CLEMSON — Ray-Ray McCloud rode in and out of the room on a motorized skateboard called a Sky Walker. Garrett Williams giggled at the reminder his father had a hand in Florida State’s famed “Puntrooskie” win 27 years ago at Clemson. Christian Wilkins explained why, as an undecided recruit, he initiated an economics discourse with Clemson’s university president.
Say hello to an eccentric bunch, this fresh Clemson class. A total of 28 freshmen made their Tigers debuts Saturday in a 49-10 win over Wofford, including 13 rookies who enrolled in school sometime in the past eight months.
“A lot of the guys are mature, for the most part,” said Wilkins, who at 6-4 and 315 pounds with a beard looks closer in age to 39 than 19. “Guys have worked hard, and the coaches wouldn’t put us out there if we weren’t in a good position for it.”
Wilkins is the top reserve at defensive end, Williams is the same as tight end/H-back and McCloud is well-embedded in the offense as Artavis Scott’s backup.
Left tackle Mitch Hyatt, who makes his oratorical debut with reporters Tuesday, starts at the offensive line’s top position, while receiver Deon Cain, quarterback Kelly Bryant, defensive tackle Albert Huggins and six other first-year players also saw playing time Saturday.
Those are just the true rookies. Ripping off redshirts and crashing the depth chart include defensive end Richard Yeargin, linebacker Kendall Joseph, safety Jefferie Gibson, receiver Trevion Thompson, running back C.J. Fuller and offensive linemen Justin Falcinelli and Taylor Hearn, among others.
While head coach Dabo Swinney likes to say “tie goes to veteran” in any depth-chart tussle, Clemson is about to find out exactly how far the preseason 12th-ranked team in the country can go on the backs of a bunch of teenagers, and while personnel losses have been a factor, that’s a testament to Clemson’s recruiting strategies in recent seasons.
“I’ve always felt like I was made for this type of moment in my life,” McCloud said. “I can’t rush my age, I can’t rush my time in college, so now it’s time to show what I can do. Just because (Scott’s) in front of me doesn’t mean I won’t play, because Tay gets tired.”
Ritually, older players thrive in college because they’re used to their surroundings. As precocious as the younger Tigers might be, little things like managing school work and getting enough sleep and fending off homesickness go along with succeeding on Saturdays.
“It’s been a transition, but I think it’s been a good transition,” Williams said. “We have a great freshman class, so it was easy to come in and make great friends. If I didn’t have football and I had to find new friends in all these thousands of people, it’d be tough.”
This class might be different. It might be so different that losing the team’s top four defensive tackles from 2014 — three to graduation, plus D.J. Reader’s personal leave of absence — has a chance of not mattering so much if players like Wilkins and Huggins fulfill their immense potential sooner than tradition would dictate.
“Through the whole recruiting process, I wanted to do a thorough job knowing what I was getting before I came here,” Wilkins said. “I want to get the most out of Clemson because I’m going to give my all to Clemson.”
As the defense answers questions about replacing numerous NFL-bound players, the offense infuses 13 true or redshirt freshmen to a bunch led by a sophomore quarterback who fared pretty well himself as a rookie.
“Having Deshaun (Watson),” McCloud said, “I mean, my Madden quarterbacks aren’t even as good as him.”