CLEMSON — Jeff Scott remembers his freshman year as a wide receiver for Clemson. He remembers a lot of watching.
“I don’t think I got one rep the entire fall camp,” said Scott, now Clemson’s wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator. “Now all the freshmen are getting reps on day one.”
Scott was a child of the 1990s, not the 1950s. It wasn’t that long ago when the most action rookies got was hoisting pads to and from the practice field — never mind playing, or playing well, or starting, or starring on a national stage.
Clemson’s been prevalent in rolling out precocious players early and often in their careers — receivers Sammy Watkins and Artavis Scott, safety Jayron Kearse and quarterback Deshaun Watson each made plenty of noise as first-year freshmen. Those were skill players, whose strengths were accentuated with quick reactions and making a play; interior linemen typically have required more seasoning.
Perhaps more than ever before, the 12th-ranked Tigers need their young cubs, some barely two years removed from obtaining a driver’s license, to grow up fast.
Meet the teens: left tackle Mitch Hyatt will start from day one; defensive tackle Christian Wilkins might start right away; tight end Garrett Williams, right tackle Jake Fruhmorgen, defensive tackle Albert Huggins and receivers Ray-Ray McCloud and Deon Cain all might end up in critical roles for the team ACC media predicted to win the conference for the first time in four years.
“I believe we have to get on everybody the same way and not take anybody lightly,” fifth-year senior receiver Charone Peake said. “We have to correct every moment so they can understand the importance of it.”
There almost certainly will be freshman moments — McCloud had one on the first day of school, when he forgot to eat any food before practice — and it’s a fine line to walk for coaches and veteran players to gash an erring youngster in the heat of gameday battle.
“I think it depends on the individual, you know? A mature guy who’s intense, who’s focused, probably you can get on him all you want,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “That guy you’ve got to treat with kid gloves — God help us all, if he ends up being the starter — it’s a scary thought if he can’t handle the tough coaching and the intensity of it.”
“But at the same time,” Jeff Scott said, “they are just learning and you don’t want them to lose their confidence. You pick and choose your spots — you’re challenging them one minute, and another minute you’re praising them, trying to encourage them as well. It’s back and forth. It’s a struggle for those guys.”
Suppose injuries force redshirt freshman Kendall Joseph or true freshman Jalen Williams — both are 19 years old — into action, and he messes up a few plays, handing the opponent 14 points in the blink of an eye. In theory, it’s harder for the fiery Venables to chew him out than, say, 22-year-old B.J. Goodson, a fifth-year senior.
Or is it?
“The expectation is kind of different,” Goodson said. “Obviously we’ve been here longer, but a mistake is a mistake, so he’s going to be on them just as hard as he’s on us.”
Goodson’s co-starter, junior linebacker Ben Boulware said he wasn’t used to the criticism coming from high school to Venables’ system.
“So I didn’t know how to adapt to it. I was new to that, and we definitely have a couple guys who are new to that,” Boulware said. “But we don’t have near as many in this class. We have a lot of tough guys.”
Junior defensive end Shaq Lawson, in his third year at Clemson following a year in military school, isn’t just expected to reach double-digit sacks; he has to mentor freshmen like Richard Yeargin, Chris Register and Austin Bryant.
Fellow starter Kevin Dodd turned 23 this summer (he’s the team’s oldest player) and Lawson turned 21 this summer; Register is 19, Yeargin and Bryant are 18.
The offensive line has three senior starters — Joe Gore, Ryan Norton and Eric Mac Lain are all 22 — but Hyatt is one of four rookies comprising 40 percent of the Tigers’ depth chart at the position.
“The age doesn’t have anything to do with whether they’re ready,” Gore said.
In all, this Clemson roster includes 40 first- or second-year freshmen, and 45 scholarship players who aren’t freshmen.
“We got good players. Don’t look for any excuses from us here at Clemson,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “Is it a challenge when you have inexperience? Absolutely, absolutely. But we’ve recruited well. Let’s coach ‘em up and let’s go do the best we can.”