "We've moved on, got a new chapter in our life. I don't want you to be a Clelin or an Austin Bryant ... I want you to be yourself."
Clemson's post-spring depth chart, released Monday, listed junior Justin Foster and sophomore Xavier Thomas starting at defensive end, with junior Nyles Pinckney and sophomore Jordan Williams starting at defensive tackle.
"We've got guys that are eager. We're just not as deep," Swinney said. "We don't have experienced depth, whereas last year, just the opposite. We were rolling NFL guys in there, you got Dexter, Christian and Huggins. These were veteran guys and experienced."
Swinney noted that, in the event Pinckney goes down, the team would likely have to turn to a freshman.
"We just got a lot to teach 'em. A lot to teach 'em," Swinney said. "But no different. Those guys were all freshman, too, at one time. They were all young bucks. They all hung in there and did pretty good."
Huggins, standing amid the cameras, nodded his head. His question answered, he departed the scrum.
"See ya, Huggy!" Swinney shouted. "I need a hug from ya."