Getting a head start on college

Clemson’s Jay Guillermo (center) celebrates with Cole Stoudt (left) and Deshaun Watson after beating South Carolina, 35-17, on Nov. 29. Guillermo and Watson were early enrollees as freshmen at Clemson.

Jay Guillermo’s senior prom date wasn’t dainty. He was a 6-4, 275-pound offensive tackle.

Guillermo tagged along with future college teammate Patrick DeStefano to his school dance when DeStefano was a senior at Dorman High in Spartanburg.

For Guillermo, it was an opportunity to experience something he missed at his own high school. That’s because Guillermo, a class of 2012 signee out of Tennessee, couldn’t wait to get to college. He surrendered his last semester as a high school kid to get cracking on classes, weightlifting and spring practices at Clemson.

Many would say it’s sacrifice. Guillermo, like most college football players, calls it commitment.

“Entering midyear is probably the best thing I’ve ever done, to be honest,” said Guillermo, a center going into his redshirt junior year. “It just gets you so acclimated, because when these guys come in to the second summer session, they’re just dead. So it really, really does help, for mental and physical preparation.”

Such a practice used to be niche, a way to maybe get a quarterback here or a linebacker there in spring practices. To be sure, in recent years, Clemson has welcomed more early entrants than the norm. Guillermo was one of eight in 2012. That midyear enrollee number was dwarfed last week when Clemson brought in 15 freshman players.

“We thought we were hot stuff when we came in and we had eight guys,” Guillermo said. “Fifteen? It’s kind of a big shock.”

Up until the ninth grade, Tucker Israel was a star on the diamond. Catcher, first base, left field, and at the plate. Wherever he was needed, he thrived.

But as many high-level cross-training athletes do when they reach high school, they make a choice to specialize in hopes of earning that scholarship someday.

It paid off for Israel, a four-year starting quarterback at Orlando’s Lake Nona High School who set a bevy of Florida passing records — including Tim Tebow’s single-season scoring mark — when Israel fired 56 touchdown passes last fall.

Long before kickoff of his senior year, Israel had, like many of his recruiting classmates, signed a financial aid agreement with Clemson. Doing so ensured Clemson could not withdraw its scholarship offer, though Israel could continue to peruse his options if he chose.

Israel and fellow quarterback Kelly Bryant face a unique situation in March and April. Because expected 2015 starter Deshaun Watson is rehabbing from a torn ACL and backup Nick Schuessler is a former walk-on, the pair of incoming freshmen will log the lion’s share of reps during 15 spring practices.

It is worth noting that Watson was one of four early entrants in 2014, as was receiver Artavis Scott, a big reason for their emergence last fall.

Either Israel or Bryant is projected to be Watson’s backup this fall; if Watson’s rehab has a setback, perhaps one will start.

All because Israel hung up his baseball cleats four years ago and began the process of academically preparing himself to graduate early from high school. He only had a couple online courses this fall, and arrived on campus last week.

“To be honest, I didn’t really have a senior year this year,” Israel said in a phone interview.

But what about school dances and graduation and other senior moments?

“I’ve never really done the Homecoming thing. I’ve done prom already, all those other things, the whole walking across the stage thing,” Israel said. “Just talking to the guys (at Clemson), they have a mindset that academics obviously come first, but football matters to them more than the high school thing.”

There’s this, too: the Tigers just graduated 13 starters from its 2014 squad, which frees up scholarships for Clemson to welcome so many freshmen and could mean instant playing time for some youngsters.

“You see the other commits having that mindset,” Israel said, “that with all the seniors gone, come in and do the best you can.”

Swinney wouldn’t have done it.

Clemson’s 45-year-old head coach says he could have left Pelham (Ala.) High School in the middle of his senior year, but three motivating factors delayed his arrival at Alabama until the summer.

Basketball. Baseball. And his girlfriend Kathleen, a year younger than he, who’d become his wife and mom to three boys.

“I wasn’t leaving her,” Swinney said. “But I wasn’t as focused as these guys are. These are different times.”

Millenials live in a world of now: everything moves faster. In football, players want to get to the NFL faster, which means they want to start their college careers faster.

National Signing Day is still three weeks away, yet Israel and the 14 others are well ahead of the pace.

“These guys are so much more educated and wise on what’s going on out there,” Swinney said. “I didn’t know anything about college. I didn’t know how to apply. But for these guys today, they’ve been planning this for a while.”

Swinney emphasized there’s no pressure on players to enroll early — even though Clemson’s added benefit is a month head-start on locking down player commitments leading up to Signing Day.

“It’s really something that we let them bring up. If that’s something they want to do and they’re already scheduled to graduate early, then obviously we love for them to come in,” said offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, Clemson’s recruiting coordinator from 2009-14. “But there’s something special about the spring of your senior year, too. So the last thing we want to do is talk them into something they don’t want to do.”

“I tell them up front, you guys want to go back and walk at your graduation or go to your prom, you’re excused,” Swinney added. “That’s not a problem.”

Other players already on campus include offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt (who could start from day one, based on the Tigers’ lack of depth), linebacker Chad Smith and defensive tackle Albert Huggins.

“You’ve got all spring to get the playbook down, you’re working out with the team, and you don’t have to start as a freshman,” rising junior defensive end Shaq Lawson said. “By the time fall camp starts, you feel like you’ve already been in the system a whole year.”